A Look at The-Zero Waste Home

April 4, 2011 Updated: April 6, 2011

UNCLUTTERED: Eliminating household waste helps the environment and encourages a tidy home. (Courtesy of Bea Johnson)
UNCLUTTERED: Eliminating household waste helps the environment and encourages a tidy home. (Courtesy of Bea Johnson)
Those who love real estate understand land is a valuable and limited resource. Each day, more of it disappears. Back in the 1800s, Mark Twain knew its value when he said, “Buy land—they’re not making it anymore.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, figures from 2008 show a total of 2,122 landfills in the United States, collectively holding hundreds of millions of tons of waste.

That’s a lot of wasted land (pun intended). But don’t we need those landfills?

Imagine a world where less and less land was needed for waste disposal, and instead, it was used to build efficient homes upon, or for nature parks. A place with less of a worry that toxins might someday leach into the fresh soils and waters.

Here’s the kicker: according to the US Census Bureau, there is a projected 50 percent increase in the population from the years of 1990 to 2050. With this, the piles of solid waste are due to become mountains–unless people learn to become less wasteful.

USE OF SPACE: A lesson in reuse (or multi-use): the Johnsons sectional couch separates into many seats or becomes a queen bed. Adding the mirror-top forms a small table.  (Courtesy of Bea Johnson )
USE OF SPACE: A lesson in reuse (or multi-use): the Johnsons sectional couch separates into many seats or becomes a queen bed. Adding the mirror-top forms a small table. (Courtesy of Bea Johnson )
This brings us to the Johnson family in Mill Valley, California. Béa Johnson writes a family blog called The Zero Waste Home, meant to inspire and give tips on how to create less waste – as close to zero waste as possible.

The blog’s slogan is “Refuse, Refuse, Refuse. Then reduce, reuse, recycle (and only in that order).”

The blog, and the Johnsons, have attracted a lot of publicity. Béa, 36, and Scott, 47, have two sons, Max and Leo; and the whole family is on board with the zero waste lifestyle.

On the blog, Béa says, “I believe that the Earth has been trashed. Enough is enough. How did we ever think that there was such thing as “away” in the term “throw away”?

The blog is entertaining and educational, full of tips, includes an online store, and shares stories of the family’s approach to everything from holidays to home repairs. After learning about life in the Johnson household, it becomes apparent: a zero-waste lifestyle translates to a creative and conscious life.

It involves thinking about how to reuse what others might consider trash – or, instead of purchasing something new, finding something suitable that’s already in the home. For example, the Johnson’s reuse their patio topiary as a Christmas tree each year.

On a KPFA radio show, the eldest son, Max, explained how he politely exercises the principle of “refuse” when offered goodie bags at birthday parties: “I think: do I want that? Do I need that? Will I use that? If no, then I say ‘No thanks.’ If they insist, I say ‘No, but thanks for the offer.' The mothers say, ‘ok’.”

The Johnsons downsized from a 3,000-square foot home to a 1,400 square feet one. They use homemade cleaning products, buy soaps and shampoos in bulk, use compostable toothbrushes, and have their meats placed into their own glass jars when grocery shopping.

FAMILY PHOTO: The Johnson family, left to right: Max, Scott, Bea and Leo. (Courtesy of Bea Johnson)
FAMILY PHOTO: The Johnson family, left to right: Max, Scott, Bea and Leo. (Courtesy of Bea Johnson)
By focusing on bulk shopping and the farmers market, the Johnsons are cutting expenses by 10 to 15 percent from their daily budget. They say their life has simplified and they now have more time to spend together.

The family of four has only produced a couple handfuls of trash in four months.

Béa and Scott say they are driven by their kids’ futures.

Real estate enthusiasts with a long-term view on future of land will find a lot to think about in the Johnsons' lifestyle. Realistically, there will always be waste, but the Johnsons prove there could be much less of it.

Pop artist Andy Warhol once said: “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own.”

Visit the Zero Waste Home website