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Earth Day 2011: The Family Who Doesn’t Make Trash [VIDEO]

By Madeline Holler |

earth day 2011, earth day activities

A happy dumpster is an empty one.

I’ve been obsessing about the Johnson family ever since I read about them in Sunset magazine a couple of months ago. The family of four (plus a dog) produce almost no trash.

No, really. In the last six months, the amount of trash they have sent to a landfill fits in Bea Johnson’s two hands.

But they’re not cabin-dwelling off-the-gridders like you might suspect from Bay-Area sustainable living types. Nor are they hoarders living among piles of garbage. No, they have a beautiful, clean, simple, yet fully stocked house — appliances and everything. And they have what could potentially be two of the biggest trash-magnets known to humanity: kids.

Still, no trash.

Bea and Scott Johnson, and their two sons, ages 9 and 10, haven’t always lived that way. But a few years ago, after they moved from a 3,000 square-foot house to their 1,400 square foot one, they decided to radically simplify what they owned and how they lived. They gave away or sold clothes, toys and other items they didn’t use or could live comfortably without. And they changed the way they consumed, which is to say that, in a way, they sort of stopped consuming.

Gobs of people wrote in to Sunset in response to the article on the Johnsons and their almost zero waste home. Of course, there were many who had been inspired to do more.

What’s funny, though, are the negative responses. Turns out, the Johnsons’ attempts to live simply and not put trash in the ground is offensive to many people; her way of judging people she doesn’t even know, perhaps. Most hilarious was the letter-writer who called her fetishistic, because instead of buying meat in Styro-foam and shrink-wrap, or even taking it from the meat counter in butcher paper, she brings these resealable, airtight jars and has the meat or cheese directly put in. (Turns out, Whole Foods workers aren’t always crazy about her process either.)

Bea has kept a blog that details how they cut back. Believe it or not, it’s an exciting and engaging read. She’s not one for humorous digressions and self-deprecation, just straightforward accounts of why, for example, she can’t give up shampoo (cold water vinegar rinses just weren’t doing it for her) and why, instead, she buys it from the bulk section of her local Whole Foods. In fact, she buys most of what her family eats either from Whole Foods, because she can get everything from pasta to cookies in bulk, and her local farmer’s market. She has also found a winery where she can bring refillable bottles. See? They’re really not going without.

The Johnsons’ lifestyle is fascinating not just in how they’ve managed not to produce trash — the family mantra is “Refuse, Refuse, Refuse — and then Recyle,” but that they’ve made it work and everyone is on board. If the sheer amount of your own kids’ possessions makes your stomach flip once in awhile, then you might be interested to know that her boys each get a plastic bin which they can fill with whatever they want. If something new comes along and they want it, they simply have to give away or sell enough of the stuff already in the bin to allow for the new item.

The kids are totally on board with this, too, by the way.

Now, if the thought of suddenly not buying food in packages and lobbying the teacher to not have kids exchange Valentine’s feels overwhelming, you’re not alone. This zero waste stuff is a process. But the Johnsons have gone through a lot of it (Bea also sells her simple lifestyle tips as a consultant), so you can pick and choose from their experiences, if you’re interested in trying this out for yourself.

Here’s a random list of some trash most homes produce and what the Johnsons do instead — a nice Earth Day 2011 list of possibilities for you and the generation that’s poised to inherit piles of empty blister packs and disposable razors.

1. Food waste: the Johnsons do loads of composting in their backyard worm composter.

2. Uncompostable food waste, such as meat, bones, etc.: first, they cut back on the amount of meat they eat — just once a week. For those times, lucky them, their city started a town compost that accepts those types of food scraps (including pizza boxes!).

3. Toothbrushes: they buy compostable toothbrushes from an Australian company. This would be a good time to say that Bea does a lot of emailing to companies and government agencies trying to get them to cut back or stop sending her stuff. So importing toothbrushes from Australia has a whole carbon thing connected to it, yet she’s helping create a market for such things in North America. Someday, problem solved.

4. Toothpaste: baking soda toothpowder in a parmesan cheese shaker.

5. Cleaning products: she makes her own out of castile soap (which she buys in bulk), white vinegar and baking soda.

6. Tape: they use paper tape instead of Scotch tape. Along with gauze, you’ve got a Band-Aid.

7. They use toilet paper (which, if you watch this interview on the Today Show, people have criticized her for!), but she buys only the kind that is 100% recycled paper AND comes wrapped in paper, not bagged up in plastic.

8. Clothes: they’ve all cut down on what they have and she restocks at second-hand stores. (Not sure about underwear on this one, but I know my local fancy second-hand store sells unpackaged — yet brand new — underwear. So, maybe?

9. Gifts: well, first, they’ve gotten their family and friends on board. Gifts are often experiences. As for what they give others, her son wrote in a guest blog post that sometimes for a friend’s birthday, he’ll invite the kid to lunch — no parents. Awesome!

10. Fast-food: like I said, they’re realistic. Generally, they don’t eat it. But according to Sunset, her husband took the boys to In-n-Out Burger, a California chain that happens to serve food minimally packaged — just paper around the burgers. The boys asked if they could have their shakes in their Klean Kanteen stainless water bottles. Win!

Of course, this all can sound like a pain, but Bea and Scott Johnson say it’s actually easier living this way — refusing, refusing, refusing — than managing a bunch of stuff. Getting there hasn’t always been easy, which Bea is candid about on her blog. Don’t you kind of wish you were already there?

Think you could do it? Have you already tried to cut back? Where did/would you start?

Here’s a video from the Today Show.

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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9 thoughts on “Earth Day 2011: The Family Who Doesn’t Make Trash [VIDEO]

  1. cheri says:

    Sure, I will just drive 300 miles down to my local Whole foods, and buy some cool bulk foods.

  2. Cheri, sounds like you need to harvest grains in your back yard, if you’re that far away from WF. Kidding! It’s just one solution … there are many.

  3. cheri says:

    OMG, if I could get anything to grow in my garden, I would harvest away. I will keep trying though…. :)

  4. Olivia says:

    My goal for this past school year was a zero-waste lunch. I just send reusable containers. Next year my goal is a zero-plastic lunch, using only the Planetbox lunchbox. Kind of expensive, but so much easier than managing lots of lids, or even “disposable” plastic baggies!

  5. lam says:

    I don’t have a Whole Foods either, I just buy online for organic foods and recycled paper products, etc..

  6. Manjari says:

    Lam, where do you buy organic foods online?

  7. MnMama says:

    I started using those cloth bags for groceries a while ago but (after a suggestion from my neighbor) now I put them back in the car as soon as I unpack the groceries so I don’t forget them when I go to the supermarket. It might be a really small thing but it is getting us started towards being more of a green family.

  8. Teresa says:

    What an amazing family!!! I recycle like crazy and have actually made a bagger at the local grocery store rebag my items because I ran to the restroom and left my teenager at the register, she was too shy to ask them to use the stack of reusable totes that were laying right in the cart!! I told them that I was sorry but that we did not bring plastic bags into our home and they would need to rebag the whole order since my bags were sitting right in front of them.

    Not only are they saving the earth but they all look healthy, and eating fresh foods does so much good for your body. I bet her kids are the healthiest kids in their entire school!

    Did I miss something though? I didn’t see a link to her blog?

  9. Andrea says:

    She uses METAL bins for her kids toys, NOT plastic! Just wated to get that straight. :)

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