According to the EPA, Americans generate one million tons of waste each year during the holidays alone.
So we headed to Mt. Rainier for a long weekend with Heather, Tucker, Thomas and Anna White: A family of four that strives to minimize the trash they generate. Read on for our Q&A with Heather about working toward a waste-free life, and follow her journey on Instagram.
We are a family of four living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, just north of Seattle. My husband and I fell in love during our years of travel and adventure, sand and sailboats. Now, a bit later in life, we find ourselves adventuring in a slightly different (but no less exciting) way... Living in suburbia with two kids, a cat, and our adorable, composting rabbit.
We live in a regular neighborhood but have a household the functions in a unique way. We produce significantly less trash than the average household, have converted most of our lawn into food-producing gardens, and lean toward a more minimalist lifestyle, focusing on creating experiences for our family rather than acquiring more “stuff and things” that tend to get in the way. You can find us hiking local beaches and forestlands (often picking up trash along the way), or at home, cooking and listening to jazz by candlelight.
Arugula harvested from the Whites’ food-producing garden that’s replaced most of their lawn
Like most great inspiration, mine came from a Facebook video. This particular video depicted a woman named Bea Johnson (of Zero Waste Home) and her California family of four, who were able to reduce their yearly waste so drastically that it fit into a mason jar! When I realized that they were not hoarding garbage in their garage, but lived a rather simplified and beautiful lifestyle, I was intrigued.
Raised with an appreciation for nature, I felt a strong connection to it from a young age. As a young adult my interest in sustainability increased, and during college, I took the opportunity to hear William McDonough, co-author of “Cradle to Cradle” speak about sustainable design. During later years, already toting a reusable shopping bag wherever I went, I sailed through the Caribbean and witnessed plastic pollution on even the most secluded beaches. I was bothered by this and surprised, because at this point, I was not yet aware of the vast impact that plastic pollution had had on our oceans.
When I encountered the idea of living a zero-waste lifestyle, I suppose you could say I was “low-hanging fruit” - ready for action and just not knowing what steps I could take to make a difference. This lifestyle of refusing packaging, shopping intentionally, and opting for reusables rather than disposables was something I could implement into my life right away. With some time and effort, I found a system that worked well for myself and my family. I was glad to adjust my lifestyle habits to reflect my values, and now, can’t imagine going back to the way we lived before.
Mason jars: the easy solution to waste-free trail snacks
The moment that I learned of the zero-waste lifestyle I was hooked. Prior to that I had never considered that I should avoid food packaging, shop secondhand for environmental reasons, or switch to a metal safety razor rather that those horrendously overpriced disposable ones. I simply didn’t realize that there was another way.
Although I was concerned for the environment, I didn’t take personal responsibility for it. In my mind, the world’s environmental challenges were “out there” and too big for anyone like me to have a real impact. Now that I know better, I strive to do better.
Something as simple as a DIY 5 minute beach clean makes a lasting impact
I am frequently challenged by the unnecessary items that come into our lives and find that with two children this issue is amplified. Freebie toys, promotional items, and gifts at every turn. It seems that there are endless seas of landfill-bound products marketed specifically to our children. (Do you feel me, parents?!) Ironically, though, I’ve learned that we are all happier with less. With simplicity. With classic, open-ended toys that foster imagination and creativity. I am doing my best to share my values with our children. After all, a large part of the reason I do this is for them. I care a lot about the legacy we are leaving for future generations.
Additionally, grocery shopping for package-free food can be a challenge. I’m willing to shop a variety of stores in order to do this, but do make some exceptions for my sanity (and I don’t beat myself up about failures). Attempting to live waste-free in our modern society is not always easy. But it is worth making an effort.
Anna collects snails, slugs, spiders and more as part of a homeschool nature group
At one time we were processing all of our own compost via a small flock of chickens and two compost bins in our backyard. The only compostables that I didn’t have a solution for were chicken bones, and on a couple of occasions I burned them in our backyard fire pit. (Yes, really.) When my neighbor complained of the smell I was mortified. These days, all of our compostables go into our yard waste bin for weekly pickup, bones and all! It’s the best solution for our family as well as the neighbors.
A collection of the Whites’ compost, destined for the yard waste bin for weekly pickup
I want everyone to know that there are countless, simple ways to make a difference! Small changes really do add up.
You can choose to:
Becoming more waste-conscious doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to produce waste (and that you have failed if you do). To me, it is a different mindset that steers you toward sustainability when you consider your options. Let’s all live less out of habit, and more out of intent.
Cotton shopping bags do double-duty to leave no trace: they replace the need for plastic bags and are totally biodegradable.
The holidays are abounding with opportunities to creatively reduce waste!
Ideas for gift-giving:
When decorating for any holiday I prefer to use items that are made of natural materials. Think paper, glass, wood, and items found in nature like branches of winter berries and fragrant cedar boughs.
Get creative and look around for sustainable options whenever making a purchase (no matter how small). And always, always, ask yourself this vital question: “What will happen to this product at the end of its useful life?” If your answer is landfill, be open to considering alternatives.
From tree to table: cedar is a fragrant and natural solution for plastic-free holiday decor