Zero Waste Life

By Claire Matheison

When was the last time you threw something in the trash? This morning? Last night? Disposing of unwanted items is such a common part of what we do that it’s likely you don’t even remember. It seems impossible to avoid having to throw things away; coffee cups, candy bar wrappers, and Styrofoam packaging work their way into our lives on a daily basis and must be discarded somehow. However, although becoming waste free is certainly difficult, it’s not impossible. Béa Johnson and her family have been maintaining a “zero waste” lifestyle in their Mill Valley, California home for several years now, and only throw out two handfuls of garbage each year.

A few years ago, the Johnsons decided to simplify their lives by getting rid of the majority of their existing material possessions and resolving to make new purchases in such a way that they would have little to no waste left over to discard. When garbage trucks swing by their house each week, they remove a large bin of compostable organic material and a small container of recyclables, but no actual garbage. The Johnsons manage this by bringing their own containers when they shop for food and buying in bulk to avoid packaging. They use cloths in place of paper towels, buy refillable shampoo and soap, and have stocked their home with many multipurpose items, such as a cheese grater that can double as a zester and a sofa that becomes a bed. When it comes to gift giving, they value experiences over things, buying ski passes and gift cards to ice cream stores instead of toys and gadgets. For clothes, Béa shops at thrift stores and keeps her purchases to a minimum, maintaining a simple wardrobe. One essential practice in the Johnson household that goes beyond the cliché of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is refusal. Although avoiding unnecessary disposable packaging in today’s material world is about as easy as avoiding taxis in Manhattan, the Johnsons make a point of resisting the norm by refusing extra packaging.

While the Johnson’s lifestyle is extreme, it can act as an inspiration for those who are interested in modifying their behavior in a manageable way. There are simple ways to cut down on everyday unnecessary waste that people are already familiar with – bringing travel mugs to Starbucks and drinking from reusable water bottles, for example – but we can also make an effort to shop consciously, choosing the products with the least packaging, buying used items such as clothes and dishes when possible, and bringing reusable bags to the store. It’s important to erase the notion of “away” in “throw away,” for garbage doesn’t just vanish but ends up in landfills, which take up space and pollute the environment. Not everyone can emulate the Johnsons, but we can all use their lifestyle as an example to aspire to by gradually reducing the influence of waste on our own lives and on the planet.

Check out Béa’s blog,, for more ideas.

Claire is a junior at Barnard and Features Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of The Zero Waste Home.