Bea Johnson is the founder of the lifestyle website, Zero Waste Home and a pioneer to this “movement” of creating zero waste or as Bea says, ‘voluntary simplicity’.
We spoke to Bea about her website, the beginning of her zero waste life and what tips she has for others who are finding it difficult to know where to start.
Knewyu: What made you want to live a Zero Waste lifestyle and how did you go about it?
Bea: 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 realized the benefits of living with less: We had more time to do the things that were important to us, such as spending time with family and friends, and exploring/enjoying the outdoors. When we then bought a house, half the size of the previous one, we let go of 80% of our belongings (including those that we had stored).
Voluntary simplicity was a first step towards waste-free living. But then with more time, we 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 aim for Zero Waste.
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!
K: What were some of the challenges you and your family faced when beginning this lifestyle and how did you overcome and create/find solutions to those challenges?
B: Our biggest challenge was finding balance, figuring out what worked for us and what did not. There were no books or blogs on how to do Zero Waste when we started in 2008, so I googled alternatives and tested many recipes and how-to’s. But I eventually got too wrapped up into homemaking: At one point, I was making cheese, bread, yogurt, soy milk, butter, etc.
Some of these ideas were too extreme, too time consuming, and we later dropped them for the sake of simplicity. For example, we realized 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.
Since 2010, we have Zero Waste on auto-pilot in our home. It is easy and natural for us. We found that for Zero Waste to be sustainable in a household, one has to adopt alternatives that fit his/her schedule, are feasible in the long run, and suit his/her regional customs.
K: What is a normal day like in the life of Bea?
B: Waste starts outside the home: It is when we shop secondhand and in bulk that we can stop waste from coming into our homes. I go to a thrift store twice a year for our clothes and to a bulk food store once a week. That’s when I stop waste at the root.
So my day is surprisingly very similar to everyone else, the products that I use is what makes it different.
I cover waste-free beauty and hygiene alternatives in detail in my book, but here are a few examples. We buy an unpackaged bar of soap and use it from head to toe (to wash, shampoo, and shave). We use an alum stone as deodorant and baking soda as toothpaste. I make my own makeup using very few ingredients (sometimes only one!) which I purchase in bulk using my own containers/cloth bags. Mascara is the recipe that I am most proud of in my book. It tool a lot of trial and error to find the right combination of (four) ingredients!
I wash my face in the shower with soap and use my drying towel to gently exfoliate my face. I then apply a local SPF tinted moisturizer packaged in a glass bottle (it’s the only product in my routine that I purchase manufactured). I then apply a homemade kohl powder on my eyes and blend it with my fingers for a smoked look. I apply homemade mascara on my lashed, cocoa powder on cheeks and I am good to go. On my way somewhere, I will apply homemade balm on lips and cuticles (it makes my nails shine), and run hands thru my hair to smooth the ends. At night I simply use soap to wash my face.
Using multi-purpose products is key with a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. I apply the same tricks to my wardrobe. I apply a cross seasonal palette based on basic colors that can be applied to any event. Day or night. The homemade balm can be used on lips, nails and hair, the kohl powder as liner and lid powder; the cocoa powder on cheeks and in a glass of milk ;). I use the baking soda to exfoliate, but also to brush my teeth and the stove ;)…
K: What has been the best part of your Zero Waste lifestyle and what benefits would you say one would get by making this transition?
B: The most rewarding part on a personal level comes from the effects of living by example: you inspire people around you. In 2010, after being featured in the New York Times, I became “the priestess of waste free living” overnight. I have since given close to 100 speeches on 5 continents and my lifestyle has since been profiled in print and on televisions throughout the world showing that waste free living is possible and inspiring thousands to do the same. My book has also inspired the opening of countless bulk stores abroad and the implementation of Zero Waste alternatives everywhere. The 18 year old Au Pair that I was when I first came to the US could not have have guessed that she’d launch a global movement one day, or would write a book that would be translated into 9 languages!
We found that Zero Waste is not just good for the environment. Overall it has also made us healthier, and it saves us an incredible amount of time and money (40% on our overall budget)!
The savings of the Zero Waste lifestyle are so great that I beat myself for not doing it earlier and I could not envision myself going back to the way I used to live (what a waste of money it was!)
What we enjoy most about this lifestyle as a family is the simple life and how much closer it has brought us. Voluntary simplicity has allowed for our housework and professional work to be more efficient and for our lives to be focused on being instead of having. It has allowed us to travel more by being able to easily to rent our house when we’re gone (our minimalist wardrobes fit in carry-ons), which then funds vacations and family getaways!
K: What tips can you give to someone who wants to start a Zero Waste Lifestyle?
B: The zero in “zero waste” makes it sound scary and hard to achieve. It is actually not as hard as it seems. It has become easy and natural for our family, by simply following these Five R’s in order:
- Refuse what we do not need (for e.g. single use plastics, junk-mail and freebies)
- Reduce what we do need (furnishings, clothes)
- Reuse by buying secondhand and swapping disposables for reusables (that includes shopping with reusables such as cloth bags, jars and bottles)
- Recycle what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse
- Rot (compost) the rest (fruit peels, lint, hair, floor sweepings etc).
The most important thing one can do to stop waste and clutter from entering their home is to simply say no! Think before accepting something that is handed out to you. Turn down flyers, freebies, party favors, business cards, single use plastics (such as plastic bags), and fight junk mail.
Accepting these things not only creates demand to make more, but they are a waste of resources and once they are brought into our home, they add to the clutter and require effort to dispose of them later. Refusing is the first rule to living a Zero Waste, simple lifestyle. Give it a try: you’ll be amazed how much stuff you’ll be able to stop from coming in.
Thank you Bea! These are very wise words!