In which our reporter takes a love for cheese and chips, adds a toddler, and lives lightly(ish) on the Earth.
In 2013, I visited a house that was sparse, white, and virtually waste-free. It was the Mill Valley home of BeaJohnson, the French-born author of Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste and the anointed high priestess of the zero waste lifestyle, a woman whose dedication to producing only a quartsize jar of trash a year has spawned acolytes across the world.
Johnson, her husband, and their two teenage sons live by a fiveword motto: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,Rot. It was hard for me to believe that a family could produce so little trash without being resigned to a life as glum as a gulag. There had to be a catch. But when I returned home that evening, my own living spaces felt cramped and cluttered, like my husband and I were swimming in trash.
I ended up writing a feature story about Johnson and her zero waste lifestyle. After the story ran, one annoyed letter writer, a local sustainability advocate, chastised me for glorifying Johnson as a “material anorexic.”Another commenter said that only the rich could cultivate a zero waste lifestyle. I found these responses to be ironic considering that most zero wasters commit to buying everything they can second-hand, making do with baking soda, and cooking at home. Other respondents confessed jealousy. I wish I could do that, they said.
Indeed, many people have taken Johnson’s message to heart. In the three years since Zero Waste Home’s publication, it seems that the zero waste lifestyle movement has arrived.
Take the Zero Waste Bloggers Network, which launched in early 2015. The member list, a global mix, has grown to almost 200. After interviewing Johnson, I started following some of these bloggers, reading their posts about bulk peanut butter, coconut oil, and Diva Cups. (A replacement for disposable feminine hygiene products, Diva Cups are adored by zero wasters.) I imagined doing all of that myself. So when my editor challenged me to try to live zero waste for a week, I thought, I got this. Have you seen my jar collection? Have you seen my homemade toothpaste? Have you seen my thrifted capsule wardrobe? I even have a compost bin in my yard! (If only someone could teach me how to make it produce actual compost.)
By the end of the first day of my zero waste experiment, reality set in. For one, I have a three-yearold- kid. You know what toddlers love most? Plastic straws. And plastic pouches of applesauce.
I needed advice from people who had trekked down the zero waste road before me, so I reached out to Inge Echterhoelter. She’s the 39yearold blogger behind “GRüNISH,” where she writes about zero waste living withtwo kids under the age of three.
Inge’s No. 1 suggestion when approaching a zero waste life is to compost. Most cities have green bin programs if you don’t have room, or inclination, to compost at home. According to Dana Gunders, author of Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, food represents the single largest component of municipal solid waste broughtto landfills, where it also releases methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“You’ll need to find alternatives, but in the end, once you’ve figured out things that work, it’s easy and becomes the new normal,” Inge assures me. Zero wasters take their own containers to the store, be it for meat, cheese, olives, or dry goods. Be friendly when asking to fill your own container at the grocery, Inge says. “If it doesn’t work, ask another day. Keep asking,” she says.
A teacher and writer of the “Near-O Waste” blog, Andrea Randall lives in the Santa Cruz mountains with her husband and two young sons. The name “Near-O Waste” is a clever acknowledgement of the reality that zero waste for the average family is well nigh impossible. Bea Johnson herself acknowledged in one interview that, with home repairs and the like, it wasn’t possible to create a totally zero waste home. (Hey, no one is going to buy a book called The Almost Zero Waste Except for That One Time We Caulked the Bathroom Tiles Home.)
Randall, 35, stresses the importance of involving your kids in the process: Take a field trip to the landfill! Make vinegar wipes! Track household trash each day! Ultimately, compromise is key. Randall’s kids still eat cheese—just not individually wrapped stalks of the stuff. Chips haven’t been outlawed, but are limited to an occasional treat. If they go camping, there will be s’mores and marshmallows.
Fortified by advice and encouragement from the zero wasters, I’m ready to jump into Day 1 of my experiment. It’s immediately foiled when my motherinlaw drops by with pastries in a large plastic bin. I almost want to cry. Two pastries later, I still want to cry. I am already a zero waste failure and it’s not even noon.
I persevere. I grind my bulk-bought coffee beans and pour cream from a returnable glass bottle into my morning coffee. I’ve made beans from scratch the evening before, toss those in a bowl with brown rice also cooked the night before for lunch. I add arugula from the garden. Still, the salsa comes from a jar, as does the salad dressing. If anything, I’m beginning to realize how many things come wrapped in plastic and packaging. No wonder the average American throws away 4.4 pounds of trash a day, adding up to 1,600 pounds per year.
Later that evening, I count up my Day 1 trash in despair. Yes, the coffee grounds and orange peels go into the compost and a few things end up in the recycling bin, but just as many things will go into the landfill. We did eat leftovers with gusto, one of Dana Gunders top suggestions for preventing food waste, so there’s that.
Gunders also suggests meal planning, which my husband and I already do on a casual basis each weekend. I’m not writing anything down in a colorcoded meal planner Excel sheet, but we do try to be mindful of what’s already in the refrigerator, and what we can realistically cook. That’s good because Gunders says one of the biggest contributors to food waste is “aspirational shopping.”
“Today feels like a zero waste fail,” I write on Day 3 of my zero waste journal. “The trashcan filled steadily throughout the day. I really like chips. I don’t think you can recycle chip bags.” Further research on whether chip bags can be recycled forces me to the anxiety -inducing proposition of a zero waste future devoid of chips. Luckily, my husband makes French fries from scratch, and the future again feels bright.
On Day 4, I shop the bulk bins at the market. While some things are cheaper, especially oatmeal and other basics, other items are weirdly pricy. I buy a tiny amount of almond flour with the intention of making cheese crackers—a textbook case of aspirational shopping—and it costs $5. I also buy a glass jug of organic milk. At a cost of $4.99 for a half -gallon, plus a $2 bottle deposit, this is a luxury I can’t necessarily afford to add to my already tight grocery budget.
By the end of my one-week experiment with zero waste, I’m buzzing with questions. How strict do you get? How do you get family and friends on board without looking like a total jerk? Why do I feel like an OCD weirdo when it’s actually the normalization of excessive waste that’s weird? Does any of this really matter when the average American has a huge carbon footprint compared to the rest of the world?
I remind myself that the zero waste life is more about investing the small things with importance—and not being such a nihilist. In that case, I do have a few victories. I have remembered to use a mason jar for to-go coffee instead of a paper cup every time. I have stopped buying plastic water bottles, replacing them with stainless steel. My family has quickly made the transition to compost with pleasure. Making my own toothpaste is kind of fun.
But my trash for the year will probably never fit into a quart-sized mason jar. Heck, my trash for the day couldn’t fit in a quart-sized mason jar. But at least I’m trying. And that’s not a complete waste.
You Got This.
Tips and tricks to help you achieve ultimate zero
Ditch the Packaging
Writer Marion Nestle said it best. For health, happiness, and a zero waste life, avoid the middle sections of the grocery store and only shop the perimeters. Take your cotton bulk bags (I like the ones from Simple Ecology because they are organic and have their tare weight on the tag) and stock up on basics from the bulk section. For fresh fruits and vegetables without packaging, go to Imwalle Gardens or one of our many excellent farmers’ markets.
Bring Your Own
Bea Johnson makes it looks oh-so-breezy to get your own container filled at the butcher, seafood, and cheese counters. It’s not. Make it easier on yourself and the clerks trying to assist you by pre-weighing your containers and noting their tare weight where it can easily be seen. As more people request this service, more stores will begin to accommodate it. Ask nicely, and then ask again.
One of the biggest causes of food waste, according to Dana Gunders, is a lack of meal planning. Make a grocery list before heading out to the store. Consider your weekly meals ahead of time. Even casual planning will make a difference. I find this helps me avoid impulse buys as well. And those chips (my usual impulse buy) almost always come clothed in plastic and wasteful packaging. Does the guilt alone keep me away? Well . . .
Use It Up
If you’re tempted to go out to eat instead of cooking up those semiwilted veggies, just think about the mounds of food rotting in the landfill offgassing methane into the atmosphere and hastening a horrible future for your children and their children, not to mention all the money you’ll save by cooking at home and then think again. That should do it. If it doesn’t, what the hell—go out to dinner and try again tomorrow.
Cleanliness is Next to You
Vinegar, baking soda, and lemons are your new best housecleaning friends. The Internet is swimming in recipes for cleaning products. Paredownhome.com has a good one for an easy citrus vinegar cleaner that I particularly like.
Your Composting Habit
In Sonoma County, we are lucky to have green bins. Save any and all food scraps (aside from meat and dairy) and toss them in the green bin instead of the trashcan. Do this every time.
Zero wasters like Andrea Randall swear by easytocarry kits that you can take out into the world with you to avoid having to use a paper napkin, plastic cutlery, or singleuse cups. Pack yours with a reusable water bottle, a coffee mug (or mason jar), bamboo utensils, cloth napkins, and one larger container for takeout food. Keep them in a small bag by your front door, and grab on your way out.
Your Five Favorite Words
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
OK, six words: Rejoice!
You’re making a difference.