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More than 15 years ago, my municipality was struggling to find a place for its garbage. The local landfill was rapidly reaching capacity, and officials were trolling for new locations like fishers out for the perfect catch. No one wanted a dump in their neighborhood, and raucous community meetings deflected the idea from one location to the next.

At one point in the drama, I asked a town administrator about the idea of eliminating garbage all together. Wasn’t that something to shoot for? “There will always be trash,” he replied resignedly, and more than a little pummeled from the ordeal.

Since that time, the Zero Waste movement has emerged to challenge his response, revolutionizing the way people think about garbage. Driven in part by recent discoveries about plastic and its harmful effects on the planet, the movement has reached beyond municipalities contemplating what to do with their trash to individual households eschewing all forms of packaging. Popularized by bloggers who’ve embraced the movement’s aims and possibilities, Zero Waste has arrived in the mainstream—with stores and pop-up shops across the globe.

Driven in part by recent discoveries about plastic’s harmful effects on the planet, the Zero Waste movement has reached beyond municipalities contemplating what to do with their trash to individuals eschewing all forms of packaging.

At the helm of this phenomenon is Bea Johnson, who started living the Zero Waste lifestyle with her husband and two children in 2008. Back then Zero Waste was a term used by municipalities trying to reduce their trash problem. Johnson picked it up after realizing the words summarized a lifestyle her family wanted to embrace. “When I saw that term, a light bulb went on in my head and I thought, that should be a goal for every household,” she says.

Her early attempts to live trash-free were time-consuming. Since there was no guide available outlining how to eliminate trash from your life, Johnson experimented with a variety of solutions. Her 2013 book, Zero Waste Home, summarizes her conclusions, laying out answers to just about any question zero wasters could have, from how to avoid packaging while shopping to how to pick up dog poop without plastic bags. “Once I had [the Zero Waste] goal in my head, I tested a lot of alternatives and extremes and eventually we found a system that worked for us.”

Making Zero Waste Sustainable

Contrary to what the term implies, Zero Waste does not mean an ascetic life in the woods or making everything from scratch. Instead, the movement espouses simplifying everyday living to reduce overall consumption—and the waste that goes along with it.

The simplicity of Zero Waste living is something that Johnson emphasizes when I speak with her from her home in Mill Valley, California. Sharing her initial missteps into making her family’s own cheese, butter, and shampoo, Johnson admits, “I found out very quickly it was not sustainable to do all these things, and that once we found alternatives that we could see ourselves doing in the long run—that is, for life—then zero waste became a lifestyle.”

“Zero Waste does not mean making everything from scratch. Zero Waste means living simply first and foremost.”

Her approach to Zero Waste is appealing. Many of us already have our hands full. Where I once made my own sourdough and practiced elimination communication as an alternative to diapering, that time-intensive existence is not always practical. Like most families, we’ve had to pick and choose where we put our environmental efforts.

Thankfully, Johnson sees Zero Waste living as a way to reduce effort. “There is no reason to make toothpaste when you can use baking soda that you buy in bulk on your wooden toothbrush,” she says. “Take the solution that is easier and spend the extra time you have making something necessary that you cannot find in bulk.”

When shopping at her local grocery store, Johnson avoids processed and packaged foods by circling around the perimeter of the store and sticking to aisles where the meat, dairy, produce, and breads are kept. Next, she buys snacks and treats in bulk, making from scratch only what she can’t find easily. Everything she takes away goes into a reusable container, bottle, or bag she brought along with her for that purpose.

Her no-nonsense philosophy, shared by much of the Zero Waste community, rests on five pillars: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (in that order). And while most of us are familiar with these principles, it’s the “refuse” that often stops people short.

Learning How to Say “No”

“In today’s society, it can look rude to say ‘no’ to something,” Johnson acknowledges. “And it’s much harder in some other countries.”

Having recently travelled to Asia on a speaking tour, Johnson shares how, in some locations, gifts are given as part of the culture. Not abiding by those social norms can create uncomfortable feelings for people. “People are very respectful and afraid of hurting other people’s feelings, ” she says.

Even in North America, we are often afraid of saying “no,” but taking the step to refuse unwanted items creates a powerful message. “There are so many things thrown at us today that are completely unnecessary,” Johnson says, “but every time we accept them, we’re not only creating a demand to make more, we get things coming into our home that clutter our space and become our trash problem.”

Bea Johnson

Johnson sporting a mason jar containing a year’s worth of her family’s trash. © Jacqui J.

From junk mail to plastic straws in restaurants to pre-packaged meals on airplanes, saying ‘no’ on the spot eliminates this flow of “stuff.” So how can you refuse politely?

According to Johnson, the person trying to give you something will usually respect your choices if you take the time to share your reasoning. Talk about yourself, Johnson says, and why you’re not accepting the object. “A simple ‘no thanks, I don’t need it’ or ‘no thanks, I’ve simplified my life’ will often be enough. Give them a reason that’s not judgmental, but where you’re asking them to do you a favor by not giving you the item.”

Or take a page from her kids and get right to the point. “I’m good,” they say. Or simply “no thanks.”

Increasing Your Wellbeing Through Zero Waste

In her talks about Zero Waste living, Johnson mentions the environmental impact of trash, but she focuses more on the lifestyle’s benefits and how living trash-free has positively impacted her family. In their first year, the Johnsons saved 40% on their yearly household budget. They did this by consuming less, purchasing what they needed second-hand, replacing disposable (and costly) items with reusable ones, and shopping for package-free foods.

Not only did they save money, they also felt better. Johnson chalks this up to eliminating toxins from their daily lives.

“The zero waste lifestyle is not only better for the environment, it’s better for your health, better for your wallet, and it ultimately improves your standard of living.”

Living a Zero Waste lifestyle also helped them usher in an era of voluntary simplicity, which in turn, gives them more time to do the things they love. Saving all that money and streamlining their needs meant they now had the time to share experiences they might not have otherwise. They found a life based on being instead of having was more to their liking.

Says Johnson, “The zero waste lifestyle is not only better for the environment, it’s better for your health, better for your wallet, and ultimately it improves your standard of living—and that to us is the best advantage of this lifestyle.”

Going Zero Waste

Johnson’s logic is hard to counter, and there is no question that her ideas are catching on. Multiple bloggers now share their forays into Zero Waste, and forums on Reddit dissect the best way score package-free products. Resources now exist for anyone wanting to adopt the lifestyle, and many people have done the hard work of testing waste-free solutions to see what works.

Even if the town administrator was right when he told me “there will always be trash,” there’s one thing he didn’t mention. If everyone could fit their yearly waste into a single mason jar—as Johnson and many others can do—at least we wouldn’t be fighting over where to put it.

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