Zero Waste: An Interview with Bea Johnson

The Public Goods Blog is about health, sustainability and people making an impact. That’s why we seek out and interview amazing people who can share incredible stories or valuable insights. Their wisdom might be the inspiration you need to live a healthier, more sustainable life.

bea johnson, glass jar of waste

Take a moment to think about all the household trash you produce every year. It would probably fill up at least a room, right? Now imagine a family that can fit all of theirs in a small jar.

Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, catalyzed an entire movement by showing that reducing waste is possible, and it doesn’t need to mean depriving yourself of what’s good in life. To learn more about her work and sustainable lifestyle, we chatted with Johnson during a break in her busy speaking schedule.

Below is an edited transcript from our Skype call. Time is another resource we tend to waste, so we cut out some superfluous sections and took out all the “umms” and such that happen during conversations.

Public Goods: What inspired you to develop the zero waste lifestyle?

Bea Johnson: In 2006 we were living with our family of four in a house that was out in the suburbs. We had to get into a car to do just about anything, and we missed the life we had known in the big cities we have lived in — London, Amsterdam, Paris — where we were used to walking and biking everywhere. We wanted to rediscover that life, so we decided to be close to a town.

Before finding the right house, though, we rented an apartment for one year, and we only moved in with the necessities. During that year we had an epiphany: we found that when you live with less, all the sudden you have more time to do what’s important to you, more time for friends, family, picnics, hikes.

When we did find the right house in that town, we got everything out of storage, and we found that 80% of the stuff we had put in there we hadn’t even missed for a whole year. And it’s thanks to that simplicity that we found time to read books and watch documentaries on environmental issues, and that’s when my husband and I discovered what’s going on and removed the blinders. It made us really sad thinking about the future that we as parents were going to leave behind for our children, the future we were creating. That’s what gave us the motivation to change.

In trying to adopt a more sustainable way of living, we watched our energy consumption, then our water consumption, and then I started to look at our trash, and then I started looking at solutions for how to reduce it.

One day I found the term, zero waste, which back then was a term used to describe waste management at a municipal level. It was also a term used in the manufacturing world, but it was not a term used to describe something you do at home.

When I saw that term, a lightbulb went off in my head and it gave me a goal. There were no books, no blog, no guide on how to eliminate trash, so I had to test a lot of things, a lot of extremes and alternatives. But eventually we found a system that worked for us. We found alternatives that could work in the long run, and that’s when zero waste became a lifestyle for us.

PG: How did your project grow and eventually impact so many people?

BJ: When we started, no one was doing this. I started writing a blog, and my husband warned me. He said, “Don’t write a blog. You’re going to get hammered by criticism.” But I told him I felt it was important to share the solutions we had found to reduce trash at home.

I started the blog, and then The New York Times picked it up. They wrote an article about us, but there were no pictures in that article, so people pictured us as hippies living in the woods. Some people said, “It’s disgusting what they’re doing to their children, depriving them of a good life.” We laughed at that and thought, “They obviously don’t know what we’re doing.”

All this criticism was normal. It’s because they did not know what a zero waste lifestyle meant.

But then we got more attention, and there was a magazine that did a nine-page spread showing how we lived, what we looked like. A lot of people saw this and were like, “Wow, if that’s what the zero waste lifestyle looks like, I want to do zero waste.”

We were able to inspire thousands and thousands of people, and eventually I wrote the book, which is now translated in 25 languages. It’s a lot easier to spread my message further.

At the same time I’m giving talks throughout the world. My talks have been a great tool to bring the message in places where people don’t really know what zero waste is, to bring a community together. The movement takes off in that area, unpackaged stores start opening, people start businesses around making reusables more available, or composting or recycling.

With this movement growing exponentially, it’s attracted the attention of large corporations. Some have come to me to ask for my input on their products — for example, IKEA. I’ve had the opportunity to give talks at the UN, the European Parliament, Amazon, Starbucks. It’s become a global movement.

Anywhere in the world you can apply my methodology of five rules:

  1. Refuse: which is to learn to say no — to promotional freebies, junk mail, plastic bags, straws, whatever is thrown at you
  2. Reduce: letting go of all the things we do not truly use or need in our home, going through a decluttering process. When you go through a decluttering process, you make things that are in themselves valuable resources available to your community. You put it back on the market and it boosts the secondhand market, which is very important for the future of zero waste.
  3. Reuse: swap disposables for reusables — replace paper towels with rags, replace sandwich bags and raps with glass jars, going to the grocery store with tote bags, mesh bags, etc.
  4. Recycle: avoiding materials that are not recyclable
  5. Rotting: composting is the last rule, the last resort before the landfill

The zero waste lifestyle is the complete opposite of what a lot of people think it is. It doesn’t deprive your life. It translates into a richer life, a simple life, but a life that is based on experiences instead of things, a life that is based on being instead of having.

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