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The Family That Wastes Naught

Jess Chamberlain | March 25, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

WHEN ROBIN BARNEBY WELCOMED BABY OLIVER to the family last year, she did not dress him in blue. He wore the same muted, gender-neutral wardrobe that his three-year-old sister, Gemma, had worn when she was a newborn. There was no baby shower, and the family accepted no gifts. “We didn’t need anything,” says Robin. “People feel pressure that you need all this stuff with a new baby, but you really, really don’t.” Oliver still doesn’t have a bouncy seat, chairs, or swings. “Most of the time he’s on a blanket on the floor, rolling around.”

For the Barnebys, the path to a stuff-less parenthood began five years ago. Robin, a former speech pathologist who’s now a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Geoff, an IBM employee, decided that they wanted to align their interest in the environment with their lifestyle and buying choices. Room by room in their 1,300-square-foot Russian Hill flat, they combed through their possessions, keeping only what they unequivocally loved or needed (a Heath dishware set, two iron skillets, Robin’s “black leggings and sweater uniform”) and giving away everything else (the rest of the dishes, a set of nonstick pans, and all jewelry except for weddings rings and one pair of earrings that Robin wears every day). Purge complete, they started purchasing with the severest discipline: only items that were durable and nondisposable, that used little packaging, and that could be bought in bulk or secondhand.

This wasn’t just a budgetary decision—although there’s no doubt that it’s a frugal way to live. The Barnebys were dedicating themselves permanently and completely to a life of zero waste. Not only would they stop throwing unrecyclable and noncompostable refuse into the waste bin, but they would also stop bringing such objects into their lives altogether. And beyond that, they would get rid of anything they owned that was likely to enter the waste stream in the future. In essence, they were detaching themselves from the world of things. Their decision was not consciously linked to San Francisco’s own waste elimination efforts (the city has set a deadline to eliminate all landfill-bound garbage by 2020), but it was a move that echoed the city’s emergent anti-trash worldview. In fact, you could say that the Barnebys are about seven years ahead of the curve.

Though the Barneby household is an extreme example, such anti-trash proclivities are on the rise throughout the country. Nationally, the recycling rate has risen from about 16 percent in 1990 to 34 percent in 2010, according to the EPA. This, in large part, is due to the simplicity of the concept: Unlike many environmental efforts, managing your home waste isn’t like deciphering Java code. “It’s super-tangible,” says EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld, who eliminated all individual office trash bins in his first week on the job (each floor of the San Francisco EPA office now has a three-bin system). “Unlike greenhouse gas, zero waste is something you can point to.” And bringing down our levels of waste benefits more than the environment: “If the entire country set a goal of 75 percent landfill diversion by 2030, we’d create an additional 1.1 million jobs,” Blumenfeld adds. Above all, proponents say, it’s about teaching a throwaway society to rethink what it uses. And the most obvious place to begin these lessons would be at home. But how exactly does a family rid its household of disposable goods? The Barnebys have some answers.

WHILE IT'S NOT DIFFICULT TO admire the zenlike simplicity of the Barneby home, for many people, living like this would be, well, a downer (or, at the least, very, very difficult). On the one hand, their decluttered house is the definition of chic, sustainable minimalism— there are no packaged goods in the kitchen, no stacks of mail by the front door, no mounds of laundry in the closet, no beeping and flashing baby toys strewn everywhere, no junk drawer in the kitchen, and, needless to say, no garbage can in sight. On the other hand, how many of us could give up our TVs, never buy a carton of ice cream on impulse, or restrict ourselves to exactly 23 articles of clothing, as Robin does?

But never mind such modern amenities—how do you keep a first-world family fed, clothed, and healthy when you’re averse to creating any waste? The key word, say the Barnebys, is “intentionality.” Nothing in their world is bought or acquired without first considering its end use. At the grocery store, the family shops by list, with no spontaneous purchases. The refrigerator in their tiny kitchen is stocked with glass jars and bottles of bulk and homemade foods—pesto sauce, peanut butter, jams, vegetables, eggs, Claravale Farm raw milk, Straus Family Creamery half-and-half, mozzarella from Molinari Delicatessen, and wine in refillable bottles from La Nebbia Winery in Half Moon Bay, where you can bring in a clean bottle and have it filled with fresh wine. Even ice cream resides in a glass jar replenished at Swensen’s down the street. The pantry is similarly stocked with rows of glass jars filled with beans, nuts, teas, pasta, grains, and Geoff-made scones. (The only thing missing from the appetizing tableau is cardboard boxes.) The kitchen tools are just the essentials: cast-iron skillets, a stainless steel coffee press, a food processor. Geoff, the primary cook, crafts all meals from scratch, but he is eager to confess some impurities: He sometimes buys a large bag of potato chips, and, short of foraging in the ocean, he hasn’t found an alternative for the packaged seaweed that he uses to make sushi.

In Gemma’s bedroom, the small collection of toys is made of wood or fabric, and the only pile of anything is a stack of library books. It is a space, one immediately thinks, that’s tailormade for napping. The closet contains a few pieces of clothing on hangers and some baskets of building blocks. A tea set resides on a toddler-size desk near a wooden car track and a colorful xylophone. The stroller is from Craigslist, as are the car seats. “I don’t have any reservations about asking other moms if they’re willing to lend something they’re finished using,” says Robin. “We’re always passing things back and forth.” As for Oliver’s baby diapers? They use compostable ones from the service EarthBaby, which drops off and picks up diapers and wipes that are then composted at its facility in Santa Clara County (diapers can’t go in municipal compost).

The master bedroom down the hall is similarly spare: It has a bed, a nightstand, some library books, a mirror, and a million-dollar Golden Gate view. The tiny closet that Robin and Geoff share is practically bare: It looks like everything must be at the dry cleaner—or like they’ve been robbed. When the family went on a 10-day trip over the holidays, clothing for all four of them fit into one carry-on suitcase. (How’s that even possible?) “And we didn’t even wear half of it,” adds Robin. (Oh, come on!) “When I first started simplifying, Geoff would come back from a business trip and wonder where things had disappeared to. I’d say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think you were using that.’”

The bathroom inventory includes bulk soap, bulk shampoo and conditioner, Geoff ’s straight razors (Robin cops to using disposables out of fear of slicing up her legs), and toothpaste in a glass jar (Robin tried making her own, but Geoff wasn’t a fan). About the only thing the Barnebys won’t compromise on is medications. “If the kids are sick, we won’t think twice about it. If it’s in a package, it’s in a package,” says Robin. There are other exceptions as well, she admits a bit guiltily: the tinted moisturizer with SPF from Marie Veronique Organics, say, or the mascara and lip gloss for special occasions. But, in one small victory for stuff-lessness, Robin just gave away the hair dryer that she was using once a year. “We’re always asking ourselves ‘Can I live without this? Am I using it?’”

SUFFICE IT TO SAY, this life isn’t for everyone. In fact, as one snoops around the family’s yoga studio of a home, one begins to wonder if there might be something a tad neurotic about the Barnebys’ yearning to rid themselves of (nearly) all the physical objects around them. Or, to put it more cynically, isn’t this just the inverse of being an obsessive hoarder? Robin and Geoff admit that they have to repress certain natural impulses in order to maintain this life of renunciation. For instance, they haven’t printed out a single family photo since 2007—even Robin and Geoff ’s wedding album is digital. Also, there’s their anemic entertainment diet: “I don’t expose myself to media that’s trying to make me a consumer,” says Geoff. “If you don’t know it exists, you don’t long for it.” In the same vein, Robin won’t read fashion magazines, reasoning that if you stay away from the marketing (and the mall), you won’t know what you’re missing.

Obviously, nobody ever died from denying herself Real Housewives and Vogue, but in the year 2013, is this level of cultural abstinence really advisable? I posed the question to Dr. Gail Steketee, dean and professor at Boston University School of Social Work, who specializes in obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders. She wasn’t concerned. “Were we to go back a few generations,” she says, “we would find many of our ancestors doing very similar things, but not by choice—by necessity.” Steketee doesn’t see a cautionary tale in the Barnebys’ hyper-consciousness, but “rather a reasonable effort to counteract what appears to be human nature gone too far. Most of us are simply more attached to objects than they may be.”

“For me, the desire to simplify and declutter has become greater than my attachment to possessions,” explains Robin, who insists that they don’t take measures so far that life becomes uncomfortable. To be sure, there’s a certain degree of trial and error to their austerity drive. “It’s a journey of awareness,” says Robin. “We never want to make choices where we end up feeling deprived. If a choice doesn’t work”—as when she tried to make shampoo out of baking soda and apple cider vinegar—“we change it so it does.” (They now buy bulk shampoo from Rainbow Grocery.)

Indeed, Robin and Geoff readily admit that they’re not purists. There is some trash. They end up with a handful of waste every month, which they collect in a six-inch metal canister under the kitchen sink (in case you don’t get the point, the can is marked “Landfill”). Between Earth Day 2011 and Earth Day 2012, the Barnebys saved all their trash—an effort to see what they were using that they should be refusing—and ended up with two brown grocery bags’ worth of refuse. About 99 percent of it was plastic, and about 90 percent of that was cheese wrappers. (“We do buy cheese wheels, but if we run out and our order isn’t ready, we buy from the counter,” explains Robin. “We go through a lot of it.”) The rest was mainly packaging from cleaning products or medicine.

Although they’ve chosen to measure the trash they generate to the ounce, they insist that the biggest change to their lifestyle has been about quality, not quantity. “We have more time for our kids, more time for each other, more time for experiences,” says Robin, who mentions that they’ve rediscovered the public library, where they check out piles of books every week. But, one might wonder, are you really saving time when you’re burning so many hours trying (and failing) to make your own shampoo? Consider, says Robin: fewer items to care for and clean (no houseplants to tend to, no picture frames to dust); less stuff to tidy up (using only a fitted sheet and duvet means that it takes 10 seconds to make the bed); no recreational trips to the mall; and no lengthy grocery store runs (they go once a week). “Even Gemma knows where her toys and clothes belong,” says her mother. And, Geoff jokes, they never waste time searching for a TV remote.

At its core, it’s a lifestyle based on idealism and togetherness instead of goods and services. Sure, Robin sometimes gets bored with her limited wardrobe and the lack of variety in the bulk food aisles, and Geoff sometimes misses his inventory of sports gear. And occasionally things get awkward with visitors: Last year, Robin had to ask a mother visiting for play group to take her child’s disposable diaper home with her, explaining that they didn’t “really have a trash can, and that any trash we make we are saving.” (On the same note, Robin used to send her own mother home with the Saran wrap and Ziploc bags she brought over with baked goods.) But they haven’t had any vocal detractors. “Often, we’re proactive about it,” says Robin. “We’ll email or phone a new friend who’s going to visit, explaining that we try to live without making waste. I jokingly say, ‘If you bring anything, you have to take it with you.’”

Only, in fact, she’s not joking at all.

Read More:
A Year of Living Trashlessly
Follow That Compost!
Zero Waste All-Stars
How To Zero-Waste Your Own Life
The End of the Trash

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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