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For the last decade, Bea Johnson, her husband, and their two teenage boys have generated a single quart of household trash per year. Today, the family lives so minimally that if they ever needed (or wanted) to travel anywhere from a week to a month, each of them could fit everything necessary, including all their clothes, in one suitcase.
Living just outside San Francisco in 2006, Johnson and her family’s radical lifestyle change was first inspired by a move that same year. After deciding to relocate to an apartment closer to the city, Johnson says they had to put a lot of their things in storage for a while. “We took only our necessities with us. About 80% of our belongings were left in storage,” says the French native, who first moved to California in her teens as an au pair. “And for a whole year, we realized we hadn’t missed any of it.”
Suddenly, Johnson began noticing they had more time to do other things, like simply reading and being outside. “My husband and I began thinking about the kind of future we were creating for our children,” she says. Inspired by their new way of life, she dove deep into the world of living minimally. While researching, she stumbled upon the term “zero waste.” Nearly ten years ago, Johnson admits it was still a foreign term to many. “Zero waste was only really used when talking about municipal manufacturing and waste management systems. There wasn’t much related to living zero waste at home.” In 2008, she set out to change that.
She began with small changes, like switching from plastic and paper bags to reusable ones. After realizing she could bring her own bags to the grocery store for produce and bulk foods, she decided to make her own bags (instead of buying new ones) to eliminate bag waste altogether. With this in mind, Johnson slowly found ways to cut out waste in all areas of their home: from line-drying her laundry to save on energy, to using baking soda as a cleaning solution around the house and in personal hygiene (as antiperspirant, toothpaste, a natural exfoliant) — even swapping out disposable feminine products for a reusable menstrual cup.
To document this journey, Johnson launched her blog, Zero Waste Home. With its unheard notions, the blog quickly picked up a lot of attention from the press — and the skeptics. “Of course, we were criticized! People thought we were hippies living in the woods,” laughs Johnson. “Some people said, ‘She probably doesn’t even shave!’ They thought we were depriving our children!” (For the record, Johnson says her 16 and 18-year old boys are just like any other teens wearing the same kinds of clothes, cell phones, and laptops — all bought second hand, of course — and hanging out with their friends.) But with time, the movement began to gain more traction.
Today, she has become a household name in the zero waste world, deemed the founder of the modern day zero waste lifestyle movement. The New York Times has called her “The Priestess of Waste-Free Living.” As an international speaker, blogger, and best-selling author — her 2013 book, “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste” has been translated into 21 languages — Johnson has inspired thousands worldwide to explore zero waste living.
If you’re still wondering how (on earth!) she managed to fit her family’s trash in a quart sized jar, Johnson sums up their five R's, in this order:
- “First, learn to refuse what you don’t need,” she says. This includes everything from free pens and t-shirts to any kind of sample from parties and conferences. “Simply learn to say no. By accepting things like free promo goods, we are creating demand for more.”
- Secondly, work on reducing. “Let go of what you don’t need and make them available to people who may need them,” explains Johnson, “Whether you donate art materials to a school or old towels and blankets to the ASPCA.”
- The third golden rule is to reuse, opting for reusable alternatives (like cloth towels over paper towels) when you are able to.
- Next, Johnson says, “Recycle. Know your city’s recycling policies, but also think of recycling as a last resort. Only recycle what cannot be refused, reduced, or reused.” Another way to recycle and reuse includes shopping second hand, she explains. “And if you must buy new, choose glass, metal, or cardboard, and avoid plastic.”
- The final R: Rot — “Compost everything else!”
Of course, Johnson’s isn’t saying you should try and do all five immediately, or all at once. “It’s about making simple swaps and finding a balance that works for you,” she says, admitting that their family tried out a few extremes before finding their balance. “One of the biggest mistakes I made was getting wrapped up in trying to make everything. There’s a false belief that everything zero waste must be made from scratch, which of course can scare the crap out of people who may think, ‘I don’t have time to make everything!’ But it’s not true.”
For example, Johnson remembers seeing one zero waste blogger share a DIY toothpaste recipe that involved buying nine packaged ingredients first. “Our family actually makes very little from scratch,” she admits. “The idea is simply to be more conscious about what you buy and find ways to be more resourceful.”
Take Johnson’s closet for instance. She owns a mere 15 pieces of clothing with which she is able to create 50 different outfits. “In the typical closet, only 20% of clothes get used. Most of us don’t wear the other 80%, but hold on to the ‘what if’ — what if I have a wedding to attend, what I lose weight, what if I have that job interview.” The secret to her capsule wardrobe (her kids and husband have them, too): keeping multifunctionality in mind, and learning to let go.
For anyone thinking that living zero waste seems more expensive and time-consuming, Johnson says they probably don’t fully see what living zero waste is about. “But it’s completely understandable,” she says. “People may think that because it’s different than what they’re used to, it’s less efficient. They may think that what they’re already doing is saving the most time and money. That’s because today’s consumer society was created through marketers who promise products that will save time and money.”
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By eliminating waste from their life and finding ways to live as simply as they can, Johnson’s family has been able to save 40% of their overall family budget, buying only what they need and mending the rest. “We consume way less than we did before. When you live simply, you begin to think twice about what you want to bring into your home. The less you have, the less you have to maintain, which creates much more room in your life.”