Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bea Johnson
A few years ago, French expat Bea Johnson and her family made a big decision: They vowed to reduce almost everything in their lives, from the size of their home to the things they brought into it and the resources they consumed. What didn’t get downsized? The time they spend together, their appreciation for life’s pleasures and their commitment to the environment. Since 2009, Bea has chronicled her family’s journey on her blog, Zero Waste Home, and has become an inspiration to hundreds of families trying to live more simply. (Only a French woman could make sustainability look so stylish!) We asked Bea about her clan’s early adventures in zero waste living -- and her tips for trying out the lifestyle for ourselves.
What initially made you decide to go zero waste?
It all started when we downsized our home. We went from a large residence to a smaller one downtown so we could be walking distance from more amenities. Before we moved to the new house we rented a small apartment where we only had the necessities. It forced us to really evaluate what we had and we ended up letting go of about 80% of our belongings. We realized we loved it because it freed us up to spend more time together as a family. Simplifying our life brought us more time to educate ourselves about environmental issues and we decided we wanted to do something about it. From there, my husband quit his job to start a sustainability company and I took over running our home.
What was the first step you took?
We started with reusable bottles and shopping totes. Then I realized I could go further if I made my own fabric bags to shop the bulk section. I made my own bags out of old sheets, and then we started bringing our own jars for wet items such as meat, cheese, fish, olive oil and honey.
How did store employees react to your homemade bags and jars?
The bags were no problem. At first, I had a couple of negative comments about the jars, but I think it was because they didn’t understand what I was doing. One cheese-counter guy said, “What’s the point of doing what you’re going, I’m sure you drove here in your plastic car.” He didn’t understand that it’s not about plastic per se; I was doing it because of the packaging.
I’ve found the easiest way to get people to accept the jar is just to tell them I don’t have a trashcan. They don’t go further. I’ve also noticed that if you hand over the jar with confidence, without looking like you’re waiting for someone’s approval, people understand that this is something you’re used to doing.
How difficult was it to get your kids to go along with the idea of zero waste? We started small and progressed from there. We never said, “We’re going for zero waste.” We were six months into it and had no packaging left in the house when I went with my son on a field trip to the grocery store. When they asked about shopping in bulk, my son didn’t say anything. I realized that my kids didn’t even know we didn’t have packaging in the house, so I showed them the pantry and that was the first time we talked about the idea that we were trying to be zero waste.
That was also around the time we realized it’s about refusing, about being comfortable saying no. I brought that concept to the kids and told them it’s their job to not bring home things they know they don’t need, like flyers and party favors. When my son says no to a party favor, it’s very powerful. The parents encourage him to take it, but my son says no thanks, I don’t need it.
Why do you feel refusing is such a powerful action?
Refusing is important because the opposite -- accepting -- is condoning the practices that are in place. Every time you accept a free pen, you’re condoning the idea of making more. There’s no need to accept another pen with a new logo on it just because it’s handed to us. When you’re refusing, you’re stopping this snowball effect, whether it’s flyers, business cards, goody bags from a conference or single use plastics (SUPs).
Do people ever get offended when you refuse something, like a drink in a plastic cup at a party?
If you give people a quick explanation, they really accept it. At a party, it’s tricky, but there are ways of being a bit more accommodating. You can say, “I’m sorry, do you mind if I grab a glass?” With party favors, people understand that we all have too much stuff in our homes, so the easiest way to explain it is, “No thanks, we’re trying to simplify our life.”
What are the most important things we can do to get closer to zero waste?
If I have one big tip, it’s to follow the five R’s in order:
1. Refuse the things we do not need.
2. Reduce the things we do need.
3. Reuse by replacing disposables with reusables.
4. Recycle what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse.
5. Rot (or compost) the rest.
That is the core essence of my system, and this is how we’ve been able to do it. By now, it’s automatic for us because we’ve applied the five R’s in order.
Is there anything that’s still challenging for you about going zero waste?
If I have to pick one thing that has been the most challenging, it’s hands down, no question about it, junk mail. I have to deal with it every day. The junk mail comes to my home no matter what I do. Now we’re getting perhaps one piece a week, and it drives me crazy because I never asked for it and it still comes to me. The ones labeled Postal Customer make me feel like I’m beating my head against the wall because there’s nothing you can do. It’s super-frustrating.