Zero Waste Pioneers

Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide To Simplifying Your Life, is a pioneer. She may not be the first person to attempt making her own cosmetics and cleaning supplies or to buy all of her foods fresh or in bulk. She may not be the first person to advocate making do with a smaller house, fewer possessions, or consuming less media. There have certainly been others who have written books on recycling and composting. What makes Johnson a pioneer is that she does all of these things with the remarkable goal that her household (herself, a husband, and two sons) will produce no more waste in one year than can fit in a large canning jar. The very boldness of the idea hints at the compelling nature of this story.

Pursuit of the “zero waste” goal did not happen overnight. The Johnsons were moving from a suburb of San Francisco to a more urban community with a walkable downtown. However, the price of housing is about twice what it is in their old community. After selling their old home, the Johnsons lived in rental housing to get acclimated to their new community and search for a new place. During this time, most of their belongings were placed in storage and they found the experience freeing. In the end, rather than replace their 3,000-square-foot suburban house with a similar-sized home, they opted for a two-bedroom bungalow adjacent to the downtown neighborhood they found so appealing. It had no yard to take care of and half the square footage. Shrinking their possessions down to what would fit in their new home and without as much yard work, they spent more time biking, hiking, and exploring as a family. And that was just the beginning.

Like any pioneer, Johnson tried many things along the way. Some of the things she tried, she gave up as those practices became “socially restrictive and time-consuming, and thus unsustainable.” For this reason, she decided to no longer make her own butter or cheese. Throughout, the author avoids scolding or preaching, except perhaps in the short chapter “Getting Involved.” Mostly, she documents her experiences as she pursued her goal. The result is 292 pages of practical “how-to” instructions laced together with an interesting family story.

The author claims there are many direct personal benefits to her lifestyle, in addition to minimizing her family’s impact on the earth’s environment. The first benefit is financial. Her husband estimates their household expenses went down 40% over the five years it took her to fully evolve her strategies. In addition, she cites the health benefits of reducing toxics and allergens in her home and eating healthier foods. Lastly, she notes the satisfying benefits of additional time. “Anyone can benefit from a life freed from the burden of stuff and wasteful practices, and instead focus on experiences,” she writes. “Time also opens opportunities to get involved and participate in collective consumption, through which sharing, interacting, and reinforcing community bonds are possible.”

Check back next week to learn about the 5 R’s the Johnson family follows to help reach for zero waste. We all know the 3 R’s, but what are the extra two they follow?

Photo:  The Johnson family’s waste for the year 2014. Photo courtesy of Bea Johnson,

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