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Zero-waste living moves into mainstream

Group of interlinked online bloggers are part of what they consider a growing movement of people who are rejecting packaging and  taking green living to a new level.
Bea Johnson
Bea Johnson displays mason jars in which she stores fruits and vegetables at her home in Mill Valley, Calif., on Wednesday.Ben Margot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When she goes to the supermarket, Bea Johnson brings along a sealable glass jar so the butcher can slide in a pork cutlet. In the bulk aisle, she fills reusable bags she makes from old bed sheets to carry rice, pasta, oatmeal or nuts.

In fact, everything she and her husband buy is without packaging: They make their own household cleaning products, buy soap that comes unwrapped and return milk bottles to suppliers for refills.

At least three times a week, Johnson phones marketing companies in her unrelenting war against junk mail.

"The amount of money you can save by just carrying your own water bottle is huge. Plus, the more you get away from plastic, the more likely you are to buy fresh," said Johnson, who blogs about her lifestyle in Marin County, Calif., at

Johnson has emerged as a guru for people looking to take green living to a new level.

"We're definitely seeing more people interested in living without waste but the demographic has changed," said Sarah Kennedy of San Francisco's Rainbow Food Cooperative, which offers everything from shampoo to seaweed in bulk.

"Before it was tree-hugging hippies who washed and reused their produce bags. Now we're seeing a much more middle class movement, more moms with their kids, with Tupperware boxes and neatly folded linen bags," she said.

Less clutter is better
The effort to reduce packaging has moved into the mainstream. The state Senate in California approved a bill that would ban plastic bags from stores and require retainers for paper bags. The legislation has yet to reach Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk for signing, but other towns and cities across the United States have already placed restrictions on plastic bags, including an outright ban in larger retail stores by three counties in North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Johnson, who began with the less ambitious target of simplifying her family's life, soon realized that less clutter was also good for the planet.

The health benefits of a wrapper-free life are also a major theme for Colin Beavan in New York. He wrote a book, "No Impact Man," about a year he and his family spent without electricity and living with as little waste as they could. Though their experiment ended in November 2007, they've committed to staying packaging free.

"Most of the fattening foods, the bad stuff, come heavily wrapped. If you confine yourself to fresh products from the supermarket or farmer's market, your family is going to be a lot healthier," he said.

Beavan buys most of his food at the farmers market in Manhattan's Union Square. He returns his egg cartons and milk bottles to the farmers and buys round blocks of cheese that come without packaging.

"I think my family is a lot happier now," he said. "It's not simply about less packaging, it's about changing your whole outlook, about wanting less and getting so much more as a family."

Personal mission
I wondered if I, too, could live without any packaging, except for plastic bags I reuse during trips to the supermarket.

For the last month, every grocery item I've purchased has been without wrapping. I go to the bulk aisle of my local food coop for pasta, rice, beans, flour, oatmeal, nuts and anything else that I can pour into my own bags, which are then weighed at the check-out counter.

I now have 10 reusable bags, including a plastic one I use to buy loose spinach and broccoli. One of the strangest byproducts of this experiment has been my newfound respect for plastic — no longer discarded after a one-night stand. More like a long-term relationship.

Apart from saving vast amounts of chemicals and oil that go into making shopping bags and reducing the giant soup of plastic clogging oceans, saying no to packaging has improved my waistline and my wallet.

With no more sad looking, single-serving microwave meals, and my coffee from a paper cup replaced with a drink from my water bottle, I feel more energetic and less stressed. Because I bring broccoli and carrots to work and don't touch additives, my skin is clearer. The sudden arrival of middle age spread has completely disappeared from my waist.

I also find myself cooking less. I have my plastic container of spinach and broccoli at work every day, so I feel less of a need for big meals.

Finding cage-free eggs and dairy products can be a problem, but many local farmers markets will refill your egg boxes and replace your milk bottles. I was almost overcome with joy when I found a supermarket steps from my home that sold chocolate and dried apricots in bulk, so dessert was back on.

Financially, all of this has been a major boost. Carrots and onions unburdened by plastic are a lot cheaper, and making my own shampoo saves money.

The major downside is that I am now a crushing bore. Where once my conversations might have been about sports and cinema, now all my sentences seem to begin with, "Did you know ..." followed by a list of places you can get refills on shampoo, honey or milk, or the best type of reusable bags for buying flour.

I find myself recoiling in horror when I see workmates dumping plastic plates, forks, knives and a mountain of napkins after they have eaten lunch at delis and restaurants. The shock is starting to show up on my face.

The other difficult point is remembering my bags when I leave for the supermarket. That's also a problem for Carlos Soligo, who has been a member of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, N.Y., for 10 years.

"I have about 20 reusable linen bags I bought at the coop because I had to buy new ones when I forgot to bring my own," he said.

Soligo came up with a novel answer.

"I look on the floor or in the shelves for plastic bags that coop members have dropped. The bags are sealed anyway, so it's just the outside of the bag that is in contact with the ground. I find so many bags, and they were all going to be thrown out."

Johnson said you don't have to resort to that to reduce waste.

"A lot of people tell me that they forget their bags. It takes a bit of experimentation, but even that can be fun," she said. "Once you get your system, you will never want to go back."