Bea Johnson: The Zero Waste Lifestyle
Bea Johnson in conversation with Mathew Bate
Photos by Igor Podgorny & Michael Clemens
Bea Johnson is the fairy godmother of the modern zero waste movement; for the past several years her family’s entire yearly waste has fitted in a small glass jar. Her seminal book, ‘Zero Waste Home’, published in 2013, has inspired millions of people around the world to minimise their waste and is now printed in over 20 different languages. The Source Bulk Foods recently brought Bea out to Australia for a week of talks and presentations. She managed to speak to us just before she was due on stage about how the zero waste lifestyle works and how it’s given her a new sense of abundance, harmony and happiness.
Mathew Bate: It's pretty exciting to finally speak to you Bea, I've been a big fan for some time now. Let’s just jump straight in. What was the thing that stuck with you, early on, that spawned this incredible journey?
Bea Johnson: What really got us started was discovering the benefits of a simple life. We decided to move to an apartment and to find a house in a different part of the San Francisco Bay area, where we lived, so we could be closer to amenities, where we could walk and bike to things. Before finding the right house we rented an apartment for one year and only moved in with the necessities and that's when we discovered the benefits of living simply.
It was in that sanctuary and simplicity that we also found time to read books and watch documentaries; books like 'Slow Death by Rubber Duck' (Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie) and documentaries like 'The Inconvenient Truth' (Al Gore) or 'Home' (Yann Arthus-Bertrand). What we discovered, me and my husband, kind of made us sad thinking about the future that we were creating, as parents, for our children. We realised that as parents we had a responsibility to create a better world for them and that's what got us started. But first our goal of course was not zero waste. The term zero waste back then was not associated with a lifestyle, it was associated with manufacturing and waste management at a city level. Once I saw that term though it gave me a goal and something to reach for.
[Laughs] It's quite a goal.
There were no books and no blogs on how to eliminate trash at home so I had to test a lot of things. It took us about two years to find a balance and to find solutions that we could stick to in the long run. That’s when zero waste became a lifestyle for us.
It's quite incredible, you have essentially given us an already tried and tested system that you guys have been developing for years and years.
It's tried and tested all right. We really went to some crazy extremes but eventually we realised that whatever we were doing, it had to be feasible in the long run with two full-time jobs. So for me, for example, making toothpaste for a family of four was not going to be sustainable and was not going to be something I could see myself doing in the long run. At one point I was also making on my own bread, my own soy milk, my own cheese and my own butter. But I went on vacation in the south of France to visit my mom and by being thrown into a regular household I realised that I had taken zero waste too far. I had taken zero waste into unsustainable grounds.
So when we go home we let go of all the extremes and that's when we decided that instead of making our own bread we’d bring a bag to the bakery. They make bread much better than I do. Instead of making cheese we’d bring a container to the cheese shop. Again, they make cheese much better than I do. Without adding trash to our everyday life we started finding solutions that were simple and that's when it became sustainable for us, and automatic.
At the heart of this movement it's seems to be more about minimalism and voluntary simplicity than, like, predominately eliminating waste.
Well not for everyone, people will start for lots of different reasons. Indeed, the desire for voluntary simplicity is what lead us to zero waste but different people will be drawn to it for different reasons. When we got started the zero waste lifestyle did not have a face. We gave a face to the lifestyle and when people saw what we looked like, when they saw the interiors of our home and our sense of aesthetics, it drew a lot of people in and people were like, wow, if that's what the zero waste lifestyle looks like I want to do zero waste. But some other people might have been drawn to it for health reasons. For example if someone is sick and they look at the causes of most diseases they often find that going zero waste is the solution that solves some of the problems that they're experiencing.
For other people it might have been to make financial savings. For example in France I would say the zero waste lifestyle really blew up when the U.S. was out of the 2008 recession but Europe was still very much in it. When we started talking about zero waste at that time it really rang a bell for a lot of people. Because of this lifestyle we found that we're saving 40 percent on our overall budget. So it's something that really appeals to a lot of people.
There are, of course, people that started just for the simplicity aspect of it. People that have a lot of money and don't care about changing for the environment might look to this in order to simplify their life. They might want more time in their schedules and that's when zero waste can also provide you with some solutions.
Okay, let's talk about the steps of the zero waste movement that you created. There are specific steps that are followed in a specific order aren’t there?
So the method that I describe in my book, 'Zero Waste Home', is...
That you refuse the things that you do not need.
You reduce the things that you do actually need.
You reuse what you consume.
You recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse.
And the last one is rot, which involves composting the rest of your waste.
If you apply these five rules in order that's how you reach zero waste at home. The more you refuse the less you have to reduce. The more you reduce the less you have to reuse, and so on. So the first rule of the zero waste lifestyle is to learn to say no. In this society we are the targets of many, many goods and freebies. But every time we accept them we're creating a demand to make more. Once we bring these things into our home they add to our clutter and then they become our trash problem. So if we learn to say no on the spot we can stop the demand and we can stop these things from becoming trash.
Why do you think it's so hard for us to say no these days? Because, I mean, for a lot of people this first step is the hardest part of going zero waste.
Well it's because it's actually not that simple. It might sound simple but it's not. It's not like it requires materials or special tools to do this, it’s more about undoing the robotic way of being. I think it's becoming normal in our society to reach when someone tries to hand something to you and then you feel kind of awkward to say no. But there are very simple sentences that will help you do that. So in my case I say, "no thanks, it's really nice of you, but I don't need it," or "no thanks, I'm a minimalist." The person who is trying to give you something is not going to force it on you. So when you say no in that way they respect your choice and they let you go, but it takes a while to find a sentence that works for you. And to stop always reaching out when someone is trying to hand something to, like a sample when you're walking by a store or a flyer on the street or a business card at a conference. There are always a lot of opportunities to say no.
What I find really interesting is that when you started out you got quite a lot of criticism. I think it was initially from the New York times?
Can you tell me about why you received that and what it was like? Especially because you were just becoming known and entering into the public domain and you really believed in what you were doing.
So yes, it was in 2009 that I decided to write a blog, just to share the solution that we had found with the people that would be interested in it. I also wanted to let our friends and family know what zero waste was about because, again, people did not know what the zero waste lifestyle was; the term was not associated with a lifestyle.
So then the New York Times picked it up and they ran a story on it. They didn't have any pictures that showed what we looked like or what our house looked like. So we just got hammered with criticism. The criticism was normal though, it was out of not knowing what the zero waste lifestyle meant. They were associating it with like a hippie kind of lifestyle. They pictured us as a hippies living in the woods and they said "i'm sure she's got hairy legs," and people said "oh it's disgusting what they're doing to their children, it's depriving them of the good life." With my husband, when we saw these comments we kind of laughed at them you know. People just didn't understand what we're doing. They thought it was depriving us of taking our children to McDonald's but we were taking our kids to have a real burger in a real place with real flatware.
So we kind of laughed at those comments and we, in the end, you know, we realised that what we were doing was right for us and that's all that mattered. Criticism will come to you no matter what you do. I mean we still get criticism today, although we've worked really hard at showing what a zero waste lifestyle means and looks like. We still get criticism for eating meat on occasions, for flying or for using toilet paper, but no matter what you do you'll get criticised. Eventually, though, as we worked on shattering the misconceptions, the typical criticisms just went away. But we still get criticism in places where the lifestyle is not yet well known, where the term itself has not really hit the mainstream.
The initial criticism came because you were accused of depriving your children of some life that, apparently, they should have been getting. In actuality it was quite the opposite.
People thought that because it was zero waste that it was crazy. I mean the term itself sounds extreme. So people think that you must be living a deprived life but it's the complete opposite, you're right.
In a sense the zero waste lifestyle opens up a new type of abundance.
Yes, what you discover, although it aims at eliminating as much trash from your household as possible, is that it translates into a simpler life. It's a life that is based on being instead of having; a life that is based on experiences instead of things. That is what makes life richer.
"It's a life that is based on being instead of having; a life that is based on experiences instead of things. That is what makes life richer."
It seems to be equally about being grateful for the things that you do have rather than sort of being stingy or going without. You're just living with exactly what you need and it opens up room then for a richer, as you say, and fuller life, in a way.
Every time you consume it's taking you away from living your dreams. Every time you buy something that is unnecessary or you buy something that is disposable it's a way for you to throw your money away. Buying is also hoarding. Every time you buy packaging, for example, every time you shop at a regular supermarket and you buy your food in packaging, it's a way for you to invest your money in an unsustainable world for your children. It's a way for you to also waste your money. When you buy your food at a shop like The Source Bulk Foods, it's a way for you to vote for a future of unpackaged food and a more sustainable future for your children. It's also a way for you to invest your money in that system and also save money for what matters to you, for all those activities, for all those moments. Basically this lifestyle is about collecting moments not things.
What are some of your some of your pro tips for someone that has never ever heard about the zero waste lifestyle, apart from obviously going on your blog and buying your book? What are some of the simplest things that they can do today that will have the biggest impact?
The first thing I would tell them is that the zero waste lifestyle is the complete opposite of what they think it is. It's not just good for the environment, it's good for your health and it's not going to take more money or take more time to live this way, it's the opposite. Yes, it does take a bit of time at first to find a system that works for you but once you put it in place all you'll regret is not having started earlier.
So for the people that are looking to get started I would say the first thing that they can do is to learn to say no. The next time someone tries to hand something to them, they should try to think about it twice before they reach out for it, before they accepted it. Accepting is condoning. If they learn to say no they'll be amazed at how much stuff they can stop from coming in to their home.
The second thing I would encourage people to do is to go to through their home and let go of the things their not truly using or needing. When you let go of things you put these things, which are in themselves valuable resources, back into the market. You make it available to your community and it boosts the market for secondhand items, which is very important for the future of zero waste. If your into fashion, don't start with your wardrobe, but maybe start with your husband's first [laughs]. If you are a cook don't start with the kitchen, start with an area that's easier for you, maybe the garage or the living room and then work up to the places that's a bit harder for you. I would also encourage people to replace disposables for reusables, so you are reusing what you consume. You can do that by, for example, swapping paper towels for rags, or instead of tissues use handkerchiefs but also buy your food unpackaged.
I'm really really grateful for The Source Bulk Foods for bringing me here. It makes complete sense that we work together because it is the kind of shop that that I try to buy food at. I wish I had something like that where we live. We don't even have a bulk shop like Source. We only have a health food store with a bulk section and we've learnt to make do with what's available in that section. Australians have no reason not to go zero waste with the amount of unpackaged stuff that places like The Source Bulk Foods have available. It's like a one-stop-shop for everything zero waste. You’ll also need to build yourself a little kit to take to the shops. Your kit should consist of cloth bags for dry things like flour, salt, sugar, cereal and you’ll need glass containers for things that are wet, like olive oil, peanut butter, coconut oil and things like that. Once you have your shopping kit and a system that works for you then it will become completely automatic and normal for you and all you'll regret, as I’ve already said, is not having started earlier.
So, as you mentioned, The Source Bulk Foods have thankfully brought you out to Australia for a bunch of talks and to spread the good word. Is it difficult being zero waste whilst you're traveling and moving around?
No, actually. I'm really glad you asked that question because I was just telling someone here that we, my son and I, have found that it's a very, very easy to do zero waste in Australia. Not only because the solutions are here but it's also because, for example, when you're buying off food on the go, like a croissant or a sandwich, and we ask the staff to put it in our cloth bag they don't question it. They'll even praise us for it! They get all excited about it and they are very accepting of it. There are other parts of the world where they might question it. In France they might laugh at you for bringing a cloth bag [laughs]. But here I found that people were very receptive and very positive about it. So it's fantastic. You don't have to worry about weird looks or weird comments, people are very very nice about it.
That's fantastic, I'm glad you've been embraced with such positivity here in Australia.
So yes, when we travel we always travel with a cloth bag to buy our food on the go. I visited Source Bulk Foods just a couple of days ago so I was able to fill my cloth bags with some snacks and then it was easy to buy sandwiches or whatever. Then we also bring a thermos for drinks like tea, coffee or water. Those two items are essential for when we travel. We'll always pick a restaurant where they serve with real plates, real glasses and real flatware. We won't be eating from the fast food restaurants because we don't want to invest our money in a fast food restaurant. I know that there are some zero wasters out there that will be going around with a whole kit of reusables, they bring their own flatware and their own plates but then they go and buy food from a fast food restaurant where things are disposable and I don't agree with that. I'd personally rather invest my money in businesses that are doing it right.
I want to touch on the concept, in zero waste, of harmony. In your TED talk you mentioned a quote by Ghandi, something along the lines of merging what you do, what you think and what you say. Once those things are in harmony you arrive at a very pure sense of happiness and joy. This is sort of what you've been referring to. The fact that this lifestyle has brought you a very profound sense of being alive and happy. Do you want to perhaps finish this conversation by explaining how the zero waste movement has sort of revolutionised your inner world?
Yeah so there are two quotes actually from Ghandi that really lead me to where I am today. "Be the change that you want to see in the world." That's really the one that I really thought about when I was watching documentaries and reading books early on and that's when my husband and I realised that if we wanted a better world for our children we had to be part of the solution. I think it's up to us to see where we can be part of this change. You know, some people might think well why don't you work in politics to make change and I'm like, well, because that is not my strength. It's up to everyone to figure out what their strengths are in bringing about change and making solutions available to their people.
The second quote is "happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do is in harmony." I really believe that the zero waste lifestyle has done exactly that for us. Somehow it's connected all the dots for me. As a kid, I grew up in a very simple way in the south of France. When I started looking for zero waste solutions somehow what had been taught to me as a child came rushing back into my head. I was an artist originally. I was a painter, but I no longer feel the need to put my creativity onto canvas because the zero waste lifestyle is feeding my needs for creating.
It's cliche, but your life is like the canvas.
Yeah exactly. In order not to waste any food in my house I have to find creative solutions and that's how they express my creativity. Zero waste is like a game in many instances and you have to find a way around the problems that you come across. Zero waste is not depriving, it can become something really fun if you let it. To us we find that it translates into true happiness because we discovered a life that is based on being instead of having. To us that is what makes life richer and what makes life happier. It's not stuff; stuff doesn't make you happier. You buy one thing and then you just want the next thing. There will always be someone that's more successful than you, that has a bigger house, a bigger car and a better gadget. If you're caught in that rat race you'll never be happy because you'll always be chasing your tail. If you realise that what you have is all that matters and if you really live a life that is based on human relations, activities and strengthening human bonds that's when you can taste the good life.
This lifestyle is a little bit like the movie ‘The Matrix’. At one point Neo has to choose between taking the blue pill or the red pill. Taking the blue pill meant sticking to the life that he's always known. But Neo has balls, [laughs], so he decided to take the red pill and to be thrown into a world that was scary, it was a world that he didn't know. At first he gets beat up, he even gets shot. But then as he goes deeper and deeper he gets stronger and stronger and at the end he's on the top of the world. At that point he would never think of going back to the world that he knew before. The zero waste lifestyle for us is exactly that because we didn't have the solutions at the start, so we failed lot and it was very difficult. It was scary, but as we as we stuck with it we get stronger and stronger and got better at it and now we've discovered this life that is so good. We would never think of going back to the way we used to live. We see the life that we used to have as a waste of money, a waste of time and a life that was just based on the wrong priorities.
You speak with so much conviction. It's so powerful.
It's because I live it. I've been doing it for 12 years. It's been such an epiphany. Once you remove the blindfold, literally you're like, oh my gosh, what was I thinking before!