Moving Toward a Zero Waste Home

—by Kathryn Tempas

I’ve been a follower of Bea Johnson’s blog, Zero Waste Home (, for several years. Bea and her family, who live in northern California, decided that our materialistic, disposable society wasn’t what they wanted for their family, so they set out to try to get as close to “zero waste” as possible. Yes, no garbage.

Many of you at Hampden Park Co-op already bring your own containers to fill in the bulk area, where flours, beans, grains, pasta, and much more are available. You refill egg cartons, recycle plastic bags and milk tops, and bring you own reusable shopping bag. You feel as though you are already doing a lot to reduce your impact on the environment. But are you ready to take the next step, and see how close to “zero waste” you can get?

To help you take this step, consult Bea’s new book, Zero Waste Home—the Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste (April 2013, Simon and Schuster), which is full of ideas to help you get going to the next level. Her basic idea can be summed up in the five Rs:  

Refuse: Say "no" to freebies that you don’t need and won’t use, such as the plastic cup at a restaurant, the free gifts at events, prepackaged foods, and single-use items.

Reduce: Reduce what you do need. Do you really need/use all those kitchen gadgets, all those personal care products, etc.? Could you possibly borrow from a neighbor when you need that specific tool?

Reuse: Return hangers to the dry cleaners, take your own plates to the potluck, refill your shampoo bottles at the co-op, repair rather than throwing away shoes and
appliances, and even buy used.

Recycle: The City of St. Paul helps us out with   this. You can call Eureka recycling for tips on     harder-to-recycle items. The City of Minneapolis does single sort recycling now, and you can recycle a variety of items in our co-op entryway. Wine bottle corks and yogurt containers can be recycled at Whole Foods Market.

Rot: —or compost. I’ve got a compost bin in my backyard. Worm bins are another option, particularly if you don’t have a yard.  

Applying all these principles, Bea and her family reduced their waste so much that in one  year, they generated a mere one quart jar of trash.

Although zero waste is the idea, Bea goes beyond that with the premise that having less “stuff,” or simplifying you life, will give you more time to really enjoy life—spending time with friends and family. And while it’s true that having fewer things to dust around, clean, etc. can make for quicker cleaning sessions, and sticking to a simple minimal wardrobe makes decisions on what to wear easier, the tie-in to zero waste is not exceptionally strong. I do, though, agree with Bea’s ideas that both reducing your waste and simplifying your life are goals worth pursuing in our throw-away, over-packaged, materialistic world.

If you want to try some of Bea’s ideas, you can begin in the kitchen by scrutinizing everything that you put in the trash. Is there a bulk alternative? (Did you know that below the bulk weigh station at the co-op are even more bulk items?)

Or can you make it yourself? Some stores sell meat and cheese bulk and will put it in the container
I provide instead of wrapping it in plastic. While I was at Whole Foods Market once with my corks and yogurt containers, I discovered that they sell dried fruit in bulk, so now I take glass canning jars and refill with raisins, apricots, figs, and more.

Take containers to restaurants for your leftovers, because their takeout containers may not be recyclable or reusable.

This area has the most potential, as in many homes the kitchen generates the most refuse.

Simplifying is key to Bea’s plan. Think about your bedroom/dressing area. I realized I had quite a few necklaces that I haven’t worn in over 5 years—and will likely never wear again. As she says, a few basic items will suffice. My donation pile to the garage sale began. 

Basements are notorious for collecting items. Why were we saving the box from that item we purchased eons ago?  And the bathroom/linen area—how many lotions/nail polishes/old medicines does one really need? Removing these extras will make spring cleaning easier next time around. My dad still uses a handkerchief instead of tissues; maybe some of those older ideas are worth reconsidering.

How about mail?  I used to get quite a few catalogues, but, as the book and blog suggested, I called and got my name off the mailing lists. I can easily look online if I want to peruse or purchase.

Bank statements, bills, etc can be handled online, too. Yes, you could recycle these things, but wouldn’t it be better to not cut down the trees in the first place? Here is a good example of how reducing your waste simplifies your life. You daily mail chore and trip to the paper recycling would have a reduced time impact.

From the kitchen to the bath, the bedroom to the home office, Bea has systematically reduced her waste and simplified her life. Even holiday and school suggestions are provided. Do birthday kids really need goody bags when they just had a cupcake at the celebration?  What happens with those cheap, disposable trinkets? 

Yes, you have to get your family to take the voyage with you. I now have my kids reminding me to bring along containers for leftovers when we dine out. They know to take the reusable shopping bag and put the milk container tops in the far right drawer. Yes, we sometimes forget. It’s a gradual process, but we’re heading in the right direction.

The blog is worth visiting for photos and how-to’s. I must say that Bea has simplified her home to be a bit too spartan for me, but I applaud her and the example she has set. If we all move a bit in her direction, it will be better for us and the planet.

Using strategies learned from Bea, we’ve reduced our weekly trash enough that I approached our neighbor (a fellow co-op member) to see if she was interested in sharing a trash can. It is working out beautifully! Now that’s a win-win situation—saving money, and better for the environment. 

Ultimately, how far you go towards zero waste is up to you. Some ideas you might try, and decide they don’t fit your lifestyle. Yes, we still have some garbage, and realistically, we won’t get to zero waste. But the more of us that try, the less garbage trucks will be going down the alley and the less landfill space will be needed, and maybe the more time we’ll have to spend with friends and family.

[Kathryn Tempas has been a co-op member for years. She enjoys gardening and cooking as well as playing the piano and reading.]

Editor’s note: Our store isn't large enough to incur the loss that occurs with dispensing bulk fruit and snacks. If we switched to bulk in these areas, we would have to raise the prices considerably. Shoppers are always welcome to request that we hold the amount of dried fruit or snacks that they want, so they can put it in their own container. Talk to Kathy Vaughan, or any floor manager.