With a blog turned bestselling book, an app and talks throughout the world, Bea Johnson inspired a global movement. The “Priestess of the waste-free living" according to the New York Times, debunks misconceptions and opens up about her family’s secret to reducing its annual trash to a jar.
The Zero Waste Home
When Bea Johnson and her family decided to move out of their house in the suburbs in 2006, they would have never imagined the journey they were about to embark on. At the time, Johnson and her husband wanted to move to a more central location. They decided to rent a house for one year, and therefore only moved in with the basic necessities.
That is when they discovered that when you live with less, you have more time to do what really is important to you. More time for your family, friends, picnics, hikes, etc. Over that year, Johnson and her family realized that they did not miss 80% of what they had stored, and this is how they started letting go of things.
Johnson and her husband had more time to read books and watch documentaries about environmental issues. Becoming more conscious of their environmental footprint, they grew sad thinking about the future that they were, as parents, creating for their children. That is what gave them the energy to change.
Johnson first monitored their energy and water consumption. She then started to question their trash and tried to find ways to reduce it. One day, she found out about the expression “zero waste”, a manufacturing term at the time.
Although it was not aimed at households and individuals, it gave her the goal and vision she needed to go for it. It took a lot of experimenting and trials and errors, but eventually Johnson found alternatives, which she and her family could see sticking to in the long run, and that is when zero waste became their lifestyle.
Bea Johnson’s secret to a waste free home
For Johnson living a zero waste lifestyle is about living simply thanks to her five rules: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. This may come in contradiction to many zero waste blogs that are portraying the zero waste lifestyle as complicated, expensive and time consuming.
Many waste free influencers and bloggers never leave their house without a dozens of reusable essentials such as flatware, plates, straws and cutlery. But for Johnson, the zero waste lifestyle only becomes a lifestyle if it simplifies your life, not complicates it.
“That zero waste kit is crazy. I don’t want to go around with a big bag filled with stuffs, I have no interest in doing that,” she says. Johnson only travels with two things, a cloth bag and a stainless steel thermos.
She refuses the meal on the plane but brings a sandwich that she can eat on the flight. When she goes to a new supermarket, she does not see the “packaged stuffs” but only what is available to her.
“Once you adopt a zero waste lifestyle you acquire a selective vision and you see it everywhere. It is important to share those locations with everyone, which is why we created Bulk, an app to allow the global zero waste community to share all the bulk locations that they discover throughout the world,” she said.
To Johnson, a zero waste lifestyle is all about simplicity, which starts by learning to say no: her first rule “refuse”. “Zero waste is about living simply first and foremost”, she says. “I see there are many blogs telling people “if you want to adopt a zero waste lifestyle, you have to buy a reusable straw”, but shouldn’t you ask yourself if you need a straw in the first place? So instead of buying stuffs to replace disposables, start by asking yourself “do I even need it?”
I also see recipes to make your own toothpaste, bathroom cleaner, floor cleaner, window cleaner, this is complicating your life. I’ve been living zero waste for the past 12 years and I’ve never had to make all those things so why would anyone need to make them? All you need is baking soda and white vinegar.”
The many reasons to go zero waste
Turning to a zero waste lifestyle is highly beneficial to the environment. However, there are many other reasons to go zero waste. May it be for health, financial, time-management or aesthetics reasons, the zero waste lifestyle sees a wide array of benefits.
“People are interested in the zero waste lifestyle for a lot of different reasons,” she says. “For us, it was for environmental reasons, but other people get started for health reasons. For example let’s say someone in their family has cancer, they start looking at the causes of cancer and they find that it is the things that they are ingesting or the materials that they are using, the products they are using; then they are going to look for solutions to eliminate them or find alternatives and they find that the zero waste lifestyle brings the solutions.”
Some people dive into a waste free lifestyle for financial reasons. Indeed, Johnson found out that her family has been able to save up to 40% on their overall budget since going zero waste. “Some people are interested in zero waste to simplify their life and to save time to be able to enjoy life with their family or their friends. I know this couple in France that started just for the aesthetics of it. If you realize how good it is for you and all the other advantages, the health, financial and time saving benefits of it, that’s really what keeps you going.”
Since Johnson and her family have discovered the amazing advantages that go well beyond the environmental aspect, they simply cannot think about going back to the way they used to live.
Zero (solid) Waste, but not only
With every new movement come the critics and the zero waste lifestyle is no exception. Some says that the movement focuses too much on solid waste and is not inclusive enough of other environmental problems.
According to Johnson, those people are not digging enough or simply did not read her book, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life.
“The book just doesn’t talk about solid waste. Of course when you start paying attention to your consumption and solid waste, then you start paying attention to how much water and electricity you consume, how much you purchase, how full is your Dropbox,” she says.
In her book, Johnson also talks about toxic relationships and wasting time with people that do not bring any joy to your life. “Let go off them! Life is short, make sure you make every moment count,” she adds.
Those critics base their arguments on the fact that cities such as San Francisco are now aiming at becoming “zero waste by 2020”. However cities are only focusing on solid waste, recycling and are encouraging people to consume.
Zero waste at the city level is very far from what zero waste means at the individual level. “What zero waste means to cities is totally different than what it means to me,” she says. To Johnson zero waste doesn’t mean consuming more, recycling more, but on the contrary consuming less, recycling less and composting less.
She managed to do so by preventing the waste from coming into her home. “That is achieved with my first three rules:
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse.
Refuse: stop for a moment and ask yourself “do I really need it?” and learn to say no.
Reduce: that means going through a decluttering process, go home and let go off things you do not use or need donating those things will also boost the second-hand market.
Reuse: using reusables- there is a reusable alternative on the market for anything that is disposable. The solutions are there,” she concludes.
Writer: Charlaine Grosse-Lopez