Bea Johnson lives waste-free with her family since 2008 and is the author of the bestseller Zero Waste Home (Zéro Déchet en francais)
"Since embarking on the Zero Waste lifestyle, our lives have changed for the better: We feel happier and lead more meaningful lives, based on experiences instead of stuff. My goal is to share its incredible health, financial and time saving benefits!"

Zero Waste Home’s Last Resort: Recycling

At a party, when people first find out that I run a zero waste household, they like to share with me that they “too” recycle everything…

I need to clarify something:

Running a Zero Waste Household is NOT ABOUT RECYCLING.

It’s about REFUSING first and foremost.

Home waste management starts outside the home - and then the disposal of what you refuse does not even need to be addressed. For those items that we do allow in our home, we practice the '3R' mantra (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle) religiously and IN ORDER. Recycling is the last resort. A Zero Waste Home is not just about kicking the trash can, but is primarily about refusing the unnecessary packaging as much as possible, therefore reducing recycling (what goes in your recycling is, afterall, a home “reject”, or a “waste”, isn’t it?).

Furthermore, only a percentage of what we recycle, actually gets recycled. However, the cleaner the material that you recycle, the more likely it will be recycled (no, no, your pizza box can’t go in there).

So here is what to keep in mind when shopping, based on an article I found in Co-Op America Quarterly magazine: A simple list of what gets Recycled (can be recycled again) vs. Downcycled (made into an un-recyclable lesser kind of product).
- Aluminum - recycled
- Steel – recycled
- Glass – recycled
- Paper – downcycled (about eight times)
- Plastics #1 and 2 – downcycled (generally once)
- Plastics #3 to 7 – rarely downcycled
- Plastic bags – sometimes downcycled

As for "compostable" bio-plastics - it is "Buyer Beware": Only hot city composts can actually compost them, your backyard variety can't. Not all city composts accept them either (our local trash hauler won’t for example). Some people also mistakenly recycle them, which mucks up the recycling stream. With all that in mind, their disposal becomes worse than "real" plastics.

All things considered: when buying a new product (or a used product for that matter, since its eventual disposal will become your responsibility), I believe that it is best to favor aluminum (unless it comes in contact with food), steel or glass, all of which can be easily recycled again and again. Note: Some aluminum containers are plastic coated.

What’s in our recycling bin this week? As little as we could:
- Two empty bottles of white wine since I have not found a refillable white that is drinkable yet.
- Two envelopes from medical statements (no online billing option).
- One paper label, from a lemonade bottle with an attached reusable cap that I am saving for a wine refill.
- A few paper notes printed/handwritten on both sides and corners ;) since I take a break from paper making in the rainy season.
- An empty roll of TP since, you guessed it, we still don’t have solar (Zero Waste Bathroom).
- One flyer from Comcast since (damn it!) I am still fighting their junk mail . I have called them so many times…they won’t leave us alone!

I know Scott wishes that we had beer bottles on the list - but their caps don’t recycle… and the refillable jug doesn’t work for an occasional drink of beer after a hard days work in the yard.

What’s in your recycling?


  1. i've been wanting to ask:

    what do you do when you purchase a new pair of jeans that have tags attached, EVERYWHERE?

    also, what do you do with your grocery receipts? do you keep them? do you refuse them from the cashier?

    although i've been able to significantly lower our waste (only one grocery bag worth of garbage this week! *MY* small accomplishment) i'm still finding it hard to lower some of my recycling... (see above) i have gotten a hold of junk mail companies (would you like a line of credit? how about cheap cable?) but i still can't part with our newspaper... what do you do in these cases?

  2. Anonymous3/13/2010

    Your post makes me feel a little hopeless... even when I think I'm doing something right it turns out, at best, to have been not worth the effort, and judging by what you wrote above, more likely to have been worse than no effort. Why can't this information be easier to come by and take action on? Why does it seem like we are always only getting part of the story, and not the most relevant parts? How am I supposed to baby-step my way into meaningful, lasting change (because I'm going to have to make the effort to educate my entire household and skeptical parents when they visit) when it requires so much detailed effort to find out what the right steps are that I feel defeated before I even start?

  3. Re: Wine: Have you tried contacting a home vintner in Napa or Sonoma who will swap labor for a share of the wine, you save the bottles for reuse? Or a small winery that might work with you that way?

  4. I admire your efforts and I agree with your motto of refuse, refuse, refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle I think it is probably a little easier for you in California than it is in suburban Michigan. Packaging becomes a bit more of an issue when you have cold weather for months on end and local grown produce only comes a few months out of the year. I envy the availability of a Whole Foods or similar grocer that cares about sustainability. While your story is inspiring it isn't as realistic 1/2 a continent away. ;)

  5. Ryder: Congratulations on your trash reduction, looks like you're doing great!
    I will cover the jeans issue in my upcoming "Zero Waste Closet" article (mid April).
    For the receipts: I reuse my grocery store receipts (the back is blank) for my car notepad held together with a metal clip, and then recycle it or use it in my homemade paper. I like to keep an eye on what they charge me, they often make mistakes.
    Although my recycling hauler tells me to recycle all my receipts, I have read that not all receipts are recyclable (shiny type for ex.) so I prefer to refuse as many as possible. There are some great business models out there for a receipt-free future. Can't wait.
    As for your newspaper... I think you already know the answer to your question.

  6. wow!!!
    i have recently discovered your blog(nyt mentioned it) i am amazed by your efforts to run a zero waste home. thanks for the inspiration!

    jean in plastic filled atlanta

  7. Anonymous: Please don't get discouraged! Your trying is the 1st step!

  8. Lisa van Oosterum3/15/2010

    I am curious why you don't burn appropriate paper in a fireplace instead of recycling? I love this blog. It has been such an inspiration. Thank you for doing this!!

  9. Cindy: Thanks for your idea about the home vintner in Napa. Perhaps they'll have some ideas.
    I have contacted numerous wineries and wine organizations in our wine country (Marin, Napa, Sonoma) with no result. We've been told that the price of the land is too expensive here for wine growers to offer wine refilling...
    I am not sure that chipping in labor would be a good lasting option for us with babysitting, travel and accomodation costs (based on the one winery I have looked at in the past). Again, I am all for a simple/easy zero waste lifestyle but I am open to the home vintner suggestions!

  10. Michael: I am sure that your weather poses some real challenges (no farmer's market in the winter) but you can get started by:
    using a grocery tote, switching to microfiber cloths instead of paper towels, using cloth napkins and non-plastic dishware/flatware, bringing a reusable cup to the coffee shop, bringing your own jar to the deli/cheese/meat/fish counter, working on stopping your junk mail, printing on both sides of paper. If you can do these, you'll be 80% of the way!

  11. One of my favorite topics!!! Thank you for getting this message out there Bea!
    Re: the reader's comment about burning paper - here is a link that might help:

  12. Bea Bea Bea. You are great, your ideas are terrific, all the moms at our little school in Sausalito read the nytimes article and we're fascinated. BUT!!!! you gotta cut down on the judgement or you will alienate instead of educate! Come on sister, get a little gentleness going on. (And let your husband have a beer, or you'll end up on your own having to work full time and, I promise, you won't have time to make
    homemade mustard anymore)

    Finally - as a fellow yogurt maker, you could solve your starter problem by buying the quart jar of the artisanal yogurt (St. Benoit I think) at Whole Foods. It is in a ball jar and you just pay a deposit and take it back, just like the Strauss. It isn't organic however... but local at any rate.

    Keep on trucking girl. But I'd sure like to see you be nicer while you change the world.

  13. Anonymous3/17/2010

    Hear, hear!!

  14. Thanks so much for reading the blog! and Thanks for your feedback: your comment cracked me up though.
    I am sorry if you feel that my tone of voice is too "mean". Perhaps my french heritage coming out? I also and obviously would not be writing this today if I were not strongly passionate about the cause I choose to defend. Should I be blamed for being passionate? (would you like my blog more if I chose to be passionate about "being nicer"?)
    As for my husband, he is free to do whatever he wants, he can buy the beer if he wants to, but HE chooses not to and chooses to support our Zero Waste efforts. (Thank you Scott, I love you!)
    As for St Benoit: I cannot buy his yogurt because of the plastic ring around the top (meant for the landfill). I have been in contact with Benoit himself, and he said that he is looking for alternatives to the ring. I can only hope that he chooses a recyclable or compostable material. (oops, did that just sound "not nice"?)

    1. Anonymous3/20/2012

      In Beas defense, she is not rude. She speaks as a French woman would. If you travel outside the US, you would understand that.

      It is common in other countries to speak more directly, more specifically and more sincerely without falseness.

      For instance; while traveling I was asked "are you going to xyz or not?" (insert action for xyz). It sounds confrontational and rude at first, but then you realize it isn't, its just being more direct.

      There is no sugar coating what is happening to the planet and our bodies. The food packaging has bpas in them that cause cancer. Your makeup and toiletries have chemicals that Europeans have banned. Europeans refuse to eat our genetically modified vegetables and fruits.

      If you can't handle Beas tone, I suggest you stick to your small town small minded ways and don't ever travel to another country because it might hurt your feelings too much when people speak differently than you.

  15. Hey Bea - Here are some great ideas for what to do with beer caps:

    You should really just suggest to Scott that he starts brewing his own beer - preferably in Grolsch-style reusable bottles - I'm more than happy to help him do quality control:)

  16. Anonymous3/17/2010

    As the husband of the author, I definitely appreciate the support on the beer front. But to be clear (and a bit fair), I am on a quest myself to try to reduce my impact. As a result of my work across a variety of industries, and seeing people like Saul Griffith speak (check it out here - it will blow you away - skip to chapter two:, I became motivated to do what I can to reduce my carbon footprint, and so have been pretty supportive of this entire process - and am willing to try different adjustments (e.g., giving up TV is the best thing I have ever done...on the other hand, the jury is out on the beer).

    That said, I do agree with encouraging people as much as possible to do the right things - and Bea can be a bit heavy on the french sarcasm...but I cannot argue with her passion on the topic - it's why I love her too!

    Besides, at the end of the day, when we are both done with our jobs, I would rather sit down to talk about it over a nice glass of wine...(Just don't tell her that I also have the occasional beer with my buddies :)

    FYI - you can track your carbon footprint on Saul's website at

  17. I love this blog. Great ideas and inspiration! Please keep up the discussion and posts.

  18. Hi Scott and Bea,

    Thanks for responding to my post. Bea, I think what you are doing is fanfreakingtastic. I just have noticed in my own efforts that my "passion" can land with others as "craziness" (the time I told the ice-cream peruser at Mill Valley market that he should close the freezer door because it was wasting energy comes to mind. oh, cringe). And when that happens, open minds and open hearts tend to close right up.

    This stuff is just too important to lose a bunch of potential evolving environmentalists because they sense judgement... so, anyway, thanks for letting me speak my piece. And, regarding the beer... that new microbrewery on Throckmorton might just solve all our problems! See you there...


  19. Hi Kathleen and Thanks for coming back to my blog! ;)
    I can't wait for Beerworks to open also. Beer, cider, ginger ale, and rootbeer in refillable containers a couple blocks away, a dream!
    I have been checking on their progress weekly. Too bad the owners are not very good at returning emails. I would love to know when the opening will be and would not want to miss it for the world. See you then!

  20. Anonymous3/18/2010

    Hi Bea,

    I love your blog. I think your passion is great, and it's nice to know I'm not the only one who heads to the grocery store with an arsenal of cloth bags for produce and bulk goods. (I get stares and comments all the time, including a checkout guy at my local Whole Foods who told me, "That's way hardcore.")

    I have a few questions for you:
    1) Do you have a garden or grow any of your own food?
    2) Do you struggle at all to reconcile eating meat with your environmental values?
    3) What is your children's attitude toward waste outside your home? Do they try to teach their friends and classmates about the Zero Waste lifestyle, or do they rebel and stuff the trash cans of their classrooms?

    Thanks for all you do - you're an inspiration!

  21. Anonymous3/20/2010

    Bea, my questions are mostly about food. What do you send your boys with to school to eat and what do you cook at home that is all for scratch. we live in NY which means the winter is pretty brutal and we do try to eat locally but it seems that a lot of things are packaged or encased in plastic, etc.

  22. Ella:
    I liked you comment... it reminded me of a Whole Foods deli counter associate who told me: "zero waste? sounds worse that the strictest of diets" ;)
    I will answer your questions 1 and 3 in upcoming articles. As for the meat, it has not been difficult because we've weaned ourselves off slowly. The problem is that when I go to France, where meat is such an important part of the diet, I end up eating more of it and have to wean myself off all over again, upon my return home. It's like a yo-yo diet. My mom likes to treat me to the dishes I grew up with (a way of commemorating the past) but this summer, we'll do it differently.

  23. So this is going to be a little TMI, but on the TP front, have you thought of exploring good old soap and water? I realize you're waiting for a solar panel for your automatic toilet, but cultures all across the world have been TP free for thousands of years (India and Southeast Asia come to mind). All it takes is a little louche or something of the kind (some people use those big cups they get for their coins in Vegas..some have hoses attached to a spray, like a portable bidet) or one of these , and some soap.

    This practice is why some cultures will only eat with their "clean" hand, although I see no need to worry about the "dirty" hand as long as it is properly washed every time.

    The way I see it, you can reuse something you already have like an old jar or bowl and reduce by not having to buy the cushy toilet seat. As for recycle...well I think that takes a whole different kind of toilet--one that involves digging a hole. ;)

  24. Hi Marie-France: Thanks for your comment.
    I have travelled the countries that you mentioned and have naturally considered these tp alternatives (incl. reusable cloths). Scott will not consider it though. And I have not push it because I doubt that our young boys could do a good job of it without trailing our white house ;). We already have trouble getting them to wash their hands before eating...
    My idea is to install an attached bidet, japanese style. I think it would fit our household needs better.

  25. Can you ask your husband to share some tips for how he gave up TV? My husband is very supportive of our quest for zero waste, self sustainability, etc. but cant seem to live without his european soccer games and the NBA. Help! :)

  26. Anonymous4/19/2010

    From the husband (Scott): I too love watching sports - soccer and college football are my favorites. Since we no longer have a cable tv connection, I get my fix using several different websites:
    - (soccer, nba, college football/basketball)
    - (links to profootball / soccer - I have been catching Olympique Marseille's title run in the French League)
    - CBS also carried all the College basketball tournament online as well
    - Non-sports related: You can catch shows like The Office on

    I have a connection to our tv (which we only use for netflix movies). Downside: The website video is not HD quality. Upside: Limited commercials.

  27. Thanks so much for these resources, Scott. I will be passing them on to my husband!

  28. Anonymous4/30/2010

    Hi Bea --
    I just wanted to lend a voice of support for your extremity -- termed "meanness" -- above.

    It is your zero tolerance attitude that makes you so inspiring. I have spoken to so many people this week who can not get you out of their minds. It is like you are following us around and we are seeing things like straws and copious packaging on the "eco baby cup" through your eyes.

    So, while I may be struggling to take a few small steps... I don't necessarily feel judged by you... but inspired. (By the way... a red headed woodpecker just alighted on the branch outside my window... watching him as I type...)

    Anyway... A few recent breakthroughs for our family: We do take out food fairly often. I recently started asking for the food to be packaged "for here." There is still a galling amount of waste, but about half that were it packaged "to go." And I am mustering the courage to bring in our stainless steel containers for the next time we order out.

    Thanks Again! Keep being mean er extreme... um passionate!

  29. Bea, I appreciate your blog! I also admire you for posting the response from the lady who talked about 'being mean'. I don't think your blog sounds harsh at all. In fact, I am fascinated by it. You have a lot of fantastic ideas... Thanks for all you do for the environment!

  30. Sorry Kimberly, I had to remove your comment because it contained an ad (ads without my consent are deleted).

  31. Anonymous12/29/2010

    Beer caps (metal) are recyclable in Colorado as scrap metal.

  32. Anonymous2/22/2011

    Thanks above-anonymous! I'm a CO dweller and just had the 'aw hell!' thought reading Bea's above suggestions. If ever there were a place to piece together beers and eco-friendliness, it's Colorado. ;o)

  33. I use envelopes I get in the mail from businesses to send letters to my sister, just cover up the print with pictures or scrap paper and write over it. :)

  34. Bea - you may want to consider going partial on the cloth TP. We've cut our paper TP rate substantially by this. Meaning, my 4 year old and 7 year old girls and I use cloth TP, and place it in a small dedicated (covered) trash can in the bathroom, until it's time for it to go into the wash. My husband uses paper TP solely. Some friends of mine use cloth TP for #1 and paper for #2. Just a few thoughts to help either you, or other readers, with babysteps.

  35. What is your take on Preserve products? I have been purchasing their toothbrushes for my son and myself. After you are done with the brushes, you mail them back in the package (I buy mine in bulk and use a box found at work). You print the mailing label online and they take all #5 plastics and turn them back into other products. This is also an option for people using #5 plastics from purchasing yogurt in containers. Just an option but I'm new to this whole zero waste plan :)

  36. Hi Catherine: I answered your question elsewhere. But I think it's best to have my comment under this post:
    Thanks for mentioning the Preserve toothbrush. Although, I love the new, double duty, packaging that Preserve has adopted since I wrote about them in the Zero Waste Bathroom posting, I still can't get myself to buy more plastic when biodegrable alternatives are available.
    It would only support our society's addiction to plastics.
    The Preserve toothbrushes are made from yogurt/cottage cheese containers, which I do not support or buy to start with. Then they are made into un-recyclable plastic benches or decks which I would not buy either, nor would I want these to furnish my kids future. Plastics are an un-closable loop, the end product (here a plastic bench) always ends up in the lanfill. So while these toothbrushes seem like a good idea at 1st, they only temporarily divert plastic from the lanfill.
    I believe that the right toothbrush has not yet made it on the US market. I'll wait for it impatiently using the compostable kind.
    (Besides, I am not sure that shipping Preserve toothbrushes to stores and then sending 12 of them back individually for recycling within the US, is any better than shipping a pack of 12 bamboo ones accross the Pacific).

  37. Susan d8/09/2011

    Thanks again for all the great info. I know that you like to bake and I'm wondering how you grease your baking dishes for things like cookies and muffins. Normally I use a bit of wax paper to spread the butter but i'm sure you have probably figured out a better way.

  38. Thanks for your question, Susan: I do not grease my cookie sheets -my cookies have enough butter in them that they come off easily. I do not make muffins.
    When baking a quiche in a dish, I spread a bit of butter with my fingers.

  39. Susan d8/29/2011

    Thanks so much Bea for your reply. I guess you could use your fingers really for greasing any baking pans/dishes.

  40. Anonymous9/04/2011

    One suggestion for adding husband is a homebrewer and reuses his bottles with the porcelain lids (like the nicer Grolsch bottles). Hate to see someone go without beer!:-)

  41. This is very interesting, as I was just thinking about needing to reduce our need to recycle. We are mad recyclers - our bin is always full, which is better then the landfill BUT it would be even better if we could not have the waste! I am planning on taking a hard look at our recycling and seeing how we can reduce! Thanks for the inspiration and info

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