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!"

Frustrating yearly tally, cheered up by Solar

Yep! By the look of the blog, you’ve guessed it! We are getting solar!

Solar has been on our wish list for years but with Scott quitting his job in 2008 to take on a sustainability start-up, our financial priorities have laid elsewhere (mostly survival and mortgage) and our dream put on the back burner. But the incredible cumulative savings that this lifestyle offers, has finally afforded us a solar installation! And I am so excited about it.

It comes at a perfect time in our ZeroWaste journey.

I looked at our yearly landfill tally last month and realized that we hit a plateau. Compared with the previous year, our solid waste reduction is no longer dramatically getting smaller – and thankfully, not getting bigger either ;). There are things we simply cannot refuse, reduce, or find used. There are things that create waste simply from maintaining a house and tending our bodies.

Our tally this past year (Oct 2010-Oct 2011), comprised of:
  • State Farm car insurance cards (laminated paper).
  • Five tiny paint rollers and masking tape from a fall paint project (stripes in living room)
  • An 5-year old plastic toothbrush that I have used/worn-out for cleaning grout.
  • Packaging of home repair/ electrical items
  • Plastic cork wrapper of some wine bottles
  • Photo (from a birthday party invitation)
  • Backing of postal stamps
  • Plastic sealers from Scott's contact lens solution
  • Couple of itchy clothes tags
  • Plastic tie from a pair of shoes
  • Plastic hanging straps from a dress
  • Plastic casing from Romex wire used in an electrical repair
  • Scotch tape bits
  • Plastic"size" strip from a new pair of jeans
  • Plastic warning tag from an electrical cord
  • Plastic wrap from a friend's leftover dish (could not refuse her generous lasagna gift, am weak!)
  • Plastic price tag ties from clothes
  • Some fruit stickers (from occasionally missing the farmer's market, where I can avoid them)
  • Few bubble gums from guests
  • Tiny other things that do not really have names ;) The bulk of it being soft plastics from home maintenance.
As with our previous tally (which Sunset took away in October last year), the jar obviously does not include the "active discards" of the few things that I have sent back to manufacturers with a suggestion letter, or the occasional candy wrappers (including 10 from last year's Halloween) that people have given our kids and I have sent to Terra Cycle (TerraCycle, Inc, Attn: Candy Wrapper Brigade, 121 New York Ave, Trenton, NJ 08638).

Apart from State Farm insurance cards (who have switched to cardboard cards since our last complaint!), much of our waste is recurrent and will undoubtedly recur. As we all know Zero Waste today is not technically feasible, and I can say that my family is definitely stuck on this plateau. Plateauing is a natural part of the process, I guess. But energy efficient transportation and solar offer ways of improving other types of waste and provide me with much continued waste reduction satisfaction! ;)

We had heard that solar had dramatically dropped in price, and so with our finances in recovery, we took estimates from two different providers last month. Both considered our current and future energy consumption, our finances and space available for the panels. One of them repeatedly mentioned the “free” included Ipad2 as a sales pitch, the other offered a better financial deal given our parameters. Guess which one we chose? Refuse, Refuse, Refuse. Shopping is voting. And I love it when my refusal is rewarded by financial savings from choosing the opposing option.

We are just in the beginning phases (I found out that solar is not an overnight installation), but I already dream of eliminating TP! 


  1. Is TP: toilet paper? I'm not being snide, just wondering. =)

  2. With state farm, if you have an iPhone, you can use their app to get your card electronically through the app.

  3. Hurray!!! The first time you see the meter running backwards is awesome.
    You'll have fun with solar, especially if your energy provider is like ours: different rates, different times of day. We've totally changed our pattern of using electricity, with almost no usage between noon and 6 PM, the "peak" times, cost wise.

    The savings, of course, are secondary in many ways to the satisfaction of knowing you're limiting your need for power generated from coal, and other fossil fuels :- ))

  4. yay! can't wait to hear on the progress, we are going solar this year too!

  5. Congratulations on the solar install!!!

  6. Susan d12/06/2011

    Hi Bea:
    We have installed a few solar panels and use them mostly to power our computer. We have five large batteries and am not sure how we will dispose of them when they reach the end of their life (probably in about ten years). I'm wondering what sort of plan you have for disposal of the batteries.

  7. Anonymous12/06/2011

    Eliminating toilet paper is certainly doable, it just meant more washing (so in the end it might even be less energy-efficient, even if it's less waste). We of course still have it for guests, and one of the family members is uncomfortable with the cloth. The rest feels cleaner, doesn't want to go back. Our family sucks at zero waste, but don't hesitate with the toilet paper. We can wholeheartedly recommend washcloths.

  8. those size stickers on clothes are so terrible! plus if you miss one and forget to take one off you walk around with 'large large large large large' running down your pant leg (or whatever size you are), haha. i always think it's funny that adidas has special tags added to many of their products in the stores saying 'this tag was made from recycled paper' - and it's not the price tag, just an extra tag! great site :)

  9. I cease to be amazed at how well you do. We have decreased our trash down to less than one bag a week and I was so proud of myself! We used to throw as much as would fit in the garbage can before I started reading your site. Thanks for the inspiration. Maybe we can just share a trash can with our neighbors if we keep improving! I am seriously considering asking them if they want to share the newspaper and a trash can. My husband loves to read the paper, and won't give it up, so I thought that would be the next best solution. It is very hard to change, but we continue to try and improve.

  10. Anonymous12/06/2011

    I read the last sentance as "eliminating toilet paper" too. Maybe TP is traditional power?

  11. Your list made me think that back when we had lick-able stamps instead of sticker stamps there was no waste from them. Too bad they switched to stickers.

  12. Scott made me smile. He said: How long are we going to keep that jar??? Is it going to become an heirloom? ;)

    For those asking, TP = toilet paper, which can be eliminated with a washlet attachment.

    @Steve: Thanks for your tip. I was however told by my State Farm agent that the physical card is still needed for the police... when I inquired about it, he said that the police would not accept a phone as proof in place of card... Plus State Farm does not give the option. They send it anyways.

    @Spendwise: sharing curbside pick-up is definitely something worth considering! Our trash is bundled with compost and recycling pick up, and we need ours mainly for our renters but I would love to share that expense with the neighbours.

    @Anna: we need more people requesting to go back to lick-ables! You can send them an email

  13. I am in awe at your jar of 'waste'. I am intrigued by this type of lifestyle. I have read your blog for quite sometime now, but don't really know where to start. I would definitely have to get my husband and kids on board. Not trying to make excuses, but my head hurts at the thought of the latter....


  14. Congrats on getting Solar! That's so exciting. And your jar of waste/tally for the last year is so inspiring :)

  15. I know a family that does what is called "family cloth" where they use cloths to wipe themselves and put it in the bin with the dirty cloth baby diapers. They say they love it but I am not so sure I am ready for that much more laundry. I know you are from France,does using a baday reduce how much TP you use? What are some other alternatives you have heard of or are looking into?

  16. Wow! We just ran out of our last container of plastic wrap and I've convinced my husband to go without for one month to see if we can come up with viable alternatives. I'm duly impressedby your solitary piece of plastic wrap for one year. I'm going to head to the forum for ideas this weekend...

  17. @April: I'm not Bea, but I use 'family cloth' for #1's only, and it really isn't that much extra washing (for me and 2 DD's). I've reused cloth baby wipes and cut up cotton t-shirts that were marked and couldn't be passed on as they were. I keep the clean cloths in a small basket and the used ones go into a waterproof bag I had from using cloth nappies, but a tub or jar would work. There's no smell, so they don't need to be sealed. I throw them in the wash when I need to. It's probably every few days, and they fit in with whatever else is in the washing machine and dry really fast. I'm going to be washing that load of laundry anyway and I don't tumble dry, so I think laundering costs are negligible.
    I'm intrigued by Bea's option though.

    @Sarah K- I haven't bought cling film (plastic wrap) for about 5 years.I use resealable containers for leftovers; transport cakes/food for sharing in tins/boxes and plate up before serving rather than taking on the plate; use tea towels to cover food (damp if for rising dough)and reuse a plastic bag (not quite as zero waste as Bea!) if it has to be disposable for some reason. HTH!

    Bea, well done on your yearly tally! We're improving all the time, but it's slow progress.

  18. My wife insisted that we install a "fancy" toilet seat after her travels in Japan. However, I find that the spray is not sufficiently targeted, the dryer does not adequately dry unless I run it a long time, and I question the impact of the water and electricity use compared the the impact of TP. I love the washcloth idea, but for "big potty" I'm sticking with TP.

  19. Anonymous12/07/2011

    Bea, I saw the solar ad on your blog and wondered if this is how you intended it: no link to follow or there is something wrong.
    I tried both Firefox and Internet Explorer.

  20. Anonymous12/07/2011

    Have you ever heard of garbage bullies? In my town, our garbage collection company does not allow discontinuation of garbage disposal. Twelve months out of the year, we are allowed to discontinue garbage collection for only a total of 3 months (for vacation reasons). This means I have to pay whether I have garbage or not. To me, that's a garbage bully. Love the blog! Melissa N.

  21. Anonymous12/07/2011

    I would love to see trash collection billed according to use. The more you throw away, the more you pay; and a discount/incentive for recycling. Where I live, recycling pickup is optional and I pay extra for it. I have managed to get our waste down to a very small bag once a week, and about once a month a larger bag that is primarily paper and plastic packaging. It's progress, but clearly there's a ways to go.

  22. Last year I contacted my city about the option of sharing a garbage bin with a neighbor. The operator said that a waste can is legally required for each household. Bummer.

    My waste reduction efforts have, like everyone, been a gradual process. This last year, however, I decided on an experiment--I would only take the bin out to the street to be emptied when it was full. So far I've taken it out 4 times, with the 5th time projected for next week. At least half of that was disposable diapers. (We do hybrid of cloth and disposables.) We're potty-training now, so next year, without the diapers and continuing to increase efforts, maybe the bin will only fill up a couple of times in 12 months.

    It may not be "Bea"-dramatic. But, around here, I'm considered a bit of a freak. A lovable one, but a freak nonetheless.

  23. That is a jaw droppingly small amount of trash! I can't help thinking of The Zero Waste Home (i.e your home) as an artwork. Art, after all, often has the purpose of challenging our perception of the world around us...I imagine The Zero Waste Home as an art installation in a big white gallery-each room faithfully recreated, (you wouldn't want the crowds traipsing through your real home.....),cupboards open so you can see what is inside and the year's worth of trash on display. People would come from far and wide to look at what is surely a cultural anomaly!

    It should be the other way around. We should be gaping at the cultural aberration which is the mountains of waste our throw-away society produces. Maybe one day in the future we can visit a gallery which has a piece of conceptual art showing how wasteful we once were......a big pile of trash showing what one citizen used to produce in a year.....

  24. So inspiring!
    It really is amazing to see how much can be accomplished when strongly committed to an Eco-conscious journey. Thank you for sharing this.
    Much love and light,

  25. Solar is definitely on our list after we sell our acreage. We plan to buy a remodel after moving. I am excited about all the zero waste possibilities. So happy for you!

  26. Anonymous, re: "I would love to see trash collection billed according to use". There is such thing and it is called PAYT (Pay-As-You-Throw). Some communities have been particularly successful at it, especially in getting people to recycle items that they used to otherwise throw away. There are different systems based around the idea.

  27. I *think* we have PAYT (Berkeley) in that there are different trash bin sizes available. The smallest, however, is 13 gallons and we never come close to filling it! I'd love another option (biweekly, truck it ourselves, etc). It IS cheaper, though, so that's something. Also, apparently the recyclers are not making enough money off what they collect, and there's a threat of charging for that curbside service. Bummer!
    Anyhow, it was good to read about sending candy wrappers to Terracycle! I hadn't figured out the whole brigade idea, but in rereading, it does seem to be just a matter of sending in the reusables. Nice! So, thanks for mentioning them in your tally.
    BTW, awesome total!

  28. Anonymous12/07/2011

    Hi all,

    Reading the toilet paper comments, I realized that a cheaper option to a bidet would be attaching a diaper sprayer to your toilet. Intended for rinsing cloth diapers, it's simply hooked up to the toilet's water supply. You could have a basket of little cloths for drying. (There is even a video for making your own diaper sprayer on youtube.)


  29. I love how the colors on the wall and the ones in the trash match:)
    I don't know if you are going to keep the jar as a heirloom but I might print out the picture and put it next to my trash as I reminder.

    Thanks for the ideas in Huffington Post.


  30. Congratulations on going solar. We put in a net metering system for our house two years ago and it has been extremely efficient. PLEASE be sure to take your federal and state(California) tax credits. They paid for thirty percent of our system. We are now exploring a commercial system for our ranch irrigation system. It is so important for every household to explore this option, it is becoming much more affordable and if everyone who could install a system did so, it would make a huge difference. We took classes at the Solar Institute in Hopland, CA and they were GREAT, well worth the money and time.

  31. Anonymous12/08/2011

    Congrats on going solar!

    I've been meaning to ask, what brand living wall do you have?


  32. Yay! Congrats on going solar! I have solar hot water in Seattle (with electric backup) but haven't sprung for the whole kaboodle...

    As for your end of year tally, well, I am impressed as usual! I can't wait to get that low in my yearly rubbish disposal!

    But I do have to pat myself on the back a little: thanks to the inspiration from your blog, I put out only 15 12-gallon trash boxes in 2011 as compared to 52 12-gallon boxes in 2010 (which was down from the typical 32-gallons a week in 2009)

    And I only put out 12 64 gallon recycling cans in 2011 as well, down from 24 in 2010.

    Step by step, progress is made, and the planet (hopefully) saved!

    Happy solar-ing!

    -Deb Seymour

  33. That is an impressive list! I am amazed, and inspired to reduce waste further in 2012. Well done!

  34. I had to laugh at the plastic from the contacts. That's my issue too! The packaging is so intense! I can't even cut it up (most of our trash goes to make papercrete blocks for building). I'm glad I'm not the only one...

  35. Thank you, Bea. I am inspired to be better, and do better in every way that I can. I commend you for all of your efforts-it is not easy and not always accepted.

  36. I can't wait to hear how you get on with the Solar, Bea!

  37. Anonymous12/10/2011

    I will miss the white walls :(

  38. Yes, we can't cancel trash service here either (south bay area), but there are weeks when I don't put a can out. I hate paying for something I rarely use.

  39. Anonymous12/13/2011

    About the "garbage bullies":
    The idea behind forcing all residents to pay is to stop those who would avoid paying by putting their household trash into public trash cans, or driving outside of town and throwing it off the nearest embankment.

    When I was a kid, we lived about 4 miles outside of town. The town had a dump, but you had to pay to go in, so a couple of the deepest gullys out near where we lived became free trash dumps. In the gulleys, there was a big slide of garbage all down the slopes, and down at the bottoms were the big things like couches, mattresses and refrigerators. Later, I worked at a small business in town where the residential neighbor across the street sneaked his trash into our barrels.

    Charging low-wasters for it whether they use trash service or not is not fair. It’s the cheaters who won't pay who ruin it for us.
    -- TheWend

  40. @TheWend: totally agree, having witnessed the same "cheaters", AND having seen what some folks in the country, have done for generations: created their own "dump" somewhere on their property.
    I think part of the cheating is because legitimate dumping is sometimes so logistically challenging and limiting waste can be so frustrating (e.g. what DO you do with that old mattress/couch)....
    Sigh. Less stuff/waste = less stress/dilemma

  41. Anonymous12/13/2011

    Best to your family living with solar. I had a question -do you have an emergency pack set up for the family? If so, can you please share your plan with us, Thank you

  42. countrylady200212/13/2011

    I know I'm going to be one of those people who is very intersted in what you post about your solar project. I think most people are intersted in doing this, it's just the expense and lack of knowledge. I can't wait to hear more about your solar!

  43. You are an inspiration. I am using fabric to wrap all of Santa's presents this year for my little ones. And we are requesting way fewer gifts this year. I have been very judicious in what I am buying for the holidays. Our little family owes so much to your inspiring blog. We are not perfect, and we have a long way to go, but we have made big changes.

  44. I am sad to say, my grandparents were "cheaters"...

    I have to share that the Holiday season is a breeze this year.
    I spent an afternoon making 8 types of cookies a couple of weekends ago and have made the most of them. It has greatly simplified my life. With them, I have hosted:
    -a girlfriends' afternoon cocktail
    -a coffee hour for my walking group
    -a dessert/gluewein evening with the neighbors
    -2x kids lemonade/cookies holiday cheer

    My husband took some to work to share, I am taking some to my son's class for an event and even had enough to pack in a couple of jars to gift to the teachers.

    Will do that again next year.

  45. Bea, if I could reduce to this much trash a week (or sometimes even a day!) I would be estatic. But as with many others who have posted here, I am working on it a little bit at a time. I started after seeing your lifestyle depicted in Sunset magazine, so almost a year now. Guess I have a little time left before I get to your level :) My question is how much (quantity wise) do you recycle and compost? I suspect you also do not have a lot of recyclables. In the process of going Zero Waste, did you focus on trash first, or recyclables at the same time? One room, or one particular trash item (plastic, food waste, etc.)? I would love to see a post on the general approach you used to get to this point.

  46. Kelsey: re: quantity of our recyclables/week see post/picture on my recycling post
    We reduced both at the same time, but today we are at the mercy of variables ;) Because we found a winery that will refill both red and white wine (even rose, my fave), we do not have bottles to recycle anymore (before we found white refills, we had bottles of red in the recycling). But the bulk of these is now replaced by school papers from Max (now in middle school). We reuse paper as much as possible (single side print), but he still brings home a lot of paper that is printed on both sides.

  47. Anonymous12/19/2011

    Just found this blog last week and I am so inspired... I am already looking at everything differently. My family and I have a long way to go, but I am determined. Thank you so much!

  48. Just want to say that I use the toilet attachment and it works so well cleaning the #2. Afterward I just pat dry and its all clean! I dont know how this compares to a bidet, because when I lived in Europe years ago and had one I never used it because I didn't know what to do (haha stupid American)! For #1 I use a small sea sponge that I keep by the toilet in a dish and rinse out in the sink when I wash my hands. Or sometimes I use a cloth wipe for #1. I have been cloth diapering for over a year, and have become so comfortable with body I thought 'why not?' Its working great and feels so much cleaner than using TP! On another note, I recommend the handheld, if not a bidet for all the ladies, it is very useful for other reasons (use your imagination here)!

  49. Anonymous1/03/2012

    Where do you refill your shampoo and conditioner?


  50. Kaylen1/10/2012

    The toothbrush you could send into terracycle, too.

  51. Anonymous1/13/2012

    Hi Bea,

    What winery do you go to to bottle White, Rosé and Red?

    Thank you!

  52. I was intrigued about your annual waste and might have an idea for you guys about what to do with plastic wrappers...

    I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala.
    There's an idea started here called the "eco-brick" - basically a plastic bottle filled with compacted trash. One bottle holds an enormous amount of trash, and the bottle is then used for projects.

    Communities build walls, schools, trash-cans, benches, and even homes from them.

    It would probably take your family 5 years just to fill one bottle- and you need a lot of bottles to do anything - but maybe with a little creativity, that bottle (or a different receptacle) could be used for something useful?

    There are many things I don't like about eco-bricks - they are not very Zero Waste as they give people an excuse not to refuse or reduce, but in Guatemala, it is a practical solution in areas with lots of trash on the streets and little capital for building materials.

    The upside is that the material is collected and used locally, so it's an improvement over the energy consumption of recycling. As long as there is care to prioritize refuse/reduce, it's better than leaving the stuff on the streets or in the dump.

  53. Thanks ducky for your input. I looked into these a few years ago when we started. And like you said it would take us forever to collect enough waste to create something. But I appreciate your understanding of our lifestyle, and I agree that where building materials are needed, it might a good way to reuse existing trash.

  54. you are definitely an inspiration!
    and when one goes from thinking "what's the use, it's all so huge and i'm only one person" to thinking "i am one and we all are just one, but together, we can change it!" well...
    it makes life happier and more worth living!
    i take a container in my purse when we eat out because they always serve too much. the waitress last time said "oh! i see you've already got a take-out container!" i said "yes. you know we have to help the environment." i thought she might roll her eyes and laugh, but she said "wow! i wish more people would do that!"
    little by little, bea. little by little.
    congratulations on being able to go solar!
    with love and great admiration,
    tammy j

  55. Each time I visit your blog, I am inspired.
    Have you considered taking the waste that you can not recycle and making an abstract picture collage.
    It could then be sold on etsy or auctioned for charity. Just a thought.

  56. Anonymous2/28/2012

    I'm not sure if this is an option with your postal service, but could you take letters/packages to the post office and pay your postage at the counter instead of using a stamp? Sometimes they mark it with a rubber stamp or printed barcode, which would mean less waste. But I know this won't always be practical!

    1. thanks for your suggestion:
      -In France for ex, they can print the stamp on the enveloppe, but the post office here prints out a label, no matter what.
      -I simply miss the lick-ons ;)
      -I find that it is best to reduce mailings: to do a max through email for letters or paypal for payments.

  57. It's good that there is this something that will always save us in times like this. And it becomes great because we rewarded when we do things the good way.

  58. hi very nice blog and so cool information.When I was a kid, we lived about 4 miles outside of town. The town had a dump, but you had to pay to go in, so a couple of the deepest gullys out near where we lived became free trash dumps.