Two Sides of the Very Same Coin

zero_waste_home_jacket_500You have to admit, that of all the staggering statistics about plastic in my last post, that the one that probably stayed with you was that small statistic at the end, when I discussed how Bea Johnson was able to reduce the trash output for her family of four to one quart for a whole year. In our modern world, that seems nearly impossible. So I read her book, just to see how she did it. AND, lo and behold, guess what’s behind the one-quart achievement? Minimalism, though she doesn’t really call it that. It turns out that trash reduction and Minimalism are just two sides of the very same coin. In fact, other “sides of the coin” could also include plastics reduction, energy conservation, healthier living, money savings, and perhaps even time savings; all very-related aspects of the same general impetus of living more intentionally.

So, Johnson and her husband first devoted themselves to shrinking, in a thoughtful way, their material possessions and footprint. They moved to a much smaller house that was within walking distance of nearby amenities, dropped down to one vehicle, and decluttered all the rooms in their house. They cut down to a bare minimum of clothes, to only the necessary items in the kitchen, and they reduced their electronic distractions, in return for more time spent as a family and less time tending to their material possessions. When they were done paring down, THEN she turned her attention to minimizing waste. And once you realize how she did this part it seems rather obvious. You can’t “disappear” trash once it’s in your home, so you have to NOT BRING IT HOME. Johnson spent a large amount of time figuring out her methods (she initially was striving for zero trash AND zero recycling, but found that to be too high of a hurdle in terms of her sanity, so they have settled for striving for zero trash and very-low recycling), but, once she perfected her system, it doesn’t seem that difficult. Now, this post is only a very short summary of the family’s endeavors, but the Johnsons bring reusable containers and bags of various sorts with them when they go shopping for food, and shop mostly in the bulk, produce, and deli sections of their local natural-food stores. She then cooks meals from these wholesome ingredients, using a list of recipes that she has selected that can be made with the bulk foods that she has available. The family buys used clothing and other used goods when they can, and for many household items, such as basic cosmetics and toothpaste, she makes her own.

Want to see how it’s done? A great little video about Lauren Singer, a resident of New York City, who also lives a zero-waste lifestyle—

In short, Bea Johnson summarizes her method as the “Five R’s”– Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (compost). And, she stresses that these efforts need to occur in that particular order. I won’t try to recap all of her material here, but I did want to include a couple of her points–

— We should avoid advertising and marketing. I was surprised to see a discussion of advertising in this book about trash, but it made sense when I though about it. In fact, a quote from the book is in order here—

“Media exposure (television, magazines) and leisure shopping can provide a great deal of inspiration; however, the targeted marketing that funds the former and the clever merchandising that promotes the latter tend to make us feel unfit, uncool, and inadequate. These feelings make it easy to succumb to temptations in order to satisfy perceived needs. Controlling our exposure can have a tremendous effect not just on our consumption but also on our happiness. Find satisfaction with what you already have.”

–Once you realize that your actions and consumption are having negative consequences, then you really only have a few choices—you can deny that it is happening, you can lapse into “eco-depression”, or you can begin to change and take action. And if you don’t think that you can go as far as Bea Johnson did, I would posit that any action is better than no action, and some of them are really quite easy. For instance, it’s not all that hard to quit using single-use plastic shopping bags, or to quit putting your compostable material in the trash. And once you’re comfortable with that, then you could take further steps. Every little bit matters.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

So, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last week, after reading three consecutive books about trash and recycling, is that average Americans create trash in incredible volumes, and nearly thoughtlessly. Disposability has become ingrained in our culture, even though it’s a recent addition. A concerted effort to reserve that trend may be long overdue.

Note, May 2016: After a year of paying attention to packaging and zero-trash, I’ve arrived at a more nuanced view of the subject, see this post, “No Perfect System—Yet“.

Minimalism image credit: Tommerton2010, Flickr Creative Commons.