This jar contains one year of the Johnson family’s garbage. A growing movement of ‘zero-wasters’ is urging the rest of us to start talking trash.
By Elena Gritzan
How often do you toss something into a garbage can? In the past 24 hours, I have thrown out the cup from my morning coffee, a toothbrush, an apple sticker and the plastic bag from the pasta I cooked last night. That doesn’t seem like so much to me, but those small, seemingly inconsequential moments — putting something into the garbage can and never seeing it again — really do add up.
On average, each Canadian produces 720 kilograms of garbage every year. After it’s collected from the curb and compacted, it’s the same weight as the most heavyset of grizzly bears or a bigger-than-average dairy cow. If you live with just one other person, your household is likely responsible for a yearly mound of garbage as heavy as a walrus. A 2009 report by the Conference Board of Canada ranked 17 developed countries on their rates of municipal waste production. Canada was the worst, producing more garbage per capita than even the United States. In 2012, Canadians collectively sent 25 million tonnes of garbage — as heavy as a pod of 250 blue whales — to landfills. Imagine, instead, if you could collect your yearly garbage inside a single quart-sized mason jar.
Bea Johnson, along with her husband and two children in California, has been doing just that since 2008. Widely considered the founder of the zero-waste lifestyle, she wrote a book about it (Zero Waste Home) and runs a blog (zerowastehome.com), documenting how she shops for groceries with reusable jars and containers, makes toothpaste and eyeliner, and refuses to buy anything that will end up in a landfill. In fact, “refuse” is the first of Johnson’s “5 Rs.” Expanding the well-known 3 Rs, Johnson’s guidelines are “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle or rot (compost).” Johnson doesn’t even own a garbage can.
Shauna Keddy, a 26-year-old studying to become an elementary school teacher, read an article about the lifestyle last year. “The more I read about zero waste, even now that I’ve lived it for over a year, the more passionate about it I become,” she says. She, too, started to spread the word through social media.
Keddy and I met in university and are now Facebook friends. I started noticing her posts about her farmers’ market hauls, bulk shopping finds and toiletry-making experiments in my newsfeed a few months ago. I like to think of myself as relatively environmentally friendly, but seeing what Keddy’s up to really made me think about the big black bag of garbage that leaves my apartment every week or so.
Looking online, it seems Johnson’s lifestyle has sparked a movement. A large network of people are blogging about the choice to eliminate or drastically reduce garbage, in places as far as Australia, South Africa and Germany, as well as here in Canada. There are Facebook groups where members share tips about things like how to make your own deodorant, or which local stores will sell baking soda or dried fruit straight into a mason jar. More than a dozen books have been published on the topic, and zero-waste speakers are giving talks through high profile platforms such as TEDx and Google.
At first, it sounds complicated to stop producing garbage. You have to
change the way you shop, stop buying things on impulse and question your
daily habits. But adherents find that living without waste adds to the
quality of their lives, and it could be an action that saves the
environment from overconsumption, one trash bag at a time.
unpleasant alternative is dealing with a mountain of garbage that grows
by millions of tonnes each year. Not long ago, landfills were major
polluters. Rainwater run-off containing potentially dangerous compounds
could seep into the surrounding soil and groundwater. Methane, a potent
greenhouse gas produced by decomposing organic material, was released
into the air.
Today’s landfills, lined with barriers and
equipped with drainage and filtration systems to stop leaking, are much
safer. But they still have energy costs: since no one wants to live next
to one, garbage from many densely populated areas is transported by
truck to faraway spots, spewing out greenhouse gases along the way. When
people get used to a constant cycle of buying new things and throwing
them out, energy and resources are wasted producing, selling and
And, not all garbage makes it to a
landfill. Litter can contaminate groundwater, act as a fire hazard and
threaten wildlife. At least 4.8 million tonnes of plastic enters the
world’s oceans each year, which can trap creatures or break into pieces
small enough for them to consume. A recent study from Uppsala University
in Sweden showed that young fish would rather eat those tiny plastic
bits than actual food, a choice with devastating consequences: if they
gorge on enough plastic, they starve.
I meet Peggy Cao at a
vegan bakery in Thornhill, Ont., a charming space with imitation
cheesecakes and colourful cupcakes. The barista hands her a receipt for
her green tea latte, and Cao hesitates. “Oh . . . okay,” she says. A
couple of weeks before our meeting, she cleaned out her room and found
148 receipts collected over the course of eight months. Glossy receipts
are made with thermal printing, which is cheaper because it uses heat
instead of ink. But, the special paper that turns black when heated is
coated in BPA, a compound with negative health effects in humans, which
makes them non-recyclable. But since most stores print one automatically
— if you don’t take it, the store will just throw it out anyway — these
persistent shiny papers are part of the tiny amount of unavoidable
waste in Cao’s life.
She’s a 20-year-old computer science and
communications student at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga
campus, and she’s been living and blogging about her zero-waste
lifestyle since January. “I think the
biggest challenge is kind of having to give people a hard time,” she
says. “You have a lot of requests, and sometimes it’s just awkward
because you’re asking for stuff from people.” Like asking a restaurant
not to bring a straw along with a glass of water, or ordering a
Starbucks latte straight into her own travel mug.
“A lot of
people, I think, are really hesitant about trying zero waste because of
where they live,” says Cao. She lived in a Mississauga, Ont., dorm room
when she started, and now lives with her parents in Brampton, Ont. —
neither a location with access to lots of stores that cater to
zero-waste shopping. She makes do, bringing fabric produce bags with her
to shop for groceries while avoiding the pre-packaged, processed food
aisles. But there are some things she can’t avoid, like not having a
place to buy refillable ingredients for her homemade shampoo and body
wash. “I’m very accepting of the fact that I still produce waste,” she
says, “but I try to keep that amount as small as possible for what’s
feasible in my area.”
Brianne Miller (centre) and volunteer Heather McIntosh (right) fill a shopper’s empty jam jar with organic dried mango at a zero-waste pop-up shop in Vancouver. Photo by Amanda Palmer
Currently, zero wasters like Cao have to
shop in stores that aren’t designed to reduce plastic and packaging,
often asking staff to go against usual procedure to put an item into
their own container. But imagine how many more people would be willing
to give it a try if stores made it simple. That’s Brianne Miller’s
vision. The Vancouver-based entrepreneur used to be a marine biologist,
where she saw isolated beaches covered in litter and marine mammals
entangled in plastic bags. “I think it’s really important for people to
make small actions that collectively have a really big impact,” she
says. “So opening a store where zero-waste grocery shopping becomes easy
is, I think, a really great way to encourage people to make those
Along with her business partner, Paula Amiama, Miller
has been running pop-up shops with the goal of opening a permanent
zero-waste market soon. The idea is to make it easier for people to shop
with their own jars and containers. Customers will start by weighing
their empty jars and attaching a bar-code sticker that the digital scale
prints out, which adheres firmly to the jar for future shopping trips.
After the jars are full with anything from honey to laundry detergent,
the checkout system can automatically subtract the weight of the empty
container. If you forget your containers at home, the store will have
clean, used jars available. There’s garbage saved on the way into the
store, too; Miller and Amiama are partnering with local suppliers to
send them products in reusable containers.
“People seem pretty
receptive to the idea,” Miller says. “We’re already keeping track of how
many containers we’ve diverted from the landfill. That number’s already
approaching 2,500 just from the pop-up shops.”
Many people have
some sense that the environment is in trouble. So why do so few of us
actually do anything about it? “Dragons of inaction,” is the phrase
Robert Gifford, psychologist at the University of Victoria, uses to
describe the mental barriers that stop people from significantly
reducing their carbon emissions. Each of us has to slay our own unique
combination of dragons, he says, but they take common forms that can
also be seen in how people deal (or don’t deal) with garbage.
instance, some people don’t know how to reduce the amount of trash they
put out each week. Others believe that there’s nothing they can do as
individuals to address a global problem. Many more would say that
they’re already doing their part by recycling, or perhaps they’re simply
stuck in the habit of buying convenient, packaging-heavy food week
after week. All normal thoughts, but change can’t happen unless
individuals push past them and act in more environmentally friendly
ways. “I use voting as a parallel,” Gifford says. “One vote ‘doesn’t
matter’ — but collectively, it does. And so we must vote.”
Katelin Leblond, 37, in Victoria, the dragons were that she didn’t know
it was possible to live without a garbage can and that her smaller
pro-environmental actions felt meaningless. Then one day in January
2014, she came across a video about Bea Johnson. “I equate it to my
Oprah Winfrey a-ha moment,” she says. “There was no turning back.” She
dove right in, going through her house and putting everything she
thought she could donate or give away into one room. She shared her
enthusiasm with her husband and children (like Johnson, she also has a
dog), as well as her good friend Tara Smith-Arnsdorf, whose family also
joined in on the transformation.
“My perspective on life has
changed,” says Leblond. “Just because society says we do things one way
doesn’t mean that it has to be the way.” Over time, living and shopping
with less waste results in a simpler life, with fewer, cherished objects
instead of materialistic mountains of things.
agrees. “We have less clutter in our brains and less clutter in our
homes,” she says. “It gives us more time to spend with our families and
friends creating experiences rather than worrying about stuff.”
decided to start a blog (paredownhome.com) to get the word out about
zero waste and let people know that the lifestyle is attainable. While
they’d love for everyone to also go to their extreme of having no
garbage can, they mostly want to challenge and inspire people to take a
look at their own habits and cut down in ways that make sense for them.
some evidence that people who act in environmentally friendly ways can
inspire those around them to follow suit. Gifford and then-PhD student
Reuven Sussman studied composting behaviour at restaurants and food
courts. While signs about what to do had no effect on the number of
people who put their food waste in the green bin, those who saw an actor
compost before them were significantly more likely to do so themselves.
“The social implications of this are that one way to inspire
pro-environmental behaviours is to simply do them and talk about them
whenever possible,” they wrote. “Leading by example seems to be an
effective strategy for behaviour change in others.”
full of great advice for those who aren’t sure where to begin: define
your own rules, make one change at a time, create a tangible goal for
how little garbage you want to put on the curb this week. “Just start,”
My first step is to rethink the garbage I’ve created
recently. Instead of throwing out a coffee cup, a toothbrush, produce
stickers or a pasta bag, I can plan ahead and find alternatives: bring a
thermos to the coffee shop, order a plastic-free bamboo toothbrush from
Amazon, shop at my local farmers’ market for produce, pack a mason jar
to buy pasta in bulk. Or at least choose the recyclable box container
instead. It’s all about making one change at a time, and I’m ready to
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