Welcome to our new monthly column on living a zero-waste lifestyle.

I have long been intrigued by the challenges of zero-waste living, and it was inevitable that I would someday commit to a trial run. My decision was moved by images of plastic being pulled from the bellies of unsuspecting sea creatures and the news that much of our plastic recycling could no longer be sold and was therefore destined for the landfill or limbo.

Cynthia Albers

Cynthia Albers

Still believing in the power of daily acts, I stepped onto the zero-waste path in February 2018 and vowed to refuse plastic consumerism.

“Just say no,” I told myself. How hard could it be?

Embarking on this new practice required some premeditation. The initial goal was to avoid bringing new plastic and unnecessary packaging into my home. Groceries were the primary target. I consulted the work of local waste-free pioneers and was emboldened by a video from “Zero Waste Home” author Bea Johnson of Mill Valley.

Following Bea’s example, I surveyed the reusable containers in my kitchen, from glass mason jars to plastic clip-lock containers, and located my set of reusable produce bags, which had been forgotten in a kitchen drawer. I brought my containers to be weighed at the grocery store at a non-peak business hour and then shopped the perimeter of the store, where whole and bulk foods can be found.

When my grocery bags were unpacked, the items that could not be consumed, reused or composted amounted to a bottle cap and a few produce stickers.

With few exceptions, this has been my routine for over one year. There is deep satisfaction in simplifying what is brought into my home and an equal level of surprise at what I am no longer throwing away.

In Sonoma County, where we boast of conscious consumerism, it is not difficult to find waste-free options. That said, ask your grocer if home-brought containers are permitted at the fish and meat counter, and expect very different rules when approaching the deli and salad bar. Some stores offer bulk shampoos and soaps, and most stores offer some paper-wrapped paper products. The Sebastopol Farmers’ Market is a prime destination for unpackaged foods, including cheese that is sliced to order.

The size and age group of your household may determine the speed and quality of a zero-waste transition. Consider it an education and a work-in-progress. Bea Johnson’s family agreed to these principles:

• Refuse what we do not need.

• Reduce what we do need.

• Reuse what we have or buy second-hand.

• Recycle only what we cannot reuse.

• Rot (compost) the rest.

Johnson, by the way, will be the keynote speaker for the North Bay Zero Waste Symposium on July 31 at SOMO Village.

Anne Marie, “The Zero Waste Chef,” blogs about her family experiences in Silicon Valley and wrote, “At its core, the grassroots zero-waste movement rejects unbridled consumerism. To live a zero- or low-waste lifestyle, first and foremost, you buy less stuff. You use what you have. Living this way means relying on ourselves more to fulfill our needs and relying less on corporations for the conveniences they will happily sell to us.” 

Assorted bags and bins now live in my car. I’m finding the groceries I need and wistfully letting go of over-packaged things I would like to have but cannot justify. Some essentials can be made at home, and those who possess culinary skills will excel far beyond my attempt to make yogurt, which is another story altogether. This work-in-progress continues to grow in ways I never imagined.

Cynthia Albers is a member of the Sebastopol Zero-Waste Subcommittee.

(2) comments


Congratulations on this important new column! Starting at the grocery store is fine, but there's a whole big world out there. I stopped buying plastic bottles years ago - what an impact if everyone did that!


I have questions... prescription bottles? tortilla chips in paper lined with some kind of plastic? supplements? seems like waxed cartons (soy milk) recycling isn't always available. My post office won't let me refuse junk mail. Magazine companies tell me that even if they quit sending theirs I'll keep getting more because my name is being sold constantly. Toiletries like deodorant? Candles don't come in bulk. Used batteries. Computer/electrical cords. Laptops. Plants in plastic containers from the nursery (that won't reuse the containers, I've asked. ) If we drive a car we're not zero waste. I'm going to do what I read is how best to start, to just take one thing at a time, but most articles make it sound like just grocery shopping with my own jars makes me zero waste. It doesn't seem that simple.

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