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Living Zero Waste: One family’s journey to producing no trash

While holding up a small wastebasket the size of what many people keep in a bathroom, Stephanie said her family fills this once, maybe twice a week with trash.

SEATTLE — On the surface, the Wall family looks like most families with two young kids, but there is one extraordinary thing about them — this family of four lives zero waste, or very close.

For mom Stephanie, it started more than 10 years ago. Now, she and her husband, along with their 5-year-old son Wesley and 3-year-old daughter Klara, produce next-to-no garbage. While holding up a small wastebasket the size of what many people keep in a bathroom, Stephanie said her family fills this once, maybe twice a week with trash.

Stephanie said it initially started when she saw a story about Bea Johnson, a woman who helped pioneer the zero-waste lifestyle. Stephanie saw photos of a kitchen full of simple glass jars and initially fell in love with the look, so she decided to try it. The style stuck, and along the way, she’s learned there are many diverse benefits to living this lifestyle. 

By avoiding materialistic things, Stephanie said she's able to focus on what’s important.

“When there’s less stuff to worry about, you have more room to go spend time with friends, to have experiences, go and put your feet in the grass, go play on the playground,” Stephanie said. “It’s made me really grateful. Not only for relationships I have, the life I have, being alive, so many different things, but it really has made me grateful.” 

Waste in Seattle 

While Seattle is generally good at recycling and keeping waste low, there is still a constant push to reduce waste in the area.

Jeff Fowler, the deputy director of Solid Waste for Seattle Public Facilities, said the average person creates 2.2 pounds of trash per day in the city. This is a relatively good number compared to the rest of the country, but there is still work to be done.

According to Fowler, if everyone properly recycled, landfill trash would decrease by 21%. Similarly, if everyone properly composted, another 20% of landfill trash could be decreased. This means simply by recycling and composting correctly, 41% of what ends up in a landfill could be stopped.

Fowler said after mastering composting and recycling, the next step is to follow the Wall family’s lead and think about the lifespan of an item before purchasing it. While disposing of waste properly is important, avoiding high-impact items from the get-go is just as important. This power is in the hands of the consumer.

“I think we have a lot of purchasing power. To use that purchasing power to be consciously thinking about when we’re purchasing materials, what is the end life of this material. How much waste is going to be created?” said Fowler. 

How the Walls do it 

The lifecycle of an item is something Stephanie thinks about constantly. She has various strategies she uses to make sure she’s not using or buying items that will end up in a landfill.

She relies on the five R’s, a well-known practice in the zero-waste community.

Refuse what you do not need, reduce what you do need, reuse what you cannot refuse or reduce, recycle what you can’t refuse, reduce and reuse, then rot and compost the rest,” Stephanie said.

Then, she adds her own sixth R.

“Once you do that, for me I call it the sixth R, which is relationships. I’ve found I have deeper connections with family or friends, I have relationships with my neighbors, relationships with local businesses,” Stephanie added.

Overall, she said there are easy steps that anyone can implement, including purchasing reusable water bottles and produce bags for grocery shopping, which helps avoid single-use plastic altogether.

Stephanie purchases many groceries from farmer's markets, where she can bring her own bags. In a grocery store, she shops the perimeter, where she can buy items that aren’t pre-packaged. For many items, including meat, produce and spices, she brings her own container, which she weighs before filling.

Stephanie's home is full of beautiful décor, which she said she purchased secondhand. She frequents estate sales and thrift stores to find these items. Stephanie said when it comes to furniture and home supplies, many things are more durable so actually end up lasting longer than brand-new items.

For clothing, she also does a lot of shopping secondhand at thrift stores. Plus, she and her friends host clothing exchanges, where they swap clothes. Then, when an item is at the end of its life, she turns it into rags either for her home or donates them to a business that needs rags, like auto repair shops.

Stephanie also works hard to repair clothes and shoes that are damaged. Rather than throwing out something with a hole, she’ll take it to a seamstress or specialist and have it fixed. Not only does that extend its life, but she enjoys the personal relationships made with small businesses along the way.

Purchasing personal items is easier than it used to be. Stephanie remembers making her own toothpaste when she initially started living zero waste.

“It was baking soda and peppermint essential oil and maybe one other ingredient, maybe coconut oil. And it was awful and I remember thinking there’s gotta be something better,” Stephanie said, laughing.

Now, there is something better. There are companies that sell products in reusable containers that can be emptied, sent back, refilled, and repeated. This is ideal for soaps, lotions and makeup.

The Walls rely on a company that creates sustainable paper products for items like tissue paper and some paper towels. They use rags and towels in most cases around the house, but they keep some paper towels on hand that are made from bamboo products. 

The same company also provides sustainable toilet paper, although they say they’d like to install a bidet soon.

Items designed for sustainability can be found throughout the kitchen. When packing school lunches, reusable silicon stasher bags are used instead of plastic baggies and wax sheets are wrapped around veggies to keep them fresh.

Regular kitchen items are purchased in bulk and stored in glass jars, which Stephanie said she loves the look of. Her pro tip for collecting a matching set of jars: find a product you like to consume that comes in glass, like peanut butter, and save the jars. After a few purchases, you have a matching set.

The Walls are big composters, but also save as much food as possible. The unwanted crust from Wesley’s bread is cut up and turned into croutons. As Stephanie peels carrots for Wesley, she collects the shavings, puts them in a stasher bag in the freezer, then uses that to make vegetable stock.

While Stephanie puts an emphasis on experiences rather than physical items, the kids do still have many toys around the house. 

Her suggestion to parents trying to limit toys laying around is to give each child a basket and tell them that once the basket is filled, they must get rid of toys before adding more. Then, once the kids are ready to get rid of toys, she either passes them on to friends or posts them in free or resale groups for other families. This is how they get many of their toys, too.

Stephanie advises targeting donations whenever possible. She said rather than sending items off to a general consignment store or donation center, try to find specific people with specific needs to take items. These items have a lower chance of ending up in a landfill if they’re sent somewhere that needs them.

The reality 

The Wall family isn’t perfect. Stephanie said they strive to keep plastic and non-reusable items out of their lives, but sometimes it happens.

For example, when the kids went to get haircuts, they were given a balloon. Stephanie let it slide. When they went to the dentist, the hygienist used a plastic toothbrush during the cleaning and rather than throw it away, Stephanie brought it home to use. Minor details compared to the big-picture goal.

Stephanie now works to teach others about living this lifestyle. She’s the co-founder of Seattle Zero Waste, a nonprofit that aims to empower and inspire people to reduce waste through relationships and collaborations. 

For her, this life is a fun challenge that removes the materialistic parts of life and focuses on what’s important.

“I hope we can approach environmental issues in a way that doesn’t get us depressed. Where we can say there are problems in the world but humans are innovative,” Stephanie said. 

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