As many of us re-evaluate what we want our lives to look like post-lockdown, Bea Johnson shares her 5 R’s of going Zero Waste at home
‘Gandhi said “Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.” And the zero waste lifestyle has done exactly that for me.’Bea Johnson
Dubbed ‘the priestess of waste-free living’ and ‘the new messiah of ecology’, Bea Johnson kick-started the zero-waste movement with her blog. And that movement has gone round the world.
Growing up in the suburbs of Provence in France, her father modelled a ‘repair and reuse’ ethos. He was not unusual, Bea writes in her book, Zero Waste Home. ‘People in the French countryside possess a certain kind of craftiness that allows them to extend the life of their belongings.’
During a year’s contract as an au pair in California, Bea met her husband-to-be, Scott. They traveled the world before settling down outside of California, where their sons Max and Léo were born. Bea had the American Dream – the attentive husband, two healthy kids, a big house with all the modern trappings of a successful life and international vacations.
‘We seemed to have it all,’ she wrote, ‘yet things were not quite right.’ The sedentary life, the simple pleasures of daily living that they’d found abroad, the consumerism of never quite having enough…it left her unsatisfied.
Bea kindly answered a few questions for us from the middle of her North American book tour, which has faced delays amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
Can you tell us how you got started with a zero-waste lifestyle?
In 2006, we chose to move downtown to be able to walk or ride everywhere (school, stores, coffee shop, movies, theatre etc.). Before finding our small house, we rented an apartment for a year, and moved in with only a few necessities (we stored the rest).
We immediately realised the benefits of living with less: We had more time to do the things that are important to us, such as spending time with family and friends, and explore/enjoy the outdoors. Voluntary simplicity was a first step towards waste-free living.
But then with more time, we also started reading up on environmental issues (some shocked me, others made me cry) – that’s when we decided to change our ways for the sake of our kids’ future and eliminate trash from our lives. Along the way, I stumbled upon the term Zero Waste, which back then was used to describe waste management practices at municipal and manufacturing levels, it wasn’t used to describe something you do at home, but it gave me a goal.
In the midst of the recession, my husband quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company; I tackled the house and our lifestyle. We’ve been waste-free ever since. I could never have imagined that our lifestyle would then initiate a global movement!
We’re all adjusting to a slower pace of life, what tips or advice would you give to people who are starting to think about a zero waste life?
What my family does to generate one jar’s worth of trash per year is quite simple. We follow my method of 5R’s, IN ORDER, as laid out in my book, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying your Life by Reducing your Waste.
It can be applied anywhere in the world, and to any situation: as an individual, in the family, at work, in the society.
- Refuse what you do not need (for ex. single use plastics, junk mail and freebies)
- Reduce what you consume (declutter furnishings, clothes, etc. and don’t buy more),
- Reuse by buying secondhand and swapping disposables for reusables.
- Recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse.
- Rot (compost) the rest (fruit peels, lint, hair, floor sweepings etc).
The book gives you a room-by-room in depth information on each one of these R’s.
And this slow down is the ideal opportunity to get started!
Do you come across challenges in your zero waste lifestyle that you have to navigate? And if so, how do you do this?
There were no books or blogs on how to do Zero Waste when we started in 2008, so our major challenge was finding balance, figuring out what worked for us and what did not.
I had to Google alternatives, test many recipes and how-to’s, interview my mom, grandma and mother in-law about how people lived before our consumerist society. But along the way, I got too wrapped up into homemaking: At one point, I was making our cheese, bread, yogurt, soy milk, butter, toothpaste, deodorant etc.
These practices were too extreme, too time consuming for my full time job, so we eventually dropped them for the sake of simplicity.
For example, we realised that there was no need for us to make bread if we could buy it unpackaged, either directly from the bakery or from the bakery bins.
We found that for Zero Waste to be sustainable in a household, one has to adopt alternatives that fits his/her schedule and are feasible in the long run. And once you have it on autopilot, it becomes easy, normal and automatic.
When in doubt, just let my 5Rs guide you!
What are the practices or activities you’re doing to look after yourself through the current pandemic, physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually?
I am currently on a year-long speaking tour through the US/Canada in a travel trailer. Unfortunately, 40 of my events this spring have been postponed, and my son who is a freshman in college had to leave his dorm, so he joined us and we re-routed.
A lot of my time is occupied adjusting to counties, towns, and parks closing on us, since the trailer is our home and we live full time on the road. But having spoken and therefore travelled to more than 70 countries these past couple of years, I am very much enjoying the slow down when can settle for a few days: having my family with me and cooking for them, but also picking up litter, foraging for food, walking, biking, sewing, decluttering my computer and fixing small repairs in the trailer.
What has surprised you most about how you’ve responded to the uncertainty and constant change?
The current situation is making me appreciate how Zero Waste makes one not only more self-sufficient but also highly adaptable to change.
My grocery shopping has changed in that I only shop once every 3 weeks – before I only bought what I needed for the week, but I’ve been able to stick to my Zero Waste values with no problem.
If we could switch from a ‘do no harm’ mindset to a ‘leave it better than you found it’ mindset when it comes to the planet, what would that look like to you?
I believe that greed and unnecessary consumption are the core of today’s environmental problems. So if people lived by ‘want what you have, buy only what you need’, we would be in a much better place.