New Year’s Resolution #zero waste

Striving for Zero Waste: One Davis Family’s Resolution

I can’t remember the first time I heard about the concept of Zero Waste, but I remember being intrigued by the idea. A little internet research on the topic lead me to an article in Sunset Magazine about the Johnsons, a  family living in Mill Valley, who manages to only generates about 2 handfuls of trash a year.  Béa Johnson’s blog documents how they have achieved this seemingly impossible feat and after reading it left me to wonder,  could my family do the same?  Truth be told, it seems unlikely. Organized, self-disciplined, and the willingness to sacrifice convenience for a greater for a higher cause, characteristics that seem essential in accomplish this goal, are not ones most often used to describe me. After coming to terms with this fact, I asked myself,  should the likely failure of achieving zero waste stop me from trying to achieve this goal? The answer, I’ve decided, to that question is no.  So while my family’s new years resolution of generating zero waste might not be a realistic one, I believe attempting to do so will have a significant and positive impact on my home, on my community and on the world, making it worth the effort even if the goal is not achieved.

When trying to reach any seemingly impossible goal the best strategy seems to be breaking the process down into manageable pieces.  I turned to Béa Johnson’s writings on how to live a zero waste life for advice on how I should get started. Her recommendation is to start with these basic tenets. Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. Below are some of the ways my family is  addressing these tenets as we live our day to day life here in Davis. I hope in sharing them I will educate and encourage others to join us on the path to zero waste.

Refuse:  Bea’s advice “refuse what you don’t need”.   Unwanted mail is the first thing in this category I’ve decided to tackle. My “junk mail” is largely composed of catalogs, credit card applications, and solicitations from charities that I’ve previously donated to.

To reduce the number of unwanted catalogs we receive I went to this website, where I created a free account, that allows me to opt out of receiving unwanted catalogs.

I learned how to stop receiving prescreened offers of credit  by visiting the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information website which  directed me to this website where I was able to opt-out of the lists used by companies who offer credit.

To figure out a way to stop receiving solicitations by mail from charitable donations I visited this website: which laid out steps I could take to decrease the number of mailings I receive from these types of organizations.

Reduce: Béa Johnson recommends “reduce what we do need by donating or selling anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for us to live comfortably.”  While this approach seems extreme I think the concept is worth contemplating, and while doing so I realized that all the unnecessary stuff my family owns,  seemingly to make our lives more convienant, have had the opposite effect.  As I mentioned organizational skills are not a strong suit, so getting rid of stuff we are not using leaves fewer things for me to organize and keep tack of, making it easier to find the things we need.  By donating some of the unnecessary and unused objects in our home I hope to simplify our lives while making resources available to those looking to buy second hand.

Reuse:  While many objects can be used, my initial focus is going to be on bringing my own reusable bags to the grocery store.

Soon the city of Davis’ single-use bag ordinance will be put into place. This ordinance bans the distribution of single-use carryout plastic bags and requires merchants to charge a 10 cent fee for paper bags. The fee is designed to encourage consumers to bring their own bags, or request that fewer be used to transport their purchases. This strategy has worked effectively in other communities and I’m confident Davis will see similar results when this ordinance goes into effect.

Like many I have the best intentions when it comes to bringing my own bags. The problem I face is that I often forget to, or I make an impromptu stop at the store and don’t have my bags with me. To address this I’ve purchased some nylon bags, that can roll into a built in pocket when not being used, making them small enough to fit into my purse. I also acquired some small cloth and mesh bags to use for produce. (I can also use these bags for the pastries I sometime purchase at my favorite coffee shop, to go with the latte, that I’ll have them pour into my reusable mug,  when I manage to remember that as well.)

Recycle: To better educate myself on the city’s recycling policies I visited the City of Davis’ Recycling Program website at: I was surprised to learn how many things can be recycled, ( a lot of which my family was frequently throwing into the trash)These items include many plastic food containers, shampoo and laundry detergent containers, dvd’s, and children’s plastic toys. I encourage anyone who is interested to visit the site to learn more about what can and can’t be recycled, and how to properly depose of potential hazardous materials.

Another great resource that combines recycling and reusing is Freecycle whose official mission is “to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community”.

Freecycle works like a free Craiglist, you go online and post any items that you no longer want but think someone else might find useful. I’ve found this service particularly useful for large or bulky objects I don’t want to lug to the thrift store. My experience has been that I post an item, and within hours, and sometime minutes,  I’ve arranged for someone to pick it up. So far I have found new homes for numerous items including a rocking chair, kid’s water table, tomato cages, and 200+ used file folders, and have met a lot of my Davis neighbors in the process.

Rot: Or basically, “Compost anything that can be composted”. Composting presents a huge challenge for us, mostly because the amount of food scrapes generated by my family is more then we are able to effectively compost. Plus I’ve never seem to be able to get the ratio of wet to dry materials correct, or achieve the optimal temperate for the process to work correctly.

There is a solution on the horizon for those of us wishing to divert our food scraps from the landfill but are, like me, composting challenged. It comes in the form of the green waste containerization program that the city of Davis is now contemplating. Moving from the open yard waste colloction system that the city currently uses, to a containerization program, would allow for the addition of food scraps and other compostable materials, potentially diverting about 30% of household waste from the landfill to a composting facility. (Council will be deciding on this issue later this year, and I encourage anyone who supports this effort to contact their council members and let them know).

I have no illusions that a year from now I will be writing an article saying that in 2014 my family only generated 2 handfuls of trash.  I’m hoping I will be able to say that my family significantly reduced the amount of trash we were responsible for sending to the landfill, and that we’ve learned new ways and our implementing new strategies to reach the seemingly impossible goal of zero waste. Here are some great resources for anyone wishing to join us in this endeavor.

Better, but maybe not the Best?

 I think this a great alternative to single use plastic water bottles. Eventually though I'd love if we could get back to a place where we rely on tap water to meet our hydration needs. Having better access to municipal water in our public spaces would be a place to start, so environmentally minded parents, like the ones that hosted the party we attended today at a local park, don't have to lug 5 gallon bottles of water around in order to provide the healthiest drink option to party goers.

I think this a great alternative to single use plastic water bottles. Eventually though I’d love if we could get back to a place where we rely on tap water to meet our hydration needs. Having better access to municipal water in our public spaces would be a place to start, so environmentally minded parents, like the ones that hosted the party we attended today at a local park, don’t have to lug 5 gallon bottles of water around in order to provide the healthiest drink option to party goers.

Zero Waste Will Soon be 25% Easier in Davis

Zero Waste Will Soon be 25% Easier in Davis

The City of Davis has a long history of taking progressive action when it comes to reducing our waste. We got our start in 1970 when Davis residents Richard Gertman, and Barney and Margaret Hill formed the Recycling Awareness Committee of Davis. This group, whose actions began with the coordination of a newspaper recycling program, that consisted of asking residents to bring their newspapers to drop boxes located around the town evolved, by 1974, into one of nations first curbside newspaper, bottle, and aluminum recycling programs, providing Davis residents a convenient way to divert these materials from the landfill.

Now, over 40 years later, thanks to a council decision made in April to implement a containerized organics collection program, Davis will join 48 other cities in California that allow for curbside pick-up of all compostable materials. (The current program only allows for composting of yard waste). Once the program is in place all compostable materials, which basically includes anything that was once alive, or made from something that was living, can go into the bins, allowing Davis residents to divert an estimated 25% of their household waste from the landfill.

As someone who is actively attempting to reduce my family’s waste I’m thrilled with the passage of this ordinance, as it will make a significant impact on how much material ends up in my my family’s trash can.

While backyard composting is the best way to deal with compostable waste, and the city offers excellent classes on this topic, composting my own waste comes with challenges I seem incapable off overcoming. Things as basic remembering to turn my pile every once and while pose a big enough barrier to success, much less figuring out the balance of nitrogen-rich “green stuff” and carbon-rich “brown stuff”.

Apparently temperature is important, needless to say mine never felt any warmer the then air surrounding it, which, from the research I’ve done, indicates that the microbial activity required for decomposition to occur never happened in my backyard.

I have never figured out when I’m supposed to let the pile “rest”, maybe that is because no pile I’ve attempted ever actually “worked” long enough to need a “rest”.

I hesitate to mention the worm box that we attempted a few summers ago. Lets just say that I still feel guilty about the horrible end these worms met roasting in the hot Davis summer sun, when we went on vacation and did not think of taking precautions to ensure the worms survival while we were gone, but I have vowed never to put another worm through that miserable experience, even if it meant having to toss some banana peels in the trash.

We have owned chickens now for over a year, and while we throw them a majority of our food scraps this method of trash diversion still has limitations. One is that while I’m happy to toss them carrot peels and stale bread, I’m not so keen on tossing them any meat or diary based food scraps. Plus given the number of rats or mice, I’m not sure which because I didn’t look long enough to confirm, that scurried out of the food scrap pile the last time I “turned” it, I think it is safe to say that the chickens are not the only ones enjoying my son’s leftover pasta, or my daughters apple core. I look forward to receiving my composting bin, so I will no longer have to choose between supporting the ever-growing rodent population in my yard, there is really only so much steal bread the chickens can eat, and sending my leftovers to the landfill.

While for the most part I’ve convinced my family to switch to the usable cloth variety, a fair number of food soiled paper napkins and paper towels still manage to find their way into our garbage along with the compostable food containers our dinner sometimes comes in, including the more then occasional cardboard pizza box, that is a little too grease stained to place in the recycling bin. Once the new composting program is in full swing, all these items can be placed in my composting bin, instead of the trash.

With the addition of this comprehensive organics collection system the City of Davis’ recycling program, which started as a modest newspaper collection system, formed by environmental conscious individuals over 40 years ago, now gives Davis residence the ability to divert almost all of their day to day household waste from the landfill, allowing the city to move one step closer to reaching its waste towards reduction targets, while giving my family another way to reach our goal of zero waste.

“Green Team” at Holmes Junior High Rocks the R’s

“Green Team” at Holmes Junior High Rocks the R’s

Recently I had the privilege of serving on the Nominating Committee for the Cool Davis’ annual Eco-Hero award. Among the  winners was the “Green Team” at Holmes Junior High. I got the chance to visit the school and talk to the two incredible staff members who have volunteered to lead the team, and meet with junior high students who are working to increase recycling and composting efforts on their campus.  Here is a write up I did for the team for the Davis Enterprise.

Green TEAM Picture Holmes Disposal

Holmes Green Team
By Michelle Millet

Science teacher Martha Quenon formed the Green Team at Holmes Junior High School six years ago with the intention to raise awareness of environmental issues among students. Since that time, the group has evolved into one that has taken a hands-on approach to reducing the amount of waste generated on their campus.

Ninth-grader Hailey Shapiro, a Green Team member, is receiving special recognition for, as Quenon describes, her tireless work toward implementing a sustainable composting and recycling system throughout the Holmes campus. Hailey says one of the biggest challenges she faces is getting other kids to care about recycling.

In an effort to do so, she and Green Team members developed a classroom presentation designed to teach fellow students about the recycling and composting programs.

Keri Hawkins, a paraeducator on campus, took over the reins of the Green Team in January. She has designed garden beds that are accessible to students with disabilities, written and received grants that help fund the gardening and recycling program at Holmes, and facilitated the Green Team’s recycling efforts by instigating their participation in the Keep California Beautiful K-12 Recycling Challenge, a statewide school competition promoting waste reduction and recycling.

Hawkins and the Green Team members have taken several steps to improve diversion rates on the Holmes campus. They color-coded collection bins to be consistent with the city of Davis’ and streamlined the bin locations. They also created 3-D posters to help educate students and staff about what items can be recycled in which bins.

Hawkins hopes that recycling and composting programs will at some point be integrated into the school district’s strategic plan and that their efforts at Holmes can serve as model for other schools to follow.

Zero Waste Shopping for the Organizationally Challenged

When I recently inventoried the contents of my family’s garbage and recycling bins I found that most of what was inside these containers came from food related packaging. For ideas on how to reduce this type of waste I turned to one of my favorite books on this topic Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson.

In her book Bea describes how shopping in bulk has allowed her to eliminate most grocery related packaging. She uses cloth bags when purchasing dry bulk items like flour, sugar, beans, and cereal. She puts loose produce in mesh bags, and she brings small jars for “wet” bulk items like honey or peanut butter. She reuses empty bottles for liquids like olive oil, vinegar, and syrup, and large-size jars for counter items like meat, fish, cheese and deli item.

While I think these, and some of the other ideas she shares, are wonderful I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to commit to the level of organization required to shop in this way. These ideas have inspired me though to look for ways to reduce packaging while shopping that don’t require a significant amount of pre-planning.

I’ve stocked up on lightweight nylon bags for carrying my groceries. They can be rolled into a self-contained pocket which makes them compact enough to keep conveniently stored in places like my car, bike basket, or purse.

When I find myself bagless, which occasionally happens when I’m making an impromptu stop for a handful of items, I pass on a bag all together and just load my items directly from the shopping cart into my car.

A little over a year ago we started buying milk in reusable glass containers. When they are empty we put in them dishwasher, which gets them clean enough to avoid lingering orders while they sit on the counter and await to be exchanged for full ones on our next shopping trip.

In my more organized moments I do make it to the store with own containers ready to shop the bulk isles for things like pasta, popcorn kernels, pretzels, cereal, and loose leaf tea.

More often then not, I arrive at the grocery store unequipped to shop in bulk, and find myself shopping the pre-packaged isles where I keep in mind that not all packaging is created equal.

When glass and paper products are recycled, they are made into equally recyclable glass and paper products. When plastic is recycled on the other hand it is really “downcycled” to an inferior quality of plastic that cannot be recycled again. So when I do purchase pre-packaged items, I try and avoid plastic and instead opt to buy items that come in glass or cardboard.

For example I’ll choose items like mayonnaise, mustard, that come in glass jars rather then plastic containers, and I’ll buy pasta that comes in a box instead of plastic wrap. I even found a brand of yogurt I like that comes in a glass container.

I’m always keeping my eye open for other plastic packaging alternatives. At the Davis Food Co-Op I found brands of dental floss and laundry detergent that are packaged in cardboard instead of plastic.

Instead of using liquid shampoo, I’ve switched to a bar shampoo, I also found at the Co-Op.

Shopping at Rite-Aid the other day I spotted small bins filled with completely packaging free tweezers, nail clipper, and nail files.

A favorite after school snack of my sons is a croissant from Nugget. Instead of buying them pre-packaged in a rigid plastic container, I pull a few from the bakery cabinet and put them either in my own bag, or a paper one provided by the store. If my son is with me, I skip the bag all together and just hand one to him.

When we host a family friendly get together I no longer purchase juice boxes for the kids. Not only are they not recyclable, the little plastic straws and plastic wrappers they come in never seem to end up in the garbage. Instead as a treat for the kids I buy juice drinks squeezes, which come in recyclable glass bottles.

Shopping for a dessert to bring to a friends family get together the other day I was happy to see that the Nugget is now offering some of their baked cookies and pies in cardboard containers rather then the rigid plastic ones.

While we are on the topic of cookies, Whole Foods offers what I like to describe as a cookie bar where I can pick and choose from a variety of 10-15 different treats, and load them into my own container, or use one of the paper bags provided.

My family is a long way from living a packaging free life. My daughters favorite yogurt only comes in a plastic container, and my sons favorite bread only comes wrapped in multiply layers of plastic, and on occasion, despite my efforts to avoid rigid plastic plastics containers the desire to eat the baked goods contained in them override my desire to live a zero-waste lifestyle. So while I don’t see myself making my own granola bars any time soon, I will continue to look for things my family can do to lessen our impact by reducing our waste.

Questions, comments, or ideas? Please feel free to contact me at

I’m Not Alone!

Michelle Millet:

Glad to be in such great company. Looking forward to sharing ideas and learning from my fellow zero waste attempting bloggers! If you want to join the group let me know!

Originally posted on Near-O Waste:

I was recently invited to join a network of zero waste bloggers and I must say I was honored. It’s so exciting to connect with other people who are on the same mission! Check out these blogs about zero waste, homesteading, and other similar ventures:

Grunish, out of Oregon (This is the blogger who invited me to join the network. Thank you, Inge, and sorry… I couldn’t figure out how to add an umlaut over the “u” in Grunish!)

Zany Green Quest, out of California

Zero Waste Familie, out of Germany (but if you don’t speak German, good luck reading this one!)

Whistle Pig Hollow, out of Tennessee

My Zero Waste, out of the UK

A Dream Lived Greener, out of Canada

Zero Waste Girl, out of Washington DC

Mixed Media Musings, out of California

Zero Waste Blog, out of Germany

The Homesteading Hippy, out…

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