Bea Johnson can be credited with the rise of zero waste as a global movement with the 2013 launch of her book, Zero Waste Home. In 2008, Johnson and her family embarked upon the zero waste lifestyle, forgoing a big house and a hyper-consumerist family life, for a lifestyle grounded in simplicity and sustainability. Since that time, the family of four can fit a year’s worth of their combined garbage into a single mason jar.

Waste-free living advocate (Treading My Own Path) Lindsay Miles’ “trash jar” containing 12 months worth of her non-recyclable, non-compostable waste. Photo courtesy, Treading My Own Path.

“Trash jars” have become synonymous with the Zero Waste movement, signifying the radical minimalism of the lifestyle. Zero waste activists including Lauren Singer and Kathryn Kellogg lay bare their multi-annual waste output in mason jars, potent symbols of the zero waste movement. The sight of these jars alone has inspired thousands to join the movement.

How exactly does a person go about reducing their annual household waste footprint to the contents of a single mason jar? Johnson pioneered the 5 “R’s” of Zero Waste to achieve exactly that goal. The formula: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot – to be followed in that order. Here is how it works:

1. Refuse what you don’t need

The 5 R’s of zero waste: Refuse what you don’t need. Reduce what you do need. Reuse by using reusables. Recycle what you can’t refuse, reduce, or reuse. Rot (compost) the rest.

The first step to minimizing one’s waste output is to prevent the waste from entering your home (or your hands) in the first place.

The “refuse” step involves saying “no” to waste in the forms of single-use disposables like bags, straws, cutlery, cups, as well as to junk mail, promotional freebies and other short-lived non-necessities that have a one-way ticket to the garbage bin.

Saying “no” to waste can be just as challenging as saying “no” to people, or to situations that do not serve us. It doesn’t have to come across as harsh; a firm and friendly “no, thank you” will suffice. A thoughtful explanation might be the catalyst for motivating real change in the people with whom you interact.

Saying “no” is both a muscle that can be strengthened and a valuable skill with implications for our lives more generally. This step can serve as a means for learning about our own personal boundaries, how to honour these and how to move beyond our comfort zones as we enter new territory in our journey toward zero waste.

Bulk Bins. Photo by Sara Stasi.

Remember that a big part of this step involves saying “yes” to sustainable goods and services! Say “yes” to package-free purchases at bulk-shops and farmers markets, to free water refills of your trusty water bottle, to cafés that accept reusable coffee cups and to restaurants and shops that will fill your reusable containers!

2. Reduce what you do need

Activating step 2 means getting clear about what you need and simply cutting back on that which you don’t need. “Reduce” in the context of zero waste might mean letting go of household items that are no longer of use and donating, or selling these, thereby alleviating clutter and creating space. “Reducing” might also mean shopping with a purpose and focusing on necessary purchases as opposed to random splurges on things that you don’t really need. Too often these items quickly make their way into the dumpster, the back of the closet, or come swaddled in swaths of unsustainable packaging. Fast fashion, cheap electronic gadgets and processed foods come to mind.

“Ride in the Shopping Cart” by Cayden Crawford.

Step 2 is an opportunity to explore our consumer habits and to assess whether or not these are serving our best interests, or those of the Earth – and changing these habits if we choose. Freeing oneself of the responsibility of managing extraneous possessions, or from the traps of hyper-consumerism might have the side effect of improving feelings of wellbeing.

3. Reuse by using reusables

Reusable water bottle. Photo by Joseph Bartmann.

Step number 3 is a fun one. It simply means switching up disposable items for reusable and permanent alternatives. This means sourcing a reusable beverage container and carrying it with you when you are out and about. It means carrying reusable cutlery with you as a measure to avoid disposable cutlery. A refillable glass bottle, or stainless steel water bottle is your ticket to parting ways with plastic bottles for good! Arm yourself with an assortment of reusable fabric bags for your produce and other unpackaged foods!

“The Humble Mason Jar.” Photo by Susy Morris

Jars, yes, jars! These will become your trusty allies, serving as your lunch box, drinking glass, tupperware, freezer bag, bulk food storage, deodorant container, toothpaste holder and performing any number of imaginable functions!

Maybe you want to invest in a stainless steel drinking straw? Swap washable dishtowels for paper towels. How about a washable handkerchief? Don’t forget washable cloth pads and menstrual cups!

This step doesn’t have to be expensive. Buy second hand, or make it yourself! Repair broken items. Repurpose old clothes, or household items! Breathe new life into your wardrobe by participating in clothing swaps! Get creative!

4. Recycle what you can’t refuse, reduce, or reuse

“Recycling.” Photo by Steven Penton.

Step 4 is about getting clear on the true place of recycling in the waste management hierarchy. Some mental reprogramming might be involved here. Many of us have been programmed to believe that recycling is the go-to solution for waste reduction. This is a misconception.

Recycling infrastructure in its current state is quite limited and in many cases actually consists of “downcycling” recyclable materials into low-quality, disposable goods that will ultimately end up in the waste stream. Also, recycling infrastructure cannot keep pace with the huge quantities of single-use disposables consumed and disposed of by humans at record speed. Recyclable materials that are not successfully recycled into new products become landfilled (in the US, for example), shipped to landfills in so called developing countries, or incinerated in Waste-to-Energy (WtE) programs. It is also important to consider that the recycling process itself is highly energy intensive.

For these reasons recycling is treated by the Zero Waste movement as a last resort to be used only after steps 1 Refuse, 2 Reduce  & 3 Reuse have been exhausted.

5. Rot the rest

Compost bucket. Photo by Kitty Meets Goat.

Step 5: Compost! Does your municipality have a green bin program, or a composting program for organic waste? Fantastic! Use it! If not, welcome to the wonderful world of home composting! Prepare to see your household waste footprint all but disappear!

There are a few possibilities to compost your own household waste. The first is an outdoor garden compost, which can take the form of a pile, a box, or unit that can be purchased, or built yourself.

For those looking for indoor composting solutions: vermicomposting is one possibility. Allow thousands of worms to transform your organic waste into mineral rich garden soil in the comfort of your own home! Fear not, the vermicompost that I have sniffed, smelled mildly of hay and fresh earth – infinitely more pleasant than the stinky garbage that I used to put out into black bins back in my hyper-consumerist days! If worms are outside of your comfort zone, consider the Bokashi indoor composting system that relies on bacterial fermentation to produce pre-digested garden compost.

What can you compost? It will depend on the composting system that you choose. For municipal programs, all food waste should be accepted. The Bokashi method similarly allows for a wide variety of food scraps, including cooked foods, meat, fish, dairy and citrus to be composted.

For garden composts and vermicomposts you will not be able to compost meat, fish, dairy, bread, pasta, processed foods, or citrus. What can you compost? You will be able to compost plant materials like veggie scraps, non-citrus fruit peels and seeds, nut shells, as well as egg shells, coffee grinds, loose tea, brown paper, hair (non-chemically processed), nail clippings (unpolished) and fireplace ashes. Regardless of your chosen compost method, watch your household waste output shrink before your very eyes!

Are you feeling any lighter?

You have the potential to minimize your waste footprint should you choose. By following the 5 “R’s” of zero waste, you are 5 steps closer to a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle.

Much love and happy journeying,



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here