The small, bright kitchen in the Green Lake house that Stephanie Wall shares with her husband and toddler is neat as a pin. This might be because she knew a reporter was coming by, but it’s also because she’s embraced a lifestyle that consciously avoids accumulation, particularly of items that can’t be reused, recycled or composted.
Her minimalism is partly due to her family background. “I had a close relative who I always thought of as an amateur hoarder,” she says. Seeing that way of life, she and one of her cousins used to talk about how they didn’t want to accumulate too much stuff when they grew up.
Yet, when she moved to Seattle from Minnesota in 2003 for college, Wall found herself dragging more than she needed across the country, cramming it into her dorm room and even a storage room. She had a bag of extra shoes she never wore and a collection of old magazines she didn’t even look at. “My friends would kind of give me grief,” she says.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: Stephanie Wall and her husband Zach, with their son Wesley, are committed to producing less waste. They take these mesh bags to the grocery store to bag their produce; jars are used for other goods purchased in the bulk-food section
Though some of that stuff reminded her of home, she eventually felt that it got in the way. She started thinking about how to simplify her life and read a book on the topic. “It talked about how, in clearing your physical space, you clear your mind,” she says. Then, in 2010, she stumbled upon a blog that changed her life.
“Bea Johnson...I think they call her the priestess of zero waste,” says Wall of the author of the Zero Waste Home blog.
“Zero waste” is the name of a lifestyle movement and philosophy devoted to reducing personal consumption and generating less trash. Proponents frequently refer to Johnson as their inspiration. She’s a French woman transplanted to Marin County, California, who popped on the scene in an exquisitely stylish Sunset magazine spread about a decade ago. The article made finding ways to avoid generating trash look even more chic than shopping. In addition to her popular blog, Johnson wrote a very successful 2013 book of the same title, Zero Waste Home.
If Johnson has a symbol, it would be a glass jar. Such jars serve a variety of purposes. There’s the pint-size glass “landfill” jar of garbage her family has acquired that can’t be composted or recycled. Since 2008, they have managed to bring so little waste into their home that they usually only need to fill one jar per year, which contains objects like produce stickers, an empty pen refill and a broken hair tie.
There are also the glass jars that the zero-waste priestess fills with food and other products from bulk bins and the grocery deli (rather than buying packaged items). She also uses them for storage in her cupboards. These are the jars that attracted Wall. “I saw Bea’s blog and I was so attracted to her aesthetic, because she had these beautiful Le Parfait glass canning jars, and she had them in this beautiful see-through cabinet in her kitchen.”
But there’s a serious purpose behind the beauty of living with less. Americans generate about 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day. Annually, we pile up about 254 million tons of waste, of which approximately 53 percent is trashed, usually ending up in a landfill. The rest is recycled or composted.
Much of that waste is plastic, and we’re producing more of it than ever. A recent report from the American Chemistry Council shows that nearly 700 new or expanded plastic processing facilities had been proposed in the U.S. since June 2012.“What’s happened is that, because of fracking in the U.S., we have a lot of natural gas, and it can be processed into the building blocks for plastics,” says Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a nonprofit organization advocating for products that can be recycled and reused.
Mountainous landfills, plastic in the oceans, plastic in the guts of turtles, seabirds and whales: These are some of the reasons people give for reducing their consumption of plastic, and many of those people are Seattleites. The city, of course, has been at the forefront of the drive to reduce plastic and other waste: mandating strategies like composting, banning plastic bags in 2012, and most recently, banning plastic straws and cutlery.
CLEAR CONTAINMENT: Stephanie Wall’s refrigerator is stocked with bulk food products and scratch-made food, all stored in reusable glass jars. She stores spices, bought from the bulk section of a grocery store, in small jars on her refrigerator door.
Refillable and reusable containers are neatly arranged in a drawer
But zero-waste proponents take these efforts a step further. They go to the grocery store loaded—not just with reusable grocery bags, but also with cloth bags and jars they can fill in the bulk section; they bring their own to-go containers, not just to the coffee shop, but to pick up takeout food. They join online neighborhood groups like Buy Nothing, through which people can post requests for items they need or images of stuff they have to give away. And they start groups, like the social and educational group Seattle Zero Waste, which Wall helped found in January 2018, because they’d love to see others join in the effort. The Seattle Zero Waste Facebook group has seen constant growth since January, with 533 members in mid-July and growing attendance at quarterly events. (Its biggest event, hosting Bea Johnson, sold out at 200 people, and there was a waiting list.) Says Wall, “The sentiment I hear often from members is, ‘I am so glad I found this community. I thought I was alone living zero waste in Seattle.’”
Wall started her zero-waste journey by reading Johnson’s blog, and then began working on following the “Five R’s” that Johnson promotes to cut down on waste: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot—in that order. Most people are familiar with those middle three words. The others require some explanation. “Refuse” is about saying no to things you don’t need—like a plastic straw for your drink at a restaurant or an extra plastic bag on your meat at the grocery store. “Rot,” in this case, refers to composting. (Wall also proposes adding a sixth “R,” for relationships, as she and others share ideas and community while reducing their waste.)
BULKING UP: Stephanie Wall buys food from the bulk section of grocery stores to avoid the usual packaging.
Dental hygiene involves compostable bamboo toothbrushes; Bite Toothpaste Bits, tablets that are a type of toothpaste but come in a refillable glass bottle; and Dental Lace, a plastic-free dental floss
On a tour of her house, Wall opens drawers in the kitchen to reveal glass and metal containers, many collected from secondhand stores or a Buy Nothing group in her neighborhood. She opens her refrigerator door to show that rather than plastic tubs containing common Seattle refrigerator staples such as hummus, sour cream and yogurt, there are glass storage containers of scratch-made food (including hummus), and a refillable glass jug of locally made Rachel’s Ginger Beer. Her freezer contains homemade baby food and homemade vegetable broth, in freezer-safe glass jars. When her son, Wesley, wakes up, she puts him in a high chair and hands him a spoon and half an avocado that had been stored in the fridge encased in its peel, no plastic wrap necessary.
Wesley’s brightly colored Exersaucer is the only plastic in sight, and, like many other items in the house, Wall picked it up secondhand, and will pass it along again when Wesley outgrows it. Her kitchen cupboards are filled with her favorite, Johnson-inspired Le Parfait jars full of bulk foods she uses in cooking, such as garbanzo beans and flour, mostly purchased at the PCC store a few blocks from her house. There are no bags of chips, granola bars or boxes of crackers. Wall does buy Cheerios for her toddler to snack on. “I just get the biggest box they have and use the plastic bag for a garbage liner,” she says, for the little waste her household does generate.
Other signs of a zero waster: a big basket of hand-me-down rags she uses instead of paper towels; refillable glass liquid soap jars (which Wall crafted from Goodwill purchases) on the bathroom counter; pieces cut from an old washcloth to fill in for cotton balls. Cloth diapers for her son. A Diva menstrual cup instead of tampons or pads for her. The clothes in her closet come from secondhand stores. Wall has relied on her Buy Nothing group for collecting baby things before and during her pregnancy, from onesies to a wipe warmer. When these items are no longer needed, “we just put it back to the community,” she says. Her family of three creates about 1 pound of landfill trash every one to two weeks, and she estimates they have reduced their waste by 91.5 percent.
If this sounds like it could be a lot of work, that’s probably true, particularly for people just beginning to live with less waste. It requires going against the single-use tide. “Zero waste is the goal, but it is not possible in our current infrastructure,” says Wall. Our society is built around throwing things away. You can’t go zero waste at the grocery store without bringing your own containers, and then cleaning them instead of tossing them.
The lifestyle all but requires making more food from scratch than many people are accustomed to. Many items we use daily, such as toothpaste and toothbrushes, nearly always come in nonrecyclable plastic packaging. Even if we bring home less single-use packaging, it still comes to us: while traveling, at work and in the mail. Buying secondhand or using neighborhood sharing groups such as Buy Nothing requires the time to check back repeatedly until you find the items you seek. But zero wasters say reducing consumption can also free up time because you shop less. And it can also save you money.
“Our grocery bill has been cut in half from going zero waste,” says April Dickinson, a Shoreline-area married mom with a preschooler, a kindergartner and a part-time job in communications for the Washington State Budget and Policy Center. (Her husband works full-time.) Dickinson says she even manages to buy more organic products than she used to, but saves money because she buys in bulk, cooks from scratch rather than spending extra for premade meals and sticks to a meal plan. “We don’t have a fridge stuffed full of food, and our pantry, much to my partner’s chagrin, is pretty bare,” she says.
But saving money wasn’t her first motivation for waste reduction. “I have eco-anxiety up the yin-yang,” she says. She became serious about moving toward zero waste about two years ago after watching an episode of Inside Man, a CNN documentary series; that particular episode is titled “United States of Trash” and is narrated by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. “He talked about how, when he puts his garbage on the curb, he’s done thinking about it,” says Dickinson. “But he made a big point that someone has to deal with all this garbage. It doesn’t just disappear. That was my big moment—there’s this whole infrastructure we’ve created to deal with the stuff we throw away.”
Dickinson considers herself to be 75–80 percent toward reaching zero waste. She might sometimes cave on a bag of chips, for instance, if her family pushes hard enough. “I consider them more of a luxury item now.”
MAKING PROGRESS: April Dickinson, whose spouse isn’t as committed as she is to zero waste, has still managed to greatly reduce her family’s contribution to the waste stream
But she has stopped buying individually wrapped pieces of cheese, small tubs of yogurt, granola bars and coffee in to-go cups. If she gets café pastries, she puts them in her own container rather than take a bag. She brings either glass jars or cloth bags to the grocery store for bulk items. If she runs out of those containers, she will grab a paper bakery bag for a bulk item rather than use plastic and keep reusing the bag until it gets a hole in it.
She is also price-conscious, because although she and her husband have healthy incomes, they are focused on paying off debt. Occasionally, she says, she might choose an item packaged unsustainably if it’s substantially cheaper than the better alternative. And there are some things that are just hard to find without a lot of packaging. She’s half-Chinese, likes to eat Chinese snacks and finds it almost impossible to buy them in bulk. “All the Chinese snacks are wrapped in plastic,” she says. “Some of my favorite holiday foods, like glutinous rice ball soup, are actually triple-packaged.” Her hair is curly, and she and some other zero wasters with curly hair bemoan the bulk shampoo and conditioner that is inadequate for their hair texture.
Dickinson also speaks to another challenge of reducing consumption: living with others, like her husband, who don’t share her interest in zero waste. When he cooks (less frequently than she does), he sometimes makes ready-made meals that come in a plastic bag. On the other hand, he has grown to like shopping for clothing at consignment stores, she says. “He’s thinking about his dollar stretching farther, whereas I’m thinking about that, but more about reusability.”
Dickinson is also aware that zero waste is not an accessible lifestyle for everyone. If you are reliant on public transportation and don’t live near a grocery with bulk bins or good, unpackaged produce, for example, it’s likely impossible to do waste-free grocery shopping.
“When we talk about accessibility, what do we really mean?” she asks. “Bulk bins? More urban farming? How does that food get to the people who need it? Where does the burden lie? On individuals or on manufacturers?”
And when individuals have to do most of the work, even if it saves money, it can take too much time. “If people are just worried about feeding their families, if a single parent is trying to get dinner on the table, plastic packaging is probably not their number-one concern,” she says.
But most people can do something to reduce waste, proponents say. Start small. Bring your own grocery bags when you go food shopping. Don’t use plastic bags when you buy produce; instead, go without or bring along reusable produce bags. Store leftovers in reusable containers and skip plastic wrap. Consider buying clothing and other items at secondhand stores. Trade items with friends and neighbors. Use what you already have, rather than buying more. And don’t worry about not doing it perfectly.
Says Deb Seymour, another Seattleite who is reducing her consumption and blogs about it at Deb Goes Green, “There’s no such thing as a bad zero waster.”
So you want to reduce?
These resources will help you on your way
Buy Nothing Facebook groups: Visit buynothingproject.org for more info, or search for your neighborhood Buy Nothing Facebook group.
Pioneering the Simple Life: Website created by one of the Bainbridge Island founders of Buy Nothing.
Seattle Zero Waste: A group on Facebook and Instagram offering zero-waste dilemma solutions and inspiration. It also organizes social meetups every third Wednesday of the month, with details on its Facebook page. Join its email list by contacting email@example.com.
Stores: Stores that have bulk bins include PCC, Ballard Market, Whole Foods, Central Market and Safeway. A new shop for a variety of bulk soaps is Public Goods and Services. West Seattle, 3836 California Ave. SW. Eco Collective sells alternatives to single-use and plastic products. It also sells items at the South Lake Union Saturday Market and the Sunday Fremont Sunday Market. Ballard, 5201 Ballard Ave NW
Home salvage: Second Use
Policy-change work: zerowastewashington.org
Blogs and Instagram: Bloggers and Instagram users are a great source of tips and inspiration for going zero waste, and Seattle has a wealth of them.