'Zero Waste Home' author Bea Johnson on living a minimalist lifestyle

Plus plenty of tips on how to start reducing your own footprint

Bea Johnson throws nothing away. No plastic bottles. No delivery containers. No shopping bags. Every year since 2008, her family of four (which includes two teenagers, a husband and a dog) have produced only enough garbage to fit inside a jam jar.

What started as a personal obsession to live a zero waste lifestyle now has full support from her family; it’s allowed them to travel the world, helped them be more present, happier even. On the heels of a recent Beijing trip to promote the Chinese-language launch of her book, Zero Waste Home, Johnson shares tips on how to get started reducing waste in your own home and why it’s not as time-consuming as many might fear.

2017 trash tally (2)
Johnson's trash tally for 2017. Via Zero Waste Home.

What are some of the financial and health benefits of living a zero waste lifestyle?
My husband was not fully on board with zero waste at first, thinking that buying reusables and shopping in health food stores would be financially draining. But when I urged him to compare bank statements of 2005 (our pre-zero waste life) with 2010 (post-zero waste) we discovered that we were saving 40 percent annually on household costs.

As for health benefits, our lifestyle eliminated toxic products from our home. We've replaced all cleaning products for white vinegar for example. [In grocery stores], we stick to the fresh perimeter of the store which also happens to be less processed and therefore healthier for us.

Stephanie Rausser.

How do you recommend families get started on the road to reducing their waste output?
The ‘zero’ in zero waste makes it sound scary and hard to achieve; it’s actually not as scary as it seems. It has become easy and natural for our family, by following my method of the ‘Five R's’.

Refuse what you don’t need, like freebies and single-use plastics. You'll be amazed how much stuff you'll be able to stop from coming in. Reduce the number of items you have (this actually boosts the second-hand market which is extremely important to the future of zero waste). Reuse by buying second-hand and swapping disposable items for reusable ones. Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse. Rot (or compost) the rest – like fruit peels, egg shells, even laundry lint and hair.

Michael Clemens  Sees The Day (3)
Michael Clemens, Sees The Day.

Going zero waste takes a lot of creativity. What was the trial and error process like for you when you were first starting out?
Trial and error was inevitable for us. I had to test many alternatives, recipes and how-to's. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes frustrating because of the time or money I had wasted on them.

At one point I got too wrapped up in homemaking: I was making cheese, bread, yoghurt, soy milk, butter… Some of these ideas were too extreme or time consuming, and we later dropped them for the sake of simplicity. We realised that there was no need for us to make bread if we could buy it unpackaged, either directly from the bakery or from bakery bins. The very reason I wrote Zero Waste Home was to share all the waste-free alternatives that worked for us, so that others don't have to waste time testing as I did.

Michael Clemens  Sees The Day (27)
Michael Clemens, Sees The Day.

How is it possible for people who work full-time or busy parents to adopt a zero waste lifestyle?
I am not a stay-at-home mum and work full-time, so I can confirm that it is an untrue perception [that it's too time consuming]. As I’ve mentioned in my talks, I only make a couple of things myself. I think this sometimes comes from bloggers that are aiming for zero waste but are still going through their testing mode, just as I did at one point. Unfortunately, their experiments make people believe that in order to live waste-free you have to make everything from scratch. It's scaring the crap out of working mums and keeping them away from considering waste-free living at all!

I see them making household products that are completely unnecessary. The other day, I saw someone used my hashtag #zerowastehome for a toothpaste made from nine packaged ingredients. I am fighting this misconception everyday: there is no point in making toothpaste if you can use baking soda, or an array cleaning products if all you need is vinegar. I want people to understand that successfully adopting a zero waste lifestyle comes from adopting a simple life, first and foremost.

photo credit Nicole Markwald
Nicole Markwald.

Is there anything you feel you're missing out on? What are the things you still struggle with a decade on?
For us zero waste is now easy, automatic and has improved our lives so much that we could not envision going back to the way we used to live. Life becomes less focused on having and rather on being...it's allowed me to indulge in more meaningful hobbies. The only thing we regret from our old lifestyle is not starting the zero waste lifestyle earlier.

Zero Waste Home is available in English via amazon.cn (96RMB, paperback; 66RMB, e-book).

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