FEATURE

Tired of overflowing garbage and blue bins, Winnipeg family zeroes in on waste reduction

The Anderson-Johnsons have always recycled, but it's only in the past few years the Winnipeg family of five has embarked on a journey to reuse and reduce in a major way.

Homemade soaps, bamboo toothbrushes, avoiding plastic bags like the plague all part of journey to zero waste

Angela Anderson and her family have spent the past two years trying to cut down on the amount of garbage they send to the landfill by making many small but meaningful changes. 2:22

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink is a CBC News series about recycling. We're looking at why our communities are at a turning point and exploring ways to recycle better. You can be part of the conversation by joining our Facebook group.


The Anderson-Johnsons have always recycled, but it's only in the past few years the Winnipeg family of five has embarked on a journey to reuse, reduce — and refuse — in a major way.

"Recycling is helpful but there's a lot more that you can do," says Angela Anderson, 42.

It started in 2015, when on a garbage day like any other Anderson was driving down the back alley behind her West End home and laid eyes on a familiar sight: the same old row of garbage and blue bins lined up at the edges of her neighbours' driveways, filled to the brim or spilling onto the concrete. That triggered something.

"Something has to change," she recalls thinking. "Can one person really make much of a difference?"

Little moments began to pile up and were punctuated by things Anderson serendipitously stumbled upon online, like an agonizing, eight-minute long viral video uploaded to YouTube in 2015 that shows researchers removing a plastic straw deeply wedged in the nostril of a sea turtle. (Viewers be warned, the video contains cursing and graphic scenes involving blood.)

"I saw that and I was like, 'Plastic straws are destroying our oceans,' and that was pretty pinnacle as well," she says. Needless to say, her family now only uses reusable straws.

Those outside examples seemed symptomatic of the excesses of modern consumer culture, so Anderson looked inward and saw not just how the problem of waste manifested in her own home, but how her family was contributing to the larger issue.

She and her husband Christian Johnson, 41, have two kids together — Sylar Anderson Johnson, 7, and Atticus Anderson Johnson, 4, — and a third child of Johnson's from a past relationship named Mason Pidlaski, 15.

"I thought of our kids and how they are influenced in how we live and what we do," she said. "Not everything goes in the recycling bin."

Book, blog, Facebook group

Hoping to set a good example for their kids — one that transcends the simplistic "recycling = good" equation — the family dove headlong into the world of zero waste.

Sylar Anderson-Johnson hugs his mom, Angela, in their home in Winnipeg's West End. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The concept was popularized by author Bea Johnson in her book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. It, and the associated blog, chart Johnson's path toward reducing waste, and saving money and boosting the quality of life for her family in the process.

The book gained steam after its 2013 release — it's been published in 22 different languages since. It spawned a movement that Anderson proudly counts herself a part of, though she admits getting started wasn't easy.

"It was such a big commitment, right? And it just seemed so overwhelming."

She started Journey to Zero Waste Winnipeg, a Facebook group devoted to helping ease others into the sometimes challenging lifestyle changes that come with trying to reduce your footprint in the landfill.

The roughly 300 group members swap practical ideas for how they're trimming the amount of waste they produce. Clothing swaps and events are planned, and they also draw a sense of meaning, accountability and understanding from the goals and challenges that others freely share.

Recycling dos and don'ts

Teresa Looy with the Green Action Centre says one easy way to lessen your impact on the Earth is to check with your municipality about what is and isn't recyclable, something that varies by jurisdiction based on the limitations of your local processing and sorting plant.

When non-recyclable materials get mixed in with recyclables, it can lead to contamination that sometimes forces processing plants to trash entire loads they might otherwise be able to sell. (Although that's become increasingly difficult, too, as China, one of the largest markets for recyclables, has clamped down on what kinds of plastics it will buy.)

"I think it's easy to see your full blue bin and feel really good about yourself," Looy says. "Recycling still takes energy and water and needs to be packaged."

She says people need to reorder their thinking and focus on reducing and refusing to purchase or use certain things before moving onto the recycling bit. 

Watch the dos and don'ts of recycling:

Teresa Looy with the Green Action Centre explains some of the common mistakes people make recycling. 1:46

Styrofoam, plastic bags, clothing, foil and shrink wrap get tossed in blue bins all the time, but they end up in the landfill. And then there are arguably more obvious no-nos.

"An entire deer — don't put deer in the recycling bin," Looy says. 

Avoiding plastic like the plague

Among the first changes for the Andersons was a new emphasis on growing their own vegetables, composting, cooking most meals from scratch and avoiding plastic bottles, bags and groceries covered in plastic wrap.

"If it has packaging, we tend not to buy it. We look somewhere else," she said.

They ask grocery store delis to place some meats and other foods in reusable takeout containers they bring with them from home, a practice they also apply to leftovers whenever they go out for dinner.

The family makes vegetable broth from veggie scraps that get cut up during cooking, and what's left goes into the compost.

A look at Anderson's haul from the grocery store. All of her produce goes in mesh drawstring or cloth bags. (Tyson Koshik/CBC)

They use reusable bags for groceries and mesh drawstring bags for fruit and vegetables. The stickers that come on every individual fruit and vegetable still really irk Anderson, though she hopes large-scale producers in Canada take heed of some companies in Sweden that have transitioned to laser-branding of produce to cut down on sticker waste.

'We still use toilet paper'

Everyone in the house uses bamboo toothbrushes; the handles are compostable and the bristles and top can be recycled. Anderson uses compostable floss, and toothpaste that comes in a glass container that can be recycled or reused. Instead of tampons or pads, she opts for a reusable menstrual cup.

"We still use toilet paper — we're not quite ready to make that switch yet," Anderson says, though she says you won't find paper towels in their home.

The family tries to buy clothes second-hand as much as possible, and they try to repair rather than replace items — like a weathered, decade-old kitchen table they "gave a little facelift" instead of buying new.

Anderson says this table was getting old, but rather than get rid of it she gave it a new paint job. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Anderson taught herself how to make her own liquid soap, an apple cider vinegar and baking soda shampoo, and cleaning supplies for the home, which she uses increasingly through her business as a house cleaner. Most of the concoctions she makes go in reused glass jars that used to hold kitchen condiments.

"Frank's [RedHot] sauce comes in a glass jar. Great. Now, after we were done with it, instead of it going into the recycling bin, I reused, added a nozzle and now it's a squirt bottle for cleaning," Anderson said.

Zero waste: The next generation

Based on all these changes, the family no longer has to wheel their garbage and recycling bins out to the curb every week. In one recent example Anderson says they went six weeks before filling the big garbage bin.

She says the kids have become more mindful of waste, and time in the garden has helped.

"Growing our own food is a wonderful teaching lesson for our little zero wasters," she said.

Sylar tends to bring home scraps from his lunch to compost them rather than throw them out at school. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Sylar regularly brings his bread crusts and fruit cores home from school to compost them. He's even caught his mom breaking the rules from time to time.

"Once when me and Mom were walking home from school, Mom bought plastic bags and I told her I had room in my backpack, and I got pretty upset that she used plastic bags," Sylar said. "[It's important] that we don't pollute waters."

Atticus, at just four, is slowly catching on.

"Before he throws something out, he'll ask, 'Is this reusable?'" Anderson said.

'One thing at a time'

Some might dismiss the movement as something exclusively for people with lots of money, time and privilege. Anderson says on the whole, she feels they spend about the same amount of time focused on reducing their waste they did before, except they feel better and are more conscious of the impact they have outside their door.

"I don't sit around all day making lotions and toothpaste, and I don't make my own bread yet," she said. "It's just kind of one thing at a time.

"Our Earth that we live on is full. It's full of garbage, it's full of people, so if we can do something about that, it would be great. Because we only have one Earth. We can't pack up and leave this place."

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is a journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Tyson Koschik