In 2005 Bea Johnson and her family were living in a remote suburb of San Francisco. They owned a 3,000-square-foot house with two large refrigerators and a three-car garage when they decided to relocate to Mill Valley, a walkable town across the bay full of cafés, bakeries, and bookstores.
During the house hunt, they put most of their belongings in storage and lived in a rental — and were surprised by how much they enjoyed living with less stuff. They eventually bought a home less than half the size of their previous one and gradually jettisoned most of what they owned. Within a couple of years, they had sold or donated 80 percent of their belongings.
“Since we no longer spent every weekend mowing our lawn and caring for a huge house and its contents, we now spent our time together as a family — biking, hiking, picnicking, and discovering a new coastal region,” Johnson recalls. “It was liberating.”
Meanwhile, Johnson and her husband, Scott, began studying the effects of overconsumption on the planet. The more they learned — that the average American tosses out four pounds of trash per day, for instance — the worse they felt. “We felt bad as parents leaving a crappy world for our children,” she says.
So they decided to act. Scott quit his corporate job and launched a sustainability consulting company. Bea took their downsizing a step further. She wanted to completely stop producing household waste, including unworn clothing, and reduce their use of resources like electricity.
It sounds impossible, but after years of trial and error, the Johnson family now produces about one pint of garbage per year. And while it would seem like they must feel deprived, they’re actually happier.
“Our life is based on experiences instead of things,” Johnson says. “It’s based on being instead of having, and that is really what makes life richer.”
Johnson has since written a book based on their experience, Zero-Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste.
Still, a person doesn’t have to cut her garbage to a pint a year to make a positive impact. If every U.S. household used just three fewer rolls of paper towels per year, for example, it would keep 120,000 tons of paper waste out of landfills. If we used only one less roll, we’d save 544,000 trees.
And there’s a whole lot more we can do to reduce our footprints. Johnson’s “5-Rs” approach to living with less — refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot — offers some good starting points.