Book Review: Zero Waste Home

zero waste home graphic

Lots of good advice and tips (five stars); don’t be scared off by its extremes — worth the read overall (four stars).

Of the five books I read this summer, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste by Bea Johnson is by far the most extreme. How extreme? Imagine a family of four generating only a quart of garbage — every year.

Obviously, getting to this level of waste reduction takes us far beyond simple decluttering, and as the subtitle implies, the Zero Waste Home approach places its primary emphasis on the intake side of your stuff. Although Johnson notes early on that the book “will encourage you to declutter,” her eyes are clearly on bigger prizes: “a better environment” and “a better you” [Kindle location 170]. The path for doing this is by “understanding the effect of our purchasing power on the environment and acting accordingly” [192]. In this context, decluttering is about not just getting rid of stuff, but learning how to refrain from collecting stuff in the first place. While Zero Waste Home does not have a method for decluttering, Johnson did have a motto which she and her family applied when they downsized to a much smaller house: “What we did not truly use, need, and love had to go” [85]. Using this motto, the author’s family reportedly got rid of 80 percent of their belongings within two years.

Zero Waste Home certainly delivers on its promise to “take you beyond the typical eco-friendly alternatives covered well in other publications” [179]. For starters, the book takes the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra one step further at each end, by adding refusing (what we do not need) as the best option and rotting (composting) as the option of final resort. But getting to Zero Waste in today’s society is another matter altogether; indeed, Johnson describes Zero Waste as “an idealistic goal, a carrot to get as close as possible” [188] and notes that “this is not a book about achieving absolute Zero Waste,” [187] which is not possible because of current manufacturing practices in place. The author should know: as first she tried to do things that even she found to be too extreme — churning her own butter, making her own lip balm, even foraging for moss to use instead of toilet paper [152], before she backed off in order to find some balance.  Even so, her family’s resulting “balance” is quite extreme for most people: using kitchen towels for sandwich bags instead of plastic ones [711], using cloth bags to buy all your produce and bulk items [862-66], or taking your bread home from a bakery in a pillowcase [873], to name just a few.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go to such extremes to derive value from the book. In fact, this book generated the largest number of useful tips (almost 20 of them, to be exact) of any of the books I read on decluttering. Perhaps this is because at this point I am as interested in reducing my intake of stuff as I am of getting rid of it. Some of the things I’ve already done (for instance, using microfiber cloths to replace paper towels; creating a reuse paper bin for printing on both sides; asking family members which of them wants my Kitchen Aid mixer which I never use).

Although the book is chock full of tips for reducing clutter (the word (de)clutter and its variants appear over 60 times in the book’s narrative), a lot of the book’s tips are about avoiding the creation of additional clutter by refusing to accept stuff, for instance by thinking twice before letting anything new into your house [306] or considering the life cycle and choosing only products you can reuse or recycle [316]. Again, most people would find such tips to be onerous as a unremitting regime, but they can also be handy tools to have in one’s decluttering toolbox. Happily, Zero Waste Home also includes useful sections to help with systematically reducing the clutter in various areas of your house and life, for instance getting rid of kitchen gadgets and specialty items that are not worth the space [612-636], having a carefully selected small “capsule wardrobe” [1840] which emphasizes style and quality over fashion and quantity, and tackling the formidable nests that are bathroom cabinets [1288].

Perhaps Zero Waste Home’s most useful contribution to the decluttering process is a series of questions to ask during the downsizing process [e.g., 641]:

– Is it in working condition? Is it outdated or expired?
– Do I use it regularly?
– Is it a duplicate?
– Does it put my family’s health in danger?
– Do I keep it out of guilt?
– Do I keep it because society tells me that I need one (“everyone has one”)?
– Does it truly save time, as promised?
– Could something else achieve the same task?
– Is it worth my precious time dusting and cleaning?
– Could I use this space for something else?
– Is it reusable?

I like that this list of questions is a menu rather than a checklist; the questions are varied enough so that I can pick and choose which ones are appropriate to ask for a given item rather than feeling like I’m supposed to ask each question of every item (which is a non-starter for me). This makes the list another set of handy tools to use in the decluttering process, particularly for dealing with difficult or sticky decisions about individual objects.

These takeaways are important because at times, the book’s single-minded focus on getting as close to Zero Waste as possible seems more fanatic than sensible. Even though Johnson says early in the book that “how much waste one generates is not important” and that “everyone can adopt the changes that are possible in their life” [191], Zero Waste Home also spends a fair amount of time prescribing correct behavior. For instance, “shopping should always start” with buying used items, preferably at thrift stores, garage sales, or online sites such as Amazon and Craiglist [380]. Such prescriptions at times lead to rather unhelpful assertions; for example, saying that “stuff takes us away from our roots, from the outdoors” [552] is only part of the story, and disposables [711] are not pure evil but in fact can save time and offer convenience, which is a different kind of freedom from making our own stuff. Zero Waste Home‘s emphasis on avoiding packaging at all costs sometimes leads to rather absurd concessions, as when Johnson advises readers to refill a beer jug at a local brewery but notes that this method requires being ready to drink a gallon of beer at once before the beer loses its carbonation; her solution to “have some friends over” [925] is a pretty weak and unreliable one.

In the end, Zero Waste Home amply demonstrates its premise (whether intentionally or not) that Zero Waste is an “idealistic goal” which requires going to extremes that most people won’t accept, including me. Even so, you can find value in this book without having to embrace its extremes, especially its many useful resources on decluttering both as a process of getting rid of things and as a process of refusing to take them in.  Even adopting just a few of the book’s suggestions will help you move the needle toward building a healthier relationship with your stuff.

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