Bea Johnson – Zero Waste Home
A well-meaning friend, bearing a box of individually-wrapped cookies and cakes, knocked on Bea Johnson’s door. “Are you kidding me?” grumbled Bea after the guest left. “I guess people don’t know what our zero-waste lifestyle means.”
Before I spoke with Bea, I didn’t either. I run errands with my fabric bags and reusable water bottle, plunk our wine bottles into our glass recycling bin, and switched to cloth napkins for dinner. Our bills are paperless, and we read our newspapers and magazines online.
But I still tote a 13-gallon (plastic) bag of trash to the garbage can—almost every single night.
And I strive to do better.
In 2006, while shopping for a new home, Bea and her family lived in a small apartment with only the necessary clothing, kitchen equipment, and household goods. And they didn’t miss those items they’d packed up and stored away.
The simpler surroundings gave Bea and her husband time to watch documentaries detailing ocean gyres and ecosystems and deforestation. Concerned, they pondered the future they’d leave for their two sons. They pledged to consume less energy and water in their Northern California home and generate less trash for landfills.
As she researched ways to reduce trash and packaging, Bea stumbled on the term zero-waste. This was a philosophy huge waste management companies employed. It wasn’t a lifestyle practiced in homes.
But Bea and her family set a goal—a zero-waste lifestyle.
With no helpful information on the internet, Bea began experimenting. It was easy to make the change to reusable dryer balls, bulk foods, and returnable glass milk bottles. Other necessities, in heavy packaging, were tougher to substitute.
She began to make the family’s bread, butter, and cheese. Bea mixed shampoo from baking soda and apple cider vinegar. “But I was complicating, not simplifying, our lifestyle. And I smelled like a salad,” she laughed. “I had to let go of time-consuming extremes,” she said.
She discovered lidded jars are perfect for purchases at the meat and cheese counters. Pillowcases can snugly wrap warm loaves of bread from the bakery and also serve as lunch pails. Cacao powder makes a good eyebrow liner, and plain bars of soap work for bathing and shaving and shampooing.
“Over time,” she says, “I found systems and alternatives that worked for us.”
“It was a balance to find the solutions that simplified our lives, wouldn’t add to our trash, and we could stick to for life.”
For the past twelve years, the family’s trash—for the entire year—has fit inside a peanut butter jar. The 16-ounce size, not the jumbo version.
Bea’s philosophy and habits have inspired people, corporations, and governments all over the world to adopt waste-free living, open unpackaged shops, and avoid single-use items. In her best-selling book, translated into 27 languages, Bea elaborates on the five principles of her zero-waste lifestyle—Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
A good starting point is to opt-out of junk mail (Refuse). Miniature compost bins exist for the tiniest of apartments (Rot). Why buy multiple cleaning products when a few will do (Reduce)? Bulk stores dispense laundry detergent and hand lotion into reusable containers (Reuse). Bea’s sons don’t mind the secondhand toys, clothes, and games (Recycle).
Fluent in English, Spanish, and French, Bea has spoken in 70 countries on six continents. “Everyone’s system will be different,” she stresses, but Bea offers what works in her home.
I cringe when I think of all the packaging I bring into my house—and what I throw away. I’m thinking Starbucks cups, ice cream sandwiches, tortilla chips. What was the hardest item to give up? I ask Bea.
In a polite way, with her lovely French accent, she semi-snaps at me. “It’s not about giving up. It’s about embracing new alternatives,” Bea explains.
“Solutions exist, and they do not deprive.”
“Yes, there are things we no longer buy,” she continues. Like the tortilla chips. They eat them occasionally at a restaurant and appreciate them all the more. “In fact, we attack them,” laughs Bea.
Contrary to what many expect, Bea insists she “is not a hippie.” She likes nice clothes—albeit secondhand attire—and pretty glasses for her wine. But she only needs four of those.
Other common misconceptions are zero-waste living is expensive and time-consuming. “It’s the complete opposite,” says Bea. Since they only buy what they need, their overall budget has decreased by 40 percent. “We’ve discovered a richer life based on experiences—hiking, biking, time in the outdoors—rather than things.”
Her book has lots of options for reducing trash and possessions. “Find what you will stick to. Find what will simplify, not complicate, your life,” says Bea. “That’s the secret.”