Zero waste lifestyle: How one family learned to live with less

Jacqui J. Sze/Courtesy of Bea Johnson
Bea Johnson’s family of four produces just a pint-sized jar of trash in a year.

When Bea Johnson’s family moved into a small apartment with just the necessities for a year in 2006, they gained a new perspective on stuff. “When we got everything out of storage, we found that 80 percent of that stuff we hadn’t even missed,” she says. “So we let go of it.” That discovery prompted her to eschew all excess. She parlayed her blog about her family’s newfound lifestyle into a bestselling book, “Zero Waste Home.” This interview has been condensed for clarity. 

How has zero waste changed your life?

Even though we started for environmental reasons, over time we’ve uncovered amazing advantages. We have way less stuff that collects dust in the house, so it can be more easily cleaned. We’re way healthier than before. When you buy your food exclusively unpackaged, you don’t really have access to junk food. With this lifestyle, we’re saving 40% of our overall budget because we consume way, way, way less. To me, the best advantage of this lifestyle is the simple life. We’ve discovered a life that is based on being instead of having. And that, to us, is what makes life richer.

Why We Wrote This

Many of the conveniences of modern life leave a lasting impact on the environment. Bea Johnson has found that her family’s efforts to shun excess has brought them a different kind of reward.

What are the biggest misconceptions about zero waste?

Twelve years ago, if I had heard about a zero waste family, I would’ve thought “this is just for hippies.” But no. You can stick [to] your sense of aesthetics.

People also tend to think that it takes more time. We’ve been able to achieve this zero waste lifestyle without making all these products. [For example,] I don’t make my own toothpaste. We use baking soda, which we buy unpackaged, and we just sprinkle it on a wooden toothbrush. It’s something super simple that’s the way our grandparents used to do it.

How does one live without waste?

The five R’s: No. 1 is to refuse the things that you do not need, whether it be a plastic bag, a business card, straws. The second rule is to reduce. That means [letting] go of all the things that we do not truly use or need in our home. The third rule is to reuse. That means replacing disposables with reusables, so swapping paper towels for rags, tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable razors for reusable ones. The second aspect of reusing is to buy secondhand if you do need to buy something. The fourth rule is to recycle, but it is to recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse. At the end of the day, zero waste does not encourage you to recycle more, but less by preventing waste from coming into your home in the first place. The fifth rule is to rot, and that means composting.

Do you really produce no trash at all?

We produce one jar of trash per year. What’s left are the items we are not able to refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, or rot. For example, it’s the stickers from fruit and veggies, and my husband’s contact lenses. Right now in the jar we have a piece of duct tape that was stuck to someone’s shoe when they came in.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.