Living Zero Waste: An Interview with Bea Johnson
Previously written for EcoHabitude.
Do you ever wonder how much waste you personally generate in a week? Is it one trash can full? Two? More? On average, each American throws away 4.38 pounds of waste per day (EPA). What can we take from this? Well for one, we have become too fixated on disposables and one-time-use products (think face cleansing wipes, paper towels, razors, plastic bags, q-tips, etc.). We are also accustomed to buying products with packaging because we think it’s safer than not. What would our lives look like waste-free? We caught up with Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, to get the scoop on what this lifestyle means to her and how it has greatly influenced her choices as a consumer.
You’ve been living waste-free since 2008. What inspired you to embark on this lifestyle?
It’s something that came gradually into our lives. It’s not something that I planned on doing. What happened was that we were living in a large home in the suburbs and we were wanting to move to an area where we could walk to things because living in the suburbs meant we had to take the car everywhere. We decided to relocate to Mill Valley to be closer to an active downtown, and in running short of finding the ideal home, we lived in an apartment for a year. We only moved in with the necessities and put the rest in storage.
During that year we found that by living with less, all of a sudden we had more time on our hands to do things we enjoy doing. We were able to go on picnics and hikes and discover the California coastal region, it also gave us time to take an interest in learning about environmental issues. When we finally found a home and went to retrieve our things from storage, we ended up getting rid of 80% of our belongings. We turned off cable and only watched documentaries and read books. What we found is that we began to think about what we would be leaving behind for our kids. We decided to change our ways for the sake of the future.
Describe “Zero Waste living” in one sentence.
The zero waste lifestyle is about reducing your household waste as much as possible- it’s a lifestyle based on experiences instead of things.
Was it challenging introducing a zero waste lifestyle into your family?
We were six months into it and my kids didn’t even notice. Kids have simple needs and as long as those needs are met (as long as they come home to a cookie that they like after school or cereal they like in the morning) they don’t need anything else. They’re happy. Adults are the ones that are creating the complications. And if you ask my kids, “What does zero waste mean for you? It is hard?” they’ll say “zero waste is really my mom’s thing”– and they’re right because in the end who is the person who brings waste into the home? It is the person that does the shopping. Zero waste is more about what we do outside the home than it is what we do inside the home. So it’s when I shop with reusables, when I shop second hand and the fact that I have exchanged everything in our home that was disposable for a reusable– it is by doing these things that I have been able to stop waste from coming in to our house in the first place.
Recycling has become a popular means of “going green”. What are some of the misconceptions involved with the simple act of recycling?
People believe that whatever they put in their recycling can is actually going to be recycled — that is not true. There are actually a lot of materials that don’t get recycled. For example, there are plastics that are not recyclable because there is no market for them or because they are difficult to recycle. Some of the plastics that are lucky enough to get recycled, such as #1, #2 and #5 (those are the three that get recycled the most), there is a market for. But, unfortunately once those plastics are recycled into another product, they become a product that is no longer recyclable. For example, if you recycle bottles to make a park bench that bench cannot be recycled.
For you and your family’s clothing, you shop only second-hand. Can you offer any tips regarding what you look for when you shop?
I am not shopping all year long. I only shop for clothing twice during the year: in mid October and mid April. First I ask my kids if they have any special requests (colors, brands) and then I know what to keep an eye out for. I look for good quality. For myself I look for versatile styles that I can dress up or down depending on whatever I do (all of our wardrobes fit in carry on). I don’t look at brands at all. I look for how it is made. I look for natural fibers. I like wool and sometimes find cashmere. I like silk and cotton… and definitely leather shoes!
I think some people have issues with second-hand clothing because they think it’s going to stink or that the clothes are not going to be good quality. It’s not true. Plus, second-hand doesn’t necessarily mean thrift store– it can be from a flea market, high end consignment store and you can find anything second hand on ebay. When you buy new, you have no idea what an item is going to go through. A second hand item has already gone through the test of time and you can already tell what it’s going to look like after it has been washed.
What can businesses and makers do to make a zero waste lifestyle easier for their consumers to adhere to?
It’s good to think about the lifecycle of your product: what is that product going to become once it has been consumed? It is one thing to choose to make your product from materials that are environmentally friendly, but once you put these materials together what is happening in the end? Is the product recyclable? Compostable? I personally look for things
that are already made from something else. Businesses need to think about communicating the end life of their products to the consumer via a card, or by printing directly on the product itself. That way the consumer knows what to do with the product in the end.
As a society, we are so obsessed with things being clean and sanitary. From our bodies to the things we buy– we are hyper-hygenic. In ways, this stigma can keep people from willingly adopting a zero waste life. What do you think can change this frame of mind?
Our society is definitely becoming germaphobic. This is because the consumer is listening to the marketer. The marketer is telling us that for each application we need a different product to clean the walls, the floor, the counter, the bathroom. Marketers also like to say that their product is going to kill all these germs and be better for you. We’ve been cleaning our entire house with castile soap and white vinegar and we are actually not as sick as we used to be. It’s the consumer that needs to stop listening to the marketing schemes. We’re not idiots. We know what the truth is.
Any final words?
The zero waste lifestyle is not what people expect it to be. It’s something that people think will be draining, but it’s actually the complete opposite– it’s freeing. It doesn’t cost more, it costs less. It doesn’t take more time, it takes less time and frees you up for doing more important things. It’s also healthier for you because it rids your life from toxic products.
- Refuse the things that you do not need
- Reduce the things that you do need
- Reuse by buying second hand and swapping anything disposable for a reusable alternative
- Only recycle what cannot be refuse, reduce or reuse
- Rot (ie. compost) the rest
For more tips on zero waste living, check out Bea’s blog here, or purchase her book, Zero Waste Home. Also check out her app bulk to help locate grocery stores near you that carry bulk products that don’t require packaging.
Photos provided by ZeroWasteHome.com