clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What if we stopped throwing stuff away? Here’s what it takes to live ‘zero waste’

American household waste increases by more than 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day

Trash collected by Bea Johnson’s family between 2011 and 2019.
Courtesy of Bea Johnson

SALT LAKE CITY — The United States is already the most wasteful country in the world, but during the holiday season, those statistics spike. According to one estimate cited by the Environmental Protection Agency, American household waste increases by more than 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

It’s a time of excess consumption, with piles of leftover food, gift wrapping, shopping bags and product packaging contributing to an additional 1 million tons of trash a week. Most of it — including compostable food and recyclable paper and plastic — gets buried in landfills, and a significant portion ends up polluting our environment and oceans, says Eric DesRoberts, senior manager of the Trash Free Seas Alliance program based in Washington, D.C.

“The thing that keeps me optimistic is that all the trash we see in the ocean has gone through someone’s fingertips at some point,” said DesRoberts. “There is a solution to this that we can all be a part of, and there is a role for everybody.”

A growing number of people across the globe are taking that sentiment to heart by going “zero waste,” meaning they don’t throw anything away at all. Mill Valley, California, resident Bea Johnson, 45, is credited with starting the movement more than 10 years ago. She now has nearly 250,000 followers on Instagram, and her book, “Zero Waste Home,” has been translated into more than 25 languages. The search term ‘zero waste’ returns 234 million results on Google.

Because of Johnson’s example, thousands of followers have been inspired to try recycling or repurposing the things they use. Some of the most dedicated collect the small amount of trash they can’t avoid in a single glass jar. Others, like Salt Lake City resident Jamaica Trinnaman, have opened stores that sell food and consumer products without packaging.

It may seem extreme, especially in a place that is far from the oceans like Utah, and where there is a large, though finite, amount of space for landfills. And given that corporations like Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo are responsible for the most plastic waste, it is easy to question what difference people can make on an individual level. But Johnson, 48, claims living zero waste is not as hard as it looks and the benefits are not just for the environment. Eliminating trash also leads to financial savings, healthier choices and a simpler life, she said.

“I stay very optimistic. A lot of people focus on the environment. They’ve watched some documentaries or seen a lot of news, and they feel paralyzed thinking that what they do won’t have an impact because the problem is too big,” said Johnson. “We’ve proven that what one family does can actually have a huge impact.”

A movement

In 2006, Johnson moved with her husband and two sons, then ages 5 and 6, from a home to an apartment closer to town. There, they discovered the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle and began to consider their environmental impact as well.

“I stumbled upon the term of zero waste, which back then was used to describe waste management practices at a city level,” Johnson said. “When I saw that term, a lightbulb went off in my head.”

Johnson began cutting her household waste and sharing her journey with the world. Since 2008, her entire family has produced about one jar of trash per year. That’s compared to the average American who produces 4.5 pounds per day.

Bea Johnson, 45, lives in Mill Valley, California, and is credited with started the zero waste movement more than a decade ago.
Nikola Bruncová

To minimize her waste, Johnson shops at farmers markets or buys her food in bulk without packaging. She purchases secondhand clothing for herself and her family and makes sure to recycle the fabric. For cleaning products, she relies on vinegar, water and Castile soap. And instead of material goods, her family enjoys experiences like museums, parks and live entertainment.

She follows the 5-R method: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. The order is important, she says, because putting something in a recycling bin doesn’t always ensure it will be turned into a new product. In May, the Deseret News reported that by one estimate, 40% of items put in recycling bins in Utah were ultimately ending up in landfills.

“So many people in the world are completely disconnected with the impacts of their consumption,” said Johnson.

But it wasn’t always that way. Plastic was invented at the beginning of the 20th century, bringing with it a myriad of life-changing and even lifesaving products. Since then, the amount produced has nearly doubled every decade to the point that the world now produces 380 million tons of plastic every year. Today, food, cosmetics and an endless number of consumer goods come wrapped in plastic that is meant to be immediately thrown away after purchase. According to the United Nations, only 9% of all plastic produced has ever been recycled.

“There is a lot of savoir-faire that has been completely lost throughout the years with our consumerist society,” said Johnson. “Whether it be handkerchiefs, or bringing a container to the store or using a double-edged razor instead of a disposable one, or using rags instead of paper towels.”

“The best advantage of zero waste is returning to a simpler life.”

What can one person do?

Multiple bloggers, including Lily Cameron, 33, who lives in Marin, California, have followed in Johnson’s footsteps. But a waste-free lifestyle is still far from mainstream.

Cameron and her husband have an online store where they sell plastic-free kitchen, cleaning and beauty products that come in recyclable packaging. The idea stemmed from their frustration over the difficulty of finding waste-free supplies, like silicone sandwich bags or wooden cleaning brushes, and ordering them online, only to find they came wrapped in plastic.

Cameron says that in terms of living zero waste, makeup remains the biggest challenge. In August, she reviewed five different kinds of mascara that come in refillable or recyclable containers. One company, Elate Beauty, recommends crushing the bamboo mascara tube and composting it instead of throwing it away. The plastic wand used to apply the mascara can be donated to a wildlife refuge where it will be used to groom tiny animals. A single tube costs $28.

“Anything over $8 is off the table for me. There’s got to be a better — and more affordable — way,” one commenter wrote.

“You have to make it work for you, and there are certainly budget constraints for a lot of people,” Cameron said.

But living waste free doesn’t have to cost more, says Cameron, and many people find they actually save money overall because they are reusing and repurposing old items instead of buying new ones. Despite the challenges, Cameron believes one person can make a difference by going zero waste.

“The more that these plastic free solutions go mainstream, the more people who are skipping plastic bags, bringing their own containers, saying no to plastic straws, you can see that it is catching on,” said Cameron. “I’m very positive about the impact each of us can have individually. You are really seeing that with this movement.”

Cameron and Johnson agree individuals play a vital role, but corporations need to lead the way and make waste-free options more accessible.

In response to pressure from consumers and advocates, a number of companies are already taking action. Starbucks has pledged to eliminate plastic straws from all its stores by 2020. Evian said it would produce all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic by 2025. McDonald’s has set a number of sustainability goals, including having 100% of consumer packaging come from “renewable, recycled or certified sources” by 2025. And the Coca-Cola Company has vowed to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells by 2030.

In 2017, Trinnaman opened a package-free store called Hello! Bulk in Salt Lake City that carries everything from hygiene products like shampoo, conditioner and body wash to food like dried fruit, spices and pastas. The store model requires that customers bring their own containers and pay for the products by weight. Hello! Bulk is one of 46,000 stores in more than 160 countries that offer bulk shopping, according to Johnson’s web-based app, Bulk Finder.

Trinnaman believes that as demand for this type of store increases, grocery chains will have to follow suit.

“This is a wave that is in motion. We won’t be able to stop this wave,” she said.

For now, starting small is enough.

“We believe that zero waste can be intimidating to people,” said Trinnaman. “Start by considering the end of your product. Every time you look at packaging, think, is that something you can reuse and repurpose?”