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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.

SUFFICE IT TO SAY, this life isn’t for everyone. In fact, as one snoops around the family’s yoga studio of a home, one begins to wonder if there might be something a tad neurotic about the Barnebys’ yearning to rid themselves of (nearly) all the physical objects around them. Or, to put it more cynically, isn’t this just the inverse of being an obsessive hoarder? Robin and Geoff admit that they have to repress certain natural impulses in order to maintain this life of renunciation. For instance, they haven’t printed out a single family photo since 2007—even Robin and Geoff ’s wedding album is digital. Also, there’s their anemic entertainment diet: “I don’t expose myself to media that’s trying to make me a consumer,” says Geoff. “If you don’t know it exists, you don’t long for it.” In the same vein, Robin won’t read fashion magazines, reasoning that if you stay away from the marketing (and the mall), you won’t know what you’re missing.

Obviously, nobody ever died from denying herself Real Housewives and Vogue, but in the year 2013, is this level of cultural abstinence really advisable? I posed the question to Dr. Gail Steketee, dean and professor at Boston University School of Social Work, who specializes in obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders. She wasn’t concerned. “Were we to go back a few generations,” she says, “we would find many of our ancestors doing very similar things, but not by choice—by necessity.” Steketee doesn’t see a cautionary tale in the Barnebys’ hyper-consciousness, but “rather a reasonable effort to counteract what appears to be human nature gone too far. Most of us are simply more attached to objects than they may be.”

“For me, the desire to simplify and declutter has become greater than my attachment to possessions,” explains Robin, who insists that they don’t take measures so far that life becomes uncomfortable. To be sure, there’s a certain degree of trial and error to their austerity drive. “It’s a journey of awareness,” says Robin. “We never want to make choices where we end up feeling deprived. If a choice doesn’t work”—as when she tried to make shampoo out of baking soda and apple cider vinegar—“we change it so it does.” (They now buy bulk shampoo from Rainbow Grocery.)

Indeed, Robin and Geoff readily admit that they’re not purists. There is some trash. They end up with a handful of waste every month, which they collect in a six-inch metal canister under the kitchen sink (in case you don’t get the point, the can is marked “Landfill”). Between Earth Day 2011 and Earth Day 2012, the Barnebys saved all their trash—an effort to see what they were using that they should be refusing—and ended up with two brown grocery bags’ worth of refuse. About 99 percent of it was plastic, and about 90 percent of that was cheese wrappers. (“We do buy cheese wheels, but if we run out and our order isn’t ready, we buy from the counter,” explains Robin. “We go through a lot of it.”) The rest was mainly packaging from cleaning products or medicine.

Although they’ve chosen to measure the trash they generate to the ounce, they insist that the biggest change to their lifestyle has been about quality, not quantity. “We have more time for our kids, more time for each other, more time for experiences,” says Robin, who mentions that they’ve rediscovered the public library, where they check out piles of books every week. But, one might wonder, are you really saving time when you’re burning so many hours trying (and failing) to make your own shampoo? Consider, says Robin: fewer items to care for and clean (no houseplants to tend to, no picture frames to dust); less stuff to tidy up (using only a fitted sheet and duvet means that it takes 10 seconds to make the bed); no recreational trips to the mall; and no lengthy grocery store runs (they go once a week). “Even Gemma knows where her toys and clothes belong,” says her mother. And, Geoff jokes, they never waste time searching for a TV remote.

At its core, it’s a lifestyle based on idealism and togetherness instead of goods and services. Sure, Robin sometimes gets bored with her limited wardrobe and the lack of variety in the bulk food aisles, and Geoff sometimes misses his inventory of sports gear. And occasionally things get awkward with visitors: Last year, Robin had to ask a mother visiting for play group to take her child’s disposable diaper home with her, explaining that they didn’t “really have a trash can, and that any trash we make we are saving.” (On the same note, Robin used to send her own mother home with the Saran wrap and Ziploc bags she brought over with baked goods.) But they haven’t had any vocal detractors. “Often, we’re proactive about it,” says Robin. “We’ll email or phone a new friend who’s going to visit, explaining that we try to live without making waste. I jokingly say, ‘If you bring anything, you have to take it with you.’”

Only, in fact, she’s not joking at all.


Read More:
A Year of Living Trashlessly
Follow That Compost!
Zero Waste All-Stars
How To Zero-Waste Your Own Life
The End of the Trash


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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