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Zero waste living: 'You regret not starting earlier - you see your whole life as a waste of money and time'

We speak to the Zero Waste guru Bea Johnson, who visits Dublin on Monday.

Every time you accept a free plastic bag it is a way for you to say ‘I love plastic bags and I dream of a world filled with them for my children’s future’. – Bea Johnson

SAMSUNG The Johnson family's 'trash tally' for 2012. Source: Zero Waste Home

HOW MANY TIMES did you throw something into the bin today? Once? Twice? More than that?

We often don’t give a thought to how many times a day – or week, never mind month or year – we throw something in the bin, be it for recycling or not.

But followers of the Zero Waste movement could tell you exactly how many times they have put something in the bin over the last year, and exactly what it was. That’s because the most dedicated among them try to create a litre of waste or less a year.

bea portrait -photo credit ZeroWasteHome.com Source: Zero Waste Home

California-based French native Bea Johnson is the guru of the Zero Waste movement, and will be visiting Dublin on Monday evening to talk about her lifestyle. The author of the book and blog Zero Waste Home (which gets 251k pageviews a month), she travels around the world speaking about how she made the journey to living waste-free.

With homes in some parts of the country set to be monitored for what they’re putting in their green bins – and people continuing to put non-recyclables in those very bins – we here in Ireland could learn a thing or two from her approach.

During a chat with TheJournal.ie over Skype, Johnson spoke about why she doesn’t pay attention to her critics, why she and her family eat meat, and why living zero waste is the future.

Journey to zero waste

The Johnson family (Bea, her husband, their two sons and a dog) live in Mill Valley, California. Over the past nine years, they’ve gradually transformed their home into a zero waste one: they have miniscule wardrobes; they use baking soda instead of toothpaste; they make the most of leftovers. Johnson even uses homemade make-up, such as cacao powder as blusher.

Johnson says that the benefits of the zero waste lifestyle aren’t just environment, they are also financial – her family have saved 40% on their overall budget. But the process took time.

“It takes a while to actually question every single item that you have in your home. In our case, we don’t even have a junk drawer,” says Johnson. “Everything has really been questioned and thought about.”

Johnson decided to move towards being zero waste in 2008, after moving to an apartment with her family, downsizing, and realising how much better life was when it was simpler. She began to reassess what she owned, what she used, and what she threw away.

“What was difficult was to find a system that works for us,” she says. So she came up with a system, and five principles behind her method: the Five Rs. These are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot – and it’s important to follow them in this exact order.

Refuse means to refuse those plastic bags, plastic stirrers, free pens and hotel shampoo bottles, for example. It’s this step which can be particularly difficult, but it’s the one that Johnson says is most important.

“When you’ve done things a certain way and you’ve been used to accepting things that are handed out to you, it actually takes some practice to learn to say no to these things” she says.

shopping kit (2) Johnson's shopping kit. Source: Zero Waste Home

Reducing what you actually need means decluttering (which is somewhat in vogue, given the popularity of the Marie Kondo method in recent years), and sending the items to be sold second-hand.

Reusing means swapping anything that is disposable for a reusable alternative, and buying second-hand.

That means paper towels for rags, tissues for handkerchiefs, and a menstrual cup (like a Mooncup) or washable sanitary products instead of tampons. Even dental floss has a zero waste equivalent, says Johnson. (A company based in Germany does a compostable floss that costs €3.95 for 10m - it’s made from silk covered in beeswax. By comparison, most of the floss on the market costs under €2 for 25m but the floss cannot be composted and so creates plastic waste.)

Just keep an open mind and embrace [it] – you kind of need a sense of humour sometimes. If you keep an open mind to the alternatives you will see they are solutions to everything.

There’s also the need to create a “reusable kit” (that includes reusable kitchen items, bags, glass jars, etc) for when you go shopping, and then the need to find locations where you can buy things in bulk.

Johnson admits that “even being open to those alternatives and finding them can be a challenge”, but for her it has been worth it.

photo credit Magda Trebert pour Little-Greenfinity Bea Johnson with her family's jar of rubbish. Source: Magda Trebert for Little-Greenfinity

Bulk living

While in California, where Johnson lives, it isn’t too difficult to buy products in bulk, the notion hasn’t quite caught on in Ireland yet. A cursory google for ‘bulk foods’ shows that what we typically understand by that is large orders – rather than loose products that can be measured out into the consumer’s own packaging.

That’s probably why Johnson gets one email a week from someone saying they’ve opened a bulk food store after reading her book or hearing her talk.

“Of course at first it takes time to find a system that works for you but then once you have that system in place, oh my gosh,” says Johnson. “It’s like a huge amount of time that you save, and then you just regret not having started earlier because you see your whole life as a waste of money, but also a waste of time.”

Johnson and her family had to test out the zero waste lifestyle themselves, and then literally write the book on it. There was no guide out there already. That’s in part why Johnson has become a ‘guru’ or leader of the movement, with a significant social media following.

On Instagram, for example, she shares with her 70,000 followers how she brings food with her wrapped in cotton bags, and even how her favourite way to find a hair tie is to pick one up off the street.

‘We’ve never pretended to be the greenest family’

But being a leader also means dealing with criticism. That includes questions about the fact Johnson and her family are not vegan, given the environmental impact of consuming animal products.

“We are very transparent, we share everything we know, everything we do,” says Johnson, pointing out that they’ve had multiple TV crews visit their home, some of whom rifled through her underwear basket.

“I have nothing to hide. We have never pretended to try to be the greenest family on earth. Of course not. We can’t do that. We never pretended to try to do zero carbon, that’s completely impossible,” she says, pre-empting any questions about flying to countries like Ireland.

We’ve been completely transparent about the things we have done, the things that have failed, the things… where we’ve had to find a balance.

Regarding the vegetarian queries, she says: “We eat meat, we tried to eliminate it, it didn’t work for us, so instead of completely eliminating it, we are doing way less of it, and we’re purchasing something that is supporting a whole other set of practices than the meat that we used to buy before.”

But in essence, Johnson isn’t too bothered about criticism. “We get highly criticised for some of the things we do, but we don’t care about the criticism,” she says. “Had I listened to the criticism, I would have never been able to launch this movement.”

cleaning kit The home cleaning kit, which uses ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. Source: ZeroWasteHome.com

Consumer power

Johnson is clear who she believes has the power when it comes to creating demand for zero waste: the consumer.

On the subject of using a plastic bag, she says that saying ‘no thank you’ could have a greater impact than you might think.

“Because when you accept it, you are creating a demand to make more,” says Johnson. “Every time you accept a free plastic bag it is a way for you to say ‘I love plastic bags and I dream of a world filled with them for my children’s future’. So more oil will be drawn from the ground to create a replacement.”

Johnson fears that consumers are waiting for politicians and manufacturers to change things, instead of realising they could do something themselves.

“They are just sitting back, saying ‘the waste issue is too big of an issue and I’m just one small consumer, what I do will not make a difference’. And I’m here to say the contrary,” states Johnson.

When I got started, people were saying what you do doesn’t really matter, what really matters is what the politicians do and it’s what the manufacturers do and we’ve been able to prove the opposite.

She suggests that if readers want to start to move towards a zero waste lifestyle, they start with saying no, and then move on to their home. Tackle one room at a time, and one area of that room at a time.

Really question everything in that room. Go through one drawer at a time, one room at a time, one closet at a time, and question the true need and use for anything that is contained in that drawer, closet or room.

‘Hairy granola people’

There can be many stereotypes around what zero waste devotees are like, and Johnson says she’s heard them all.

“I actually get a lot of those, some people email me to tell me ‘when I read your article I thought these people are crazy, they probably live in the Boondocks, they probably don’t shave, they are hairy granola people’.”

But as they see the way we live and they see that our life is actually based on voluntary simplicity… just by the way that we present it, just by showing the way we live we’ve given a face to this lifestyle. And some people have seen our interior and the way we live and are like ‘wow – if that’s what the zero waste lifestyle looks like, I want to do zero waste’.

She says that misconceptions include that the lifestyle will cost more, and take more time.

“But then as they do it and have an open mind and actually start doing it [they] see that it is the complete opposite,” says Johnson.

P70_SR100458_3055 Johnson (middle) and her family. Source: Stephanie Rausser

As for Johnson’s sons, she says they’re not huge ambassadors for the zero waste lifestyle – not because they don’t believe in it, but because it’s so normalised for them it doesn’t occur to them to brag about it.

“What they do brag about though is what we’ve been able to do as a family,” she says. “It’s really that life based on experiences instead of things, a life based on being instead of having, that’s actually what makes them different than other people and that’s really what they talk more about.”

Johnson doesn’t know if her sons will carry on her zero waste legacy, but feels reassured that she’s given the skills to.

Though she has made her living being a zero waste guru, Johnson says that that’s not why she does it.

“In the end, even if we were not the face of zero waste we would still do zero waste. Because again we are not doing it just for the environmental aspects, we are doing it for the better life that we discovered.

We discovered a life based on being instead of having. It’s a life based on experiences instead of things and once you have that vision, once you discover the great advantages of the lifestyle, you can’t go back. Because you fully see the old life as a waste of time and money and a life based on the wrong priorities.

Bea Johnson will speak at Trinity College on Monday 13 March from 7 – 9pm in the Robert Emmet Theatre. The event is hosted by TCD’s Environmental Society and is free to attend. Sponsors include Etherson’s Butchers in Cabra, Honest2Goodness market in Glasnevin and Nuts in Bulk in Glasnevin, who all offer customers zero waste options.

Read: 12,000 homes in Dublin will soon be monitored for what they’re putting in their green bins>

Read: ‘Dead animals and concrete bricks’: One third of green bin collections can’t be recycled>

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