By Sharon Cotliar Susan Young
January 16, 2012 12:00 PM


When Bea Johnson decided her family should stop having any trash to throw out, her husband, Scott, says, “I thought she had lost her mind.” No trash? Just about. Since 2006 the Mill Valley, Calif., couple and their sons have cut down their garbage output so that they now produce only enough in a year to fill a 1-liter mason jar. (The average American leaves behind 1,051 lbs. annually.) Everything else? They reuse, recycle or compost.

Gone are Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap-Bea brings glass jars to the butcher, fish and deli counters to fill with meat, fish and cheese. Cereal or cookie boxes with plastic liners? Banned; she makes her own or buys from bulk bins. Rags replace paper towels, washable pads for cotton balls and toilet paper-well, they still buy toilet paper but recycle the tubes, along with any other cardboard that finds its way home.

Why live this way? “We set out to simplify our lives, and it turned into something good for the environment,” says Bea, 37, an artist (pesky unrecyclable butter wrappers are one medium) who also runs a decluttering business and writes a blog,, on which she documents her low-impact life.

The boys, Max, 11, and Leo, 10, barely notice their life is unusual. They’ve grown up carrying lunches in knotted towels and playing with recycled toys. (Plastic toys they outgrow are donated.) “I don’t want my children to feel deprived,” Bea says. For gifts, they often get experiences like sports outings. But, says Max, sometimes “I’ll bring home things that can’t be recycled,” like the wrapper from his 3-D movie glasses. Scott, 48, despite being an eco-business consultant, admits he became enthusiastic about their lifestyle only after he noticed they were saving money-Bea shops resale stores for clothes, and he estimates they’ve cut 25 percent of their food costs, more than offsetting the premium they pay for green and specialty items. Recently Scott was the one approaching the deli counter with glass jars. When he did, the clerk asked, ” ‘Hey, do you know the jar lady?’ ” he recalls. Scott told him, “I’m married to the jar lady.”


At the super-market, Bea (right) brings sacks for baguettes and food bought from bins, and glass jars for meat. At home the kitchen cabinets are stocked with nuts, dried fruits, peanut butter and pasta. “As long as they have the cereal, fruit and cookies they like, they’re happy,” says Bea. Adds son Leo: “Most of my favorites aren’t in plastic.”


Leo, 10 (with Zizou), snacks from a cloth sack of nuts. Even at school he shuns waste. “It isn’t hard to say no to chips. They are gone in three seconds, then the bag is in the trash.” His and Max’s artwork decorates the stairs.


Now an expert at composting, Scott relies on worms to turn trash into fertilizer for his garden.


They use bamboo toothbrushes and homemade baking soda toothpaste. Bea also makes her own eyeliner, but Scott can’t lose his plastic contact lens case.


• Refuse plastic bags. Bring jars and reusable totes to the store.

• Buy secondhand; if you buy new, choose glass and metal, not plastic.

• Swap disposables for reusables (refillable bottles, cloth napkins, rags).

• Fight junk mail. Get off lists at or

• Turn down freebies; taking them creates more demand. Says Bea: “Do you really need another pen?”

• Download music and videos online instead of buying CDs and DVDs.


Items that can’t be recycled go in a jar under the sink. Packaging from infrequent large purchases (like their computer) gets left behind at the store. “Zero waste is idealistic,” says Bea. “We refuse packaging material as a statement that might lead to more recyclable materials.”

Paint rollers

Plastic tie from a pair of shoes

Plastic hanger straps from a dress

Plastic cork covers from wine bottles

Plastic casing from an electrical cord

Candy wrapper


Clothes tags

Old plastic toothbrush

Masking tape

Packaging of home repair/electrical items

A fruit sticker