Living sustainably and producing less garbage—it’s a beguiling idea. With climate change and growing plastic patches in the ocean, it feels like the right thing to do. But given the sheer amount of stuff that comes with raising kids, it also feels impossible.
The Leblond family—Katelin and Kevin and their kids, Phoenix, 6, and Cléo, 4—have taken the impossible and made it their reality. Their goal? Zero waste, which means that they try to send as little to landfill as they can. Heading into their fifth year of living minimally, they’re not quite there yet, but they are very close. They manage to fit the garbage they produce each year (which they track annually from one Earth Day to the next) into one large glass jar.
Though she had always been eco-conscious, Katelin says she struggled to match her concerns with her actions. Her desire to help got even stronger once she had kids and she started to make small efforts to reduce their carbon footprint, like avoiding plastic-wrapped produce. But she was eager to do more.
Four years ago, Kevin, who is in the Royal Canadian Air Force, was on a nine-month deployment and Katelin was on maternity leave in Victoria, BC, with their then-eight-month-old daughter, Cléo, and 2½-year-old son, Phoenix. Katelin was on Facebook and came across a video by Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, on her family’s quest to reduce their garbage. She bought and devoured Johnson’s book in a few days and immediately started implementing changes to how she shopped, ate and recycled—much to the surprise of her husband on his return home.
“The philosophy for us is to use as little plastic as possible—definitely no single-use plastic if we can avoid it,” explains Katelin. “With everything else, we do our absolute best to make sure that it gets in the right recycling stream after we’ve used it to its fullest extent.”
It sounds simple enough, but when you sit down and contemplate the implications (no Pokémon packs, limited takeout options and what about toothpaste?), living waste-free seems incredibly intimidating. But as Katelin says, there are many little things that everyone can start to do, and all those small changes can have a very big effect.
Why zero waste?
While steps like using solar panels and buying an electric car were on Katelin’s radar, zero waste was something they could actually afford to do right away. And saving money was part of the equation. By paring back, Katelin says they’ve reduced their variable spending by 13 percent (and she suspects they’ve reduced it even further since getting rid of their car).
There have been other benefits as well. “Learning to live with less has freed up so much time and space,” she says. “I feel calmer when I come home. Our house still gets dirty—I still have to clean the bathroom and mop the floors—but everything else takes a lot less time. It’s really, really nice.”
Through modelling, Kevin and Katelin have helped their kids learn how to live in an environmentally friendly way, too. “It’s not like we talk about this stuff every day; it’s just how our family lives,” says Katelin. “But they’re talking about it at school and pointing out waste to their teachers, so they’re soaking it up, which is great.” At home, Cléo and Phoenix are big helpers, regularly bringing kitchen scraps out to their backyard compost and helping with the recycling.
How they do it
So what does zero waste look like in practice? Buying a lot of their food in bulk, shopping at stores that let them use their own containers, buying second-hand clothing and using hand-me-downs (they also avoid white clothes, which are trickier to clean with homemade detergent). When they eat out, they pass on straws and wrappers.
Because Kevin is in the Canadian military, the family moves a lot (they currently live in Brussels, where he works as a deputy policy adviser at NATO), so many of their zero-waste choices are made around what works where they are. When they moved to Toronto from Victoria in 2016, they got rid of their second car because Kevin had a shorter commute. They chose an apartment in a walkable but more expensive neighbourhood with a butcher and a green grocer nearby, so they were less reliant on that one car.
In a public transportation–rich city like Brussels, they are finally able to go car-free. In fact, when they moved there last July, they took the opportunity to invest in an electric cargo bike to ferry around the kids, their dog and their groceries.
But what about toys?
The Leblonds try to only buy second-hand toys. For Phoenix and Cléo’s birthdays, Kevin says that they do toonie birthdays, where they ask guests to bring a toonie instead of a gift. The kids give half of their money to a charity of their choice and use the other half to buy a used toy. At Christmas, the kids pick five toys that they’d like to donate to Santa, who they’re told will fix them up to give to other children. They will get five new-to-them toys in return, and the calibre of the donated toys will be reflected in the new ones. “That way, the number of toys roughly stays the same in the house,” says Kevin.
“Especially for our small nuclear family, we try to focus on giving experiences over things,” says Katelin. “You start with small changes that you can make in your daily life and then it just sort of becomes addictive—you’re always looking for what’s next.”
The biggest challenges
Just because it’s addictive doesn’t mean that it’s always easy. “The hardest part is when you’re really busy,” says Katelin. For example, before they head out on road trips, they have to remember to pack their travel mugs, water bottles, travel cutlery, takeout containers and tote bags. To limit the packaged products they buy, Katelin sometimes packs food as well. When they dine out on the road, they relax the rules and allow for paper food packaging, such as fast food fry bags, which they will either recycle or, if soiled, bring home to put in their compost. “It’s a bit gross but totally doable,” admits Katelin.
Another tricky thing at first was figuring out what to serve the kids for school lunches. “That’s probably one of the most stressful things when we started,” she recalls. “We live in this world where we’re all comparing ourselves to how other parents do it. When we decided that we weren’t going to do any packaged stuff, I kind of had a panic attack and thought ‘What the heck are my kids going to eat?’ I was baking every day. Finally, I realized that’s insane and that my kids can eat fruits, veggies and nuts and have a piece of bread with jam on it and they’ll be fine.”
Dealing with the kids’ artwork
One big challenge is that the family can’t always control what comes into their household, such as school art projects, but Katelin has found solutions. “At their preschool, I worked it out with their teachers so that all the artwork from the week would stay there and they would choose their favourite piece to bring home,” she says. When Cléo’s class was making a steady stream of beaded necklaces and bracelets, after keeping them for a while, Katelin de-beaded them and brought the beads and string back to the class to be reused. For any bedazzled pieces (Cléo is a big fan of sparkle), Katelin peels off the jewels and keeps them in a jar to reuse before she recycles the art. The packing paper that the family uses when they move becomes art paper or wrapping paper personalized by their kids.
And then there are the birthday parties of their kids’ friends. “I try to request no goody bags or balloons, but nothing’s perfect,” she says. “Instead of stressing out when it comes through the door, I just think ‘That’s life.’”
Little things you can try
One way to get over the mental hump of getting started is to create what Katelin calls a “Mulligan list.” She describes zero waste as an aspirational goal, so when they first started, she and Kevin made a list of items packaged in plastic that they didn’t want to give up (batteries, running shoes and underwear were on her list, and French’s mustard, beer and hair gel were on his list). Some of the must-haves have gone by the wayside as they found sustainable options (though it took a while because, as big Costco shoppers, they had many multiples of certain things, such as deodorant). “I didn’t worry about purchasing new products or figuring out alternatives until we ran out of stuff, and we ran out of things at different times,” explains Katelin. “One of the first things we ran out of was toothpaste. I now make our own toothpaste. I make it in a big batch, about six at a time, and that will last me a year. It’s made with typical pantry items, such as baking soda, salt, coconut oil and essential oils.”
Katelin, who offers tons of helpful zero-waste tips at paredownhome.com, a lifestyle site that she co-founded, also recommends that you take stock of how much waste you produce when you put out your garbage. Give yourself a realistic goal as to how much waste you want to reduce (the Leblonds didn’t even start tracking their waste in a jar until they’d been working toward zero waste for more than a year).
One area that is a huge waste producer is the kitchen, so start there. “Check out your bulk food stores and try to minimize the amount of plastic-wrapped stuff,” she says. “Then you’ll just get motivated because you’ll actually see the amount of your waste go down.”
Kevin says that being prepared is key to making zero waste work. “You have to do less impulse buying—less ‘I want this’ and more ‘I need this,’” he explains, “so when you want this, you’re prepared.” One way to be prepared is to find local places that will let you bring your own containers.
It’s also really important to go easy on yourself and have realistic expectations so that you don’t burn out. “In the beginning, I think I was very stuck on being perfect and trying to keep my jar as small as possible, but that’s not really sustainable in the long term,” admits Katelin. “I’ve learned to let that go.”