Now Playing

The Barnebys make do without most possessions—aside from a few crucial toys.

Life at the Barnebys’: Snapshots of an impressively ordered household.

“Even Gemma knows where her toys and clothes belong,” says her mother.

" jars filled with beans, nuts, teas, pasta, grains..."

“We never want to make choices where we end up feeling deprived. If a choice doesn’t work, we change it so it does.”

The Family That Wastes Naught

Meet the Barnebys. Just don’t bring them any disposable gifts.

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?