From Zero Waste to Buy Nothing: A family's quest for simpler, greener living

Zero Waste grocery shop
© Kris Andrew -- After a Zero Waste grocery, where the focus is on reusables, with preference given to glass and metal, and plastic is avoided like the plague.

Adopting a waste-conscious and anti-consumerist lifestyle is not something that happens overnight. Sometimes it's nice to hear about other people who are just starting out, like this young family from southwestern Ontario, Canada.

Two years ago, a couple named Kris and Ray Andrew sold their nice townhouse in a new subdivision and moved with their two young children to a tiny cottage perched on the edge of Lake Huron. At just over 600 square feet, it features three tiny bedrooms, a little kitchen, and a cozy living room with a wood-burning fireplace and a breathtaking view of waves crashing onto a rocky, driftwood-strewn shore.

view of Lake Huron© Kris Andrew - A view of wild, windy Lake Huron

Kris Andrew - The Lake Life blog© The Lake Life -- Kris Andrew on the beach at Lake Huron

Kris and Ray are friends of mine. I’ve been watching the changes in their life with great interest while following Kris’ blog, The Lake Life. The most recent shift in their lifestyle has been adopting Zero Waste practices. After several months of Zero Waste, they have taken it a step further to embrace a ‘Buy Nothing’ approach.

Curious about how it’s going, and because stories about starting out on new paths are always interesting, we got together for a talk. Kris and Ray explained they started the project for different reasons. Kris had environmental concerns and pushed far harder for Zero Waste than Ray, who just wanted to save money. Fortunately they’ve done a great job at accomplishing both goals.

Like so many Zero Wasters, Kris was inspired by Bea Johnson, the now-famous San Francisco woman who wrote The Zero Waste Home, as well as The Minimalists, Lauren Singer of Trash Is For Tossers, “The Clean Bin Project,” and TreeHugger. But unlike Johnson and many other urban followers, Kris lives in a remote location with limited options for shopping. This makes it very difficult to get rid of packaging and to find businesses that are willing to accommodate such unusual habits.

When asked if it discourages her, Kris laughed and replied, “I’ve been called ‘extreme.’ But it makes me more committed because I’m so frustrated by how hard it is.”

Their Zero Waste lifestyle is still in its early stages, having begun only three months ago, but it’s already making a big difference. The family puts out one small grocery bag of trash and one box of recycling every two weeks. Kris bakes the family’s bread, shops for nuts, lentils, herbs, spices, and pastas in cloth bags that she sewed herself, and has cheese blocks and meat placed directly in reusable containers. They even found a dairy that sells milk in refillable glass jars. They compost food scraps in paper leaf bags and have plans to get a solar digester once the weather warms up.

homemade reusable bags© Kris Andrew - Homemade reusable bags for bulk food items

Kris expressed disillusionment with the consumerist ethos that still manages to creep into the Zero Waste online support community: “There are people who still buy tons of used stuff. You can find these crazy Zero Waste haul videos on YouTube, but just because something is second-hand doesn’t mean you should buy it.”

Their next experiment – to buy nothing that is non-essential for one month – seemed to be a natural extension of Zero Waste. Not only were Kris and Ray shocked at how much money stayed in their bank account after getting paid, but they also found it much easier adhering to Zero Waste because there was less stuff lying around.

The first month was such a success that they told me this will become their new norm. At the start of each month, they create a list of necessities based on seasonal shopping requirements, i.e. renovation season is about to start and the cottage needs some work; some car parts are necessary for Ray’s 1987 VW Cabrio convertible; and their favorite second-hand clothing shop opens in May.

It hasn’t been easy for the kids, who are old enough to understand that a radical lifestyle has been foisted upon them by their parents and there is nothing they can do about it. Kris wrote on her blog:

“What we’ve taken away from this is how engrained consumerism was/is in our lives. Our daughter said to me the other day that she missed the way things used to be. I asked her what she missed. She couldn’t pinpoint it exactly, but everything she mentioned centered around buying stuff. Then it hit me. Our kids are spoiled. And if I’m being totally honest, so are we. Not in the bratty, kick-you-in-the-shins-for-no-reason spoiled. They’re awesome kids. But every time we went out, they came home with a little toy, or piece of clothing, or new book. We never came home empty-handed.”

It is a tough shift for anyone to break away from the accepted way of doing things and stand up to a system that, despite damaging the environment, is so deeply entrenched. Kris and Ray are proof that it is possible to adopt a waste-conscious and anti-consumerist lifestyle regardless of where you live. Even if you can’t go to Bea Johnson’s extremes due to limited resources, you can make a significant difference.

Want to get started? Check out Kris’ blog post on the 5 R’s, the building blocks of Zero Waste, and see where it takes you.

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