Book Reviews Books for Adults Non-fiction

Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson

Zero Waste Home -- this book will totally change your view on living simply

Brace yourselves, friends. Here’s another one of those books I cannot stop talking about.

Zero Waste Home is written by a woman who lives in Northern California with her husband and two teenage boys. Between the four of them, they produce only about ONE QUART of garbage per year. Our family produces about that per hour.

Bart happened to be with me when I got this book and when I read him the back of the book he said, “Well, they might not have a lot of trash, but they’re probably just recycling like crazy instead.”

Actually, the Johnson family isn’t really thrilled by recycling either (like, I suspect, most people who know much about the recycling process). Instead, their goal is to really keep the waste they produce at a minimum, period. Mainly, this means keeping as much as waste as possible from ever entering their home in the first place.

For instance, at the grocery store, she takes all her own containers and buys only things that don’t come in packaging. (Her only exception is butter – and she composts the wrappers). We’re talking way past bringing a couple of reusable bags here. Check out her (way-better-looking-than-mine) pantry here. I went grocery shopping a couple of days after I started this book and just looking at the conveyor belt made me a little ill because it’s just more and more packaging.

The book goes room by room, talking about how to reduce waste and all the alternatives to trash-heavy products and practices they’ve developed. She also has sections about eating out, major holidays, and travel, which I loved.

The best part of this book, I thought, is that, while the focus is on waste, that’s really a means to an end, which is a life free from junk, less wasted money, more time with family, and a simplified life. I found the whole thing very inspiring, actually, in terms of taking more ownership of making my life what I want and resisting the urge to buy happiness or doing things just because other people are.

One of the things I love about this book is that she obviously cares deeply about the topic and is willing to live a fairly extreme lifestyle, but I didn’t feel like her book was insane or made me feel really guilty. Instead, it made me realize all the ways I could easily reduce by quite a bit the trash that comes into our house. And that it’d actually make my life happier.

She talks about how people always say they don’t have enough time for this, but she feels like (and after her descriptions in the book, I believe) that she spends the same or less time keeping up with her home, food, and possessions than someone who lives a more typical lifestyle. And, of course, she said she has naysayers on both sides – those who think she’s WAY too extreme, and others who think she isn’t nearly extreme enough (what with still eating meat and flying to France every year to visit her mother and extended family). 

I’m not likely to start burning almonds over my stove and using the ashes to make eyeliner (do you think I’m making this up? I’m not), but I’m definitely am going to make some changes. Here are a few that I’m starting with:

  • Resisting free things (free t-shirts I’ll never wear, cheap pens, hotel shampoo, food I don’t want)
  • Keeping a modest supply of the things I use (I only need about five dishtowels, not forty. I don’t need 50 rubberbands)
  • Not bagging my produce at the grocery store
  • Reducing my wardrobe to the things I love and wear frequently
  • Refilling my peanut butter jar in the bulk section
  • Focusing birthday and holiday gifts on experiences, rather than things
  • Storing food in reusable containers rather than plastic bags
  • Using real dishes rather than disposable ones when we have parties (probably will have to start doing the dishes after parties myself instead of making Bart do them)
  • Be realistic about how much clothing my children need (probably not eight drawers full, that’s for sure)
  • When I’m buying packaged foods, buying bigger amounts, when possible, to avoid multiple smaller packages
  • Buy more things second-hand (toys, furniture, clothing, dishes)

Bart and I spent much of the weekend talking about our long-term plans and how we want our lives (and those of our children) not to be a constant treadmill toward more stuff, stuff, stuff, but instead full of experiences, togetherness, environmental consciousness, and genuine happiness, with our money going toward the things that really bring us happiness.

Who knew I’d find so much cause for self-reflection in a book about trash? (Not me).

P.S. I was talking my mom’s ear off about this the other day and shared with her this article from Sunset about this family – you can see how lovely and simple their home is.

Copy requested from publisher

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  • Reply Saskia April 18, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Grad school poverty has forced me to rethink my consumer life in a lot of ways, and although it's frustrating at times, I also like living with less. I've definitely cut down on my clothing purchases and I also eat a lot less meat, both for budget and environmental reasons. I think stores here in Europe tend to use less packaging, which helps, but it's a good tip to choose products that come with less packaging and/or buy in bulk wherever possible.

  • Reply alli April 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Hmm. When I heard this title I thought, "The last thing I need right now is an extensive list of more things I should be doing." But your review is making me reconsider. Maybe I'll give it a read afterall.

  • Reply Kristy April 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Before I read the part about her visiting family in France, I was wondering if she was from Europe. They do a good job (at least I noticed this in Paris) of producing very little garbage.

  • Reply Momma Miles April 18, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Hmmm… after taking out the trash this morning (it's garbage day) and seeing how many trips it took the minions to get all the garbage cans this might be very timely.

    Although putting the kids to work is always a bonus!

  • Reply Mary April 18, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Can't wait to read this book! At the beginning of this year I started to adopt a more minimalist approach to the way we run our home. I'm not totally extreme but finding that balance of what works for us. If you're looking for further ideas and examples on the subject check out one of my favorite blogs,

  • Reply heidikins April 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Interesting. J-Mo and I have started recycling a lot more, and I've shopped at thrift stores forever for a lot of things (ones I can wash/bleach/disinfect). But, the more we do that the more I notice there are ways we can improve. We recycle in the kitchen, but not the bathroom which produces a LOT of recyclable products…but there's no space for a recycle container in the bathroom and I rarely remember to take the empty TP tube to the kitchen instead of just toss it in the bathroom garbage can.

    Anyway, lots to think about, adding this to my list.


  • Reply bethany April 18, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    This book sounds like a great resource-adding it to my Goodreads for sure. One thing I've started doing to minimize is keeping a spreadsheet of my kids' clothing. Because I have strict rules about how much I will spend on clothing for my children ($1 or less for shirts, $3 or less for dresses, $5 or less for shoes and jeans), I often buy up to two sizes too big and store them. My spreadsheet has each item listed its category (i.e. Size 7 shirts) and then how many of that item I still need. Each of my children only gets 8 short sleeve shirts for instance. It saves me so much time and money. I'm excited to read this and get more ideas! Living in a small home helps keep the "stuff" down too!

  • Reply Packrat April 18, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Just don't drive yourself nuts trying to live up to someone else's standards. Live the way you and your husband want to live. Just my 1/2 cent worth. 🙂

  • Reply preethi April 18, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    It is REALLY important to me to not have more stuff than necessary. Like, I finally bought a second set of sheets last year and I have to say, it is really nice to have a spare so I don't have to worry about the one set drying all the way RIGHT THAT SECOND. But it IS so nice to just reduce and have less clutter, especially when our place is about the size of a thumbnail. I love this idea and will definitely be adding this book to my list for more tips.

  • Reply Amber April 18, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    i love this. i LOVE getting rid of stuff. (unfortunately I love shopping for more stuff just as much). Just last week I told Dave that I was going to try and go 6 months without buying my kids ANY clothes. Their closets are PACKED. So why buy more? I might be eating my words in a month or two.. but we'll see 🙂

    So how do you not bag your produce? don't you have apples flying all over if they aren't in a bag? teach me 🙂

    • Reply Jenny April 19, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      Not sure what Janssen does about her produce, but I have little net drawstring bags (kind of like what you wash delicates in) that I bring to the store. I got them a long time ago at a dollar store in a pak of three for a dollar. Great buy. I use them every time I go to the store.

    • Reply Lady Susan April 22, 2013 at 5:20 pm

      You can buy or make reusable bags. I made some out of muslin for Christmas gifts this past year. Great for storing in the fridge as well.

  • Reply Janet April 18, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    I love your list of things to do to reduce The Stuff. I'm constantly on a quest to do the same, though not always successfully!

    I bought some reusable produce bags from Amazon and I'm a big fan of using them instead of the thin filmy ones. These ones:

  • Reply Kimberly April 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    That's fascinating. Is it just me, though, or does mailing the adhesive strip back to Netflix feel a bit like cheating? (If this were a competition, which of course it is not.) I'm already looking around trying to decide how many of x we really need. Having a store nearby that sells in bulk (spices and beans and whatnot) is also great for a lot of reasons, this being one.

  • Reply Jodi April 18, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    This sounds like a great book! The book ideas I have gotten from you keep piling up…if the SB library wasn't so disappointing, I might actually be able to read some of them (since I just can't buy every book I want to read). I'm always feeling so antsy about all the crap I consume and have to throw out.

  • Reply Hannah April 18, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    This is a really useful list. I'll have to check that book out.

  • Reply Kayris April 18, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    I put my produce in a reusable bag, then dump it out on the belt when we check out. Or you can buy mesh bags for bagging produce.

    This year, I bought pouches to use in kid lunches. One set is sort of plasticky but bpa free and the others are fabric. Etsy has lots of options too. In addition to never running out of sandwich bags, I don't have to feel guilty about all that plastic going into the trash.

    We also just got glass containers with snap on lids to use for adults lunches and such, and Pyrex ones for food storage,

    We don't have anywhere that sells food in bulk around here though.

    As far as paper plates go, if you use the chinet ones, they are chlorine free and can be composted.

  • Reply Lisa April 19, 2013 at 1:30 am

    I don't know how I'd live with only five dishtowels. I have about 30 and some times they are ALL dirty. And I do laundry pretty much constantly (or did, before my giant life upheaval. Tho we do have clean dish towels now.)

  • Reply C April 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    I've followed Bea's blog for several years and always find her writing and what she is doing to reduce her waste inspiring. I don't think I'll ever be as "zero waste" as she is, but she definitely motivates me to continue making improvements :).

  • Reply Emily April 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    That is really interesting. I don't know that I could get to that level of minimalist, but it would be a fun challenge to see just how low-waste you could get without feeling like a crazy person!

  • Reply Jenny April 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    I wonder how she buys toilet paper and feminine products without packaging…

  • Reply Jenna April 19, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Jenny – She probably uses something like a DivaCup. I love mine.

  • Reply Jenna April 19, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    I want to write a longer comment, buy I"m having issues doing so with my ipad. I hope this one works.

    I really enjoyed Make the Bread, Buy the Butter based on your reccomendation, so I'm interested to read this one as well. I would have written it off immediately because it sounds like the kind of pretentious over-the-top stuff that drives me bonkers.

    I haven't read it yet, so maybe this is unfair, but I do think it needs to be noted that this is a middle to upper class way of living. Yes, she saves money in the long run, and she has an efficient system in place, but there are two things you need in order to create that system: time (a luxury that SAHMs like us have that lots of other women don't) and money up front (the pantry photo you posted not only shows a beautiful house, but a pantry stocked with glassware and containers that would have been a considerable investment).

    Your review makes it sound like her intent was to writ ea book that shared her methods, not to show you how she is superior in all ways.

    • Reply Janssen April 19, 2013 at 6:51 pm

      I agree that this is definitely more aimed at middle and upper class families, but I also think there is a trickle-down effect. If families with more money start demanding products with less packaging and less waste, they'll be more available to those who might not have the money to force change with their dollars in the first place.

    • Reply Lady Susan April 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      In regards to her pantry…you could achieve a similar goal but less aesthetic by reusing glass jars (pickles, peanut butter, etc) from items purchased at a store vs. recycling those jars. This is a bit more difficult now that plastic vs glass is more prevalent.

  • Reply Jenna April 19, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    And one more comment because I keep having issues (I think it's my ipad, not your site).

    I do hope that taking the time to read it would helpm e kick some nasty habits though. Like my use of paper towels (I do cloth diapers WHY do I need to use paper towels???) I get lazy sometimes and don't compost everything I could, and I'm still confused about things like recycling used paper products (well, hopefully I stop using paper towels altogether). My biggest area of waste is the upstairs garbages. We recycle downstairs, but everything from upstairs gets thrown in the trash. (Again though, can used tissues be recycled? And actually, why am I use tissues in the first place, I can just use cloths and throw them in the cloth diaper laundry). I feel guilty when I think about how much waste from our household is waste that makes its way to a landfill due to our laziness.

    Oh and one more thing, some packaging/extra things are good. I've been volunteering at a place that has a warehouse filled with food and donated goods for lower income families. They use things there that I never would have thought to donate, like Nordstrom bags which are sturdy and then filled with food for the homeless (great because it has handles and can be repurposed). The zillion boxes I get off of Amazon? Those can go toward making boxes in small, medium, and large sizes for families who don't have enough to eat.

    Lately I've been thinking about how I want to focus on buying even more stuff secondhand (not hard, I love love love buying secondhand), and decluttering my house (also not hard since we're planning another move this summer) and giving away all the things I don't use to the people who would really get something out of them.

    And that is the end of my novel-length comment for today 🙂

  • Reply RA April 19, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    I've been mulling this over since you posted, and I agree with the other commenters that this is a really good aspiration to look toward. Your actions to implement are a realistic response, and I appreciate that. I so hear you on resisting free things — so hard!

    But I can't get past this mythical Bulk Section. Produce is the only thing at my store available in bulk. Not even, like, nuts, much less peanut butter or spices. (If she were in my location, would she just not buy snack-type foods, then? Just fruit?) I'm pretty sure that the closest place to me that has one is at least a 20-minute drive away. Is it better for me to purchase jars/containers, use the fuel and time to go to that store, spend more for that option, and drive back? And I'm not being facetious; I am curious what the optimal situation would be.

  • Reply Lindsay April 22, 2013 at 5:04 am

    This book sounds great. I have thought a lot about reducing waste in my home, and this might have help me finally start to make changes.

  • Reply Chrissie April 22, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    This book sounds really interesting, and I love that it's inspired you to make positive changes to your own life. I could certainly never be as strict as the author about reducing my trash, but it sounds like there are great ways to work towards it. And I love, LOVE the idea of simplifying life! A couple years ago we moved into a one bedroom apartment, and it has forced me to shed my tendencies to cling to too much stuff… for sentimental reasons, because I think I'll need it someday, whatever. I no longer say yes to things just because they're free, and I feel like I utilize my space better. I'm still working on it, but it feels so good to have less!

  • Reply Becca April 22, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    Wow – this looks fascinating. I can't wait to read it!

  • Reply Kristin Reichert April 29, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    This sounds like a great read! The library has it on order. Can't wait until they have it in!

  • Reply Meridith May 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Huh, what are the problems with the recycling process?

  • Reply Jenn June 11, 2013 at 3:17 am

    Just wanted to let you know I just finished reading this book (based on your review) and I loved, loved, loved it. So many wonderful ideas. And, like you, I love that the focus was not just reducing trash, but simplifying life in general. Her mantra of less stuff in the house = less stuff to clean is wisdom to live by, for sure.

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