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Jeanie and Brian Wilson and children Felix, Dom, and Amata, Ann Arbor, 2013

Family vs. Garbage

Taking the Zero Waste Challenge

by Shelley Daily

From the January, 2014 issue

Jeanie Wilson's day of reckoning came last June. "I must've picked up at least ten Costco granola bar wrappers from all over the house," she says. The mother of three says that that discovery, combined with her weekly "soul-draining" walk to the curb with the family's garbage cart, convinced her it was time for a change. She'd read about Californian Bea Johnson--a guru of the no-garbage movement--and looked up her blog, "Zero Waste Home." "I read the entire thing in two days," Wilson says.

Growing up in a generation that "started the conservation movement" left its mark on her, Wilson explains. "My second-grade teacher did a unit on garbage, and ever since the term 'biodegradable' is ingrained in my head." Her dedication deepened once she had children and started teaching science (since last fall, at Scarlett Middle School). So she was ready to commit to Johnson's waste elimination guidelines: decline packaging--especially plastic; recycle and compost everything else; reduce; and reuse. But her husband was skeptical.

Brian Wilson, an electrical engineer, grew up eating fast food. "The environment wasn't even on my radar," he recalls as he and his wife drink chai tea in the kitchen of their west-side home on a Saturday morning. When Jeanie raised the idea of going zero-waste, "I thought it was a great goal," he says. "But I was a little worried it would consume too much time."

Jeanie, a spunky thirty-five-year-old, admits that at first it did. She laughs to recall how, when they began their "adventure" last summer, she was determined not to purchase anything with packaging. Once the school year started and the family got busier, she says, "We realized that recycling is OK."

The Wilsons now put out a nearly full recycling cart each week, and a compost cart about every other week in season. That soul-draining garbage cart, though, now goes to the curb only about four times a year.


Jeanie opens her kitchen pantry: no Cheerios or Cheez-Its

...continued below...

there. Instead, the shelves are lined with glass jars in all sizes, purchased from thrift stores and then filled with bulk flour, pasta, rice, beans, chocolate chips, Craisins, and more. In the fridge, there's just one item wrapped in plastic: corn tortillas. The milk is from Calder Dairy (in reusable glass bottles) and the eggs are hand delivered (in reusable cartons) by a farmer who also supplies fresh meat (the remnants of a whole pig are in the freezer). Carrots are kept in a mesh bag. A sourdough bread round is on the counter under a glass dome.

Instead of granola bars, the Wilsons now usually eat actual granola or pancakes for breakfast. Apples are a favorite snack (cores go in the compost). Not buying packaged food, Jeanie says, saves them "crazy money." But they do treat themselves to takeout a couple times a week--"Pizza comes in a cardboard box!"--and Jeanie still buys a few things, like her favorite holiday tea from Trader Joe's, even though the cardboard box is wrapped in plastic.

The Wilsons' kids circle in and out of the kitchen as their parents talk and share their thoughts on the lifestyle change: Amata, age six, smiles and gives a big thumbs-up, while Dom, age eight, gives a thumbs-down: "Because what do you think candy comes in?" Felix, four, says "I like to help mommy with the recycling!" The family is committed to "not having more than we need," Jeanie says--although the kids still get toys and gifts from grandparents. She says the movie WALL-E, about a robot designed to clean up a garbage-ravaged future earth, helps the kids understand the downside of mass consumption.

The Wilson family is not alone. Sarah Lorenz, forty-two, estimates that her family of five has reduced its garbage by about 50 percent in the past two years. She started by cutting out disposable diapers years ago and then moved on to using cloth napkins for meals, rags in place of paper towels, and "handkerchiefs in pockets" instead of Kleenex. She even packs zero-waste lunches for her kids, using tiny Ball canning jars for fruits and snacks. But they're not ready to give up their favorite boxed cereals quite yet.

Recycle Ann Arbor's Christine Chessler-Stull, who coordinates zero-waste events for the city, urges people to "start small and ease yourself into it--don't try to change everything overnight." The first step might be as simple as using a reusable mug for morning coffee--or not buying anything that comes in single-serve packaging.

Meantime, Ann Arbor's solid waste coordinator Tom McMurtrie says the city is doing what it can to make recycling and composting more convenient. McMurtrie says a recent waste sort found that 50 percent of what people put out in the trash is food waste. A proposal to expand city compost collection--from just vegetative waste to all plate scrapings--was approved by city council at its December 16 meeting.


For the Wilsons, there's no going back to their former lifestyle. "It's like I got contacts for my eyes that made me see," Jeanie says. Brian says he's lost a little weight eating more "fresh and local" food--though he also got a kegerator to sweeten the deal (beer on tap is eco-friendly).

Jeanie admits she's put her "foot in my mouth" many times when she's encountered wasteful situations, like the school event where plastic cups were used. "I said, 'What are we doing here?!'" When she saw the expression on the event organizer's face, she says, she realized "I was being rude, and I needed to learn to tone it down."

Although she insists she's not interested in becoming an activist or "changing the world," she'd like to see one issue in particular addressed: the use of disposable foam dishes for public school lunches. But for the most part, the family tries to focus inside their own home. "Either people think we're totally nuts," she says, "or they think it's great, but they say it seems like a lot of work." Brian insists that "once you get into a routine, it actually saves time--and we spend a lot less time at Target."

Upstairs in the Wilsons' home, Jeanie points out her homemade cleaning products, made of castile soap, baking soda, and vinegar. An attempt to make her own lipstick out of beet powder was an "epic fail," but her blush is a homemade concoction of cocoa powder and cinnamon. She opens the cupboard below the sink and pulls out a bucket filled with human hair that's headed to the compost bin. She senses some hesitation from me. "What? Do you think it's weird?" she asks.

Weirdness aside, Jeanie is clearly dedicated to the mission. She picks up a glass dispenser on the bathroom counter that's filled with baking soda and stevia that she uses to brush her teeth. But that's the point where Brian thinks they should just "let it go." She opens the vanity drawer to reveal the tube of toothpaste that her kids and husband still use.    (end of article)

[Originally published in January, 2014.]


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