One Family Goes Green to Extreme

CBS News

One family went for a year without using many items they considered wasteful — including toilet paper — to try and live their lives with as little environmental impact as possible.

In 2006, Colin Beavan, his wife, Michelle Conlin, and their daughter, Isabella, began the experiment, which is now the subject of a new book and documentary called “No Impact Man.”

Read an excerpt of “No Impact Man”

Their experiment meant no carbon dioxides, no driving or flying. The family traveled by foot or by bicycle. They ate only unpackaged, locally grown food. They also stopped shopping for anything new.

“It’s not about deprivation. It’s not about not taking care of yourself. It’s the opposite,” Beavan said. “It’s about seeing is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much.”

And rather than ship waste to a landfill, Beavan had a compost bin in the living room, complete with worms.

But the year wasn’t always easy. Some compromises were made along the way. But when the lights were switched back on, Beavan and Conlin cheerily saw a year that meant so much more than living without toilet paper.

Beavan said, “What if we called it, ‘The year I lost 20 pounds without going to the gym once’? Or if we called it ‘The year we ate locally and seasonally.’ There are actual benefits to living environmentally.”

Beavan said the inspiration for the project was concern for the planet.

He said, “We were reading so much about global warming happening, and we were just frustrated because what can any one person do? So we thought we’d try to do what we could.”

Conlin said when her husband proposed the idea she said “yes.”

“He was really excited about it,” Conlin said, “and I had just seen the movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ so that really — it was kind of perfect timing. And he was very excited about it, and I thought this is for a great cause. So I’m game.”

But how hard was the idea in practice?

Conlin said the hardest part was breaking the habits of waste.

She said, “By three months in, the (health) dividends were so enormous that it was really an incredible adventure.”

Beavan added when the family learned to turn the television off, members spent more time together as a family.

“It was interesting that we let go of the so-called conveniences and efficiencies, and found other joys,” Beavan said.

But what did the family eat?

For breakfast, the couple said they ate a lot of corn-meal porridge in the winter, but in the summertime, they ate berries and cantaloupes and other locally-grown, unpackaged foods.

“We lost weight because we were eating so much better,” Beavan said.

In addition to eating better, the couple said they also stopped using the elevator, as well.

Conlin said, “We had automatic cardio built into our day. … It was great. We didn’t have to go to the gym.”

The couple has since turned the lights back on in their home and is taking the elevator. However, they do not use air conditioning.

“It’s really not hard not to waste,” Conlin said. “It was a great joy and a pleasure that made me happier to feel like I was treating the planet with more respect, and it made our family more intimate and close to let go of the distractions.”

Conlin added, “This was a great lifestyle redesign for us. We’re not saying anyone else should do it, but we discovered enormous joys and benefits by redesigning our lifestyle in a way that just wasn’t wasting and harmful to the planet.”