Zero waste family Johnson

Photo: Dawn Johnson

It’s quite the challenge: Maintain a family of four in America in 2013 while producing only one quart of garbage a year. Bea Johnson did it, and via her blog and new book, “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste,” she shares how virtually anyone can do the same. The journey to zero waste has taken Bea and her family a few years and plenty of trial and error, but mostly it’s about thoughtfulness plus new routines with thriftiness thrown in (her family’s expenses are 40 percent lower than they were before she began the project).

Bea started her journey in 2006, almost by accident. While living in a 3,000-square-foot house in the suburbs of San Francisco with her husband and two sons (now 11 and 13), the family had figured out that they wanted to move. On the list was a town with more walkable amenities, since they were sick of having to go everywhere by car, and they took their time finding just the right place. In the meantime, they moved to an apartment with just the necessities, living in a very minimal way while they looked for a new home.

Zero Waste Home pantryWhat happened next was a surprise to them all: “We had more time on our hands, to go to the beach, to spend time outside. And then we found a house, which was half the size of the old one at 1,400 square feet, so we just got rid of 80 to 90 percent of our belongings,” says Bea.  While it’s not a move than everyone might want to make, Bea says that her family felt so freed by not having to deal with all the stuff in their lives that it wasn’t a difficult decision to ditch it after they had been living without it.

With all this extra time on their hands, Bea and her husband started to get more educated about environmental crises, watching documentaries with their kids, and began thinking about how to really make a difference — and how to keep doing so — after their downsize.

“We started with reusable bags, then started to make bulk bags from old sheets, instead of using plastic bags for bulk items. I brought my own jars to the supermarket for ‘wet‘ items, and that’s where I got the nickname of the ‘jar lady.’ I even eliminated the bread bag by buying 10 baguettes at a time, which is what my family eats in a week. Little by little we exchanged disposables for reusing,” says Bea.

About 99.9 percent of the kids’ wardrobes are used clothing (and most of the parents’ clothes are too), and each family member only has enough clothes to fit into a carry-on bag (which makes packing and travel quick and easy), and the family is down to one car, since they have access to public transit in their new neighborhood. Bea says they were worried about having only one car, but it turns out they don’t miss the extra one at all. And when they’re out of town, they rent their clutter-free house out so it’s not sitting empty — or as Bea puts it, “wasted.”

Like any good habit, going zero waste isn’t just an experiment. “Zero waste isn’t a project, it’s a lifestyle. It’s about sustainability in the long run,” says Bea. But it shouldn’t be totally painful, and she recognizes that what might work for her might not work for everyone. “It’s really about adopting a system that works for you and is comfortable. It’s now easy, it’s just on automatic.”

Zero Waste Home suppliesBut there are some challenges: “The things that are most difficult to reduce packaging in are home repair items. Some hardware stores sell things in bulk, but sometimes they come packaged. But overall, it’s less wasteful to fix something than buy a whole new one. I can’t let my house fall apart, and you have to be able to keep things up,” says Bea. And when her son bought a refurbished Apple laptop, it came packaged in all kinds of boxes and wrapping, which the family returned to the store, hopefully for reuse. “He didn’t buy the computer for the packaging,” says Bea, and hopes the return “made the company think about” the excess for what is already a used device.

Bea says that her children barely notice that they live in a zero-waste home, and that other kids come over and don’t know much about it either. To them, the way they run their home is just a natural part of the way their family is, and it’s not a big deal (and she doesn’t make it one).

Which isn’t to say that Bea isn’t out to change people’s behavior, which the blog and the book certainly encourage. The latest news? Bea used the $25,000 she won at the Green Awards last year to build the BULK smartphone app which helps users find places nearby where they can stock up on bulk food, shampoo and household cleaners.

“There’s no secret to what we do,” says Bea. "Once you refuse the things you don’t need, and replace disposables, there’s less to recycle and less to rot.” Here’s her list of “zero-waste do’s” excerpted with permission from her new book.

1. Fight junk mail. It's not just a waste of resources, but also of time. Register to receive less at and

2. Turn down freebies from conferences, fairs, and parties. Every time you take one, you create a demand to make more. Do you really need another "free" pen?


3. Declutter your home, and donate to your local thrift shop. You'll lighten your load and make precious resources available to those looking to buy secondhand.

4. Reduce your shopping trips and keep a shopping list. The less you bring home, the less waste you'll have to deal with.


5. Swap disposables for reusables (start using handkerchiefs, refillable bottles, shopping totes, cloth napkins, rags, etc.). You might find that you don't miss your paper towels, but rather enjoy the savings.

6. Avoid grocery-shopping waste: Bring reusable totes, cloth bags (for bulk aisles), and jars (for wet items like cheese and deli foods) to the store and farmers market.


7. Know your city's recycling policies and locations — but think of recycling as a last resort. Have you refused, reduced or reused first? Question the need and life cycle of your purchases. Shopping is voting.

8. Buy primarily in bulk or secondhand, but if you must buy new, choose glass, metal or cardboard. Avoid plastic: Much of it gets shipped across the world for recycling and often ends up in the landfill (or worse yet, the ocean).


9. Find a compost system that works for your home and get to know what it will digest (dryer lint, hair and nails are all compostable).

10. Turn your home kitchen trash can into one large compost receptacle. The bigger the compost receptacle, the more likely you'll be to use it freely.

Read about other innovators and ideas at The Leaderboard. If you have a story suggestion for this year-long project, please contact us.

Related stories on MNN:

Inset photos: Buying in bulk and choosing cleaning products carefully can go a long way. (Zero Waste Home)