See how a family manages to produce only two handfuls of trash per year
On trash day in Mill Valley, California, the Johnson home has no garbage. Nothing. There is a hefty compost bin and a teeny recycling bin—one that Béa Johnson is embarrassed exists at all. “So much recycling
really goes to waste, so you need to try to reduce that too.”
Garbage, though, is something that happens rarely in this modern, minimalistically decorated house. That’s by day-to-day intention—to live simpler and lighter on the planet. Their quest started three years ago when Béa and husband Scott downsized from a 3,000-square-foot home to their current 1,400 square feet. But it had been on Béa’s mind ever since she’d nannied for a family that lost everything in a fire. Béa decided she wanted to truly love and use and know everything she kept in her home. “Even down to the vegetable peeler,” she says.
Béa documents her zero-waste lifestyle in her blog, The Zero Waste Home.
“When we started getting rid of things, it was kind of addictive,” she continues. “In a recession, people are inclined to
keep things, but I feel the opposite. The less I have, the richer I feel. Stuff weighs you down.”
Even life memories and heirlooms. Béa says, “Photos are a good way to keep the memory of something without keeping it because of emotional attachment or the guilt of letting it go.” Put another way: Hang onto the photo of your grandmother in her fur coat, but if you never wear the coat, it’s just taking up space in your closet.
Scott and Béa still have “vices.” Makeup has been hard to purge for Béa, and English muffins for Scott—both come with some nonrecyclable packaging.
“We don’t do everything right,” she says. “We do have garbage. We do fly overseas to see my family in France once a year.” Despite the regressions, the way the family lives makes others at least sit up and take notice: Béa says one neighbor visited, remarking that the house is “futuristic and alien-like,” opening cupboards and asking, “Where’s all your stuff?”
The kitchen looks eerily unlived in, yet Béa cooks every day.
The living room has only what they need: a sofa, a video player, blankets, and pillows.
In the playroom there are four bins of toys. The rule is simple: If the boys want something new to them, it needs to fit in
One medicine cabinet in the bathroom holds toiletries for the entire family.
The house closets are enviable for their lack of clutter. Shopping is done only twice a year at a thrift store and replaces
items that are stained, worn, or outgrown.
Béa and Scott Johnson answer some questions about how their household works.
Q/ Do you have a car?
A/ We have two cars, which we’ve had since before we started this lifestyle. Scott needs one for his job, and I need something once a week for errands. There’s no Zipcar in Mill Valley.
Q/ Do you have a TV?
A/ We do, for movies, but no television channels. We rent through Netflix—either online or by mail. In the return envelope, I put back that little strip of plastic that is intended to be thrown away. I’ve contacted Netflix, encouraging them to find another way.
Scott: I thought I’d miss sports TV—like ESPN or college football—but I’ve figured out it’s all online and we can stream it. If the cable company did à la carte, we’d be set.
Q/ Do you get junk mail?
A/ I’ve done dmachoice.org to get off direct mail lists like credit card applications, and there’s catalogchoice.org for catalogs. For first-class mail and third-class marked “address return requested,” you can write “refuse” on the envelope. For other third-class, you must track the sender down via phone or email and tell them to take you off their list. Every time I get something, I tackle it right away.
Q/ What about when your kids are sick?
A/ Though we have a neti pot [for flushing nasal passages with saline], sometimes we do have to buy medication. It’s less wasteful to purchase a small bottle, and the containers are recyclable. Instead of Band-Aids, we mostly use peroxide, then gauze and paper tape.
Q/ Living like this must take a lot of time.
A/ I save time. While other people are zigzagging the aisles of the grocery store, I shop the perimeter. The deli and cheese departments take extra time with my jars, but then I shop the bulk-foods aisle for all dry goods. I do the farmers’ market for produce. And I go to malls only occasionally, for shoes.
Sunset readers have been commenting up a storm on our Zero-waste home story. Béa Johnson has responded to some of your comments on our blog--check out more of Béa's take on living simply.