Home Sweet Home: A Sit Down With Zero Waste Home’s Bea Johnson

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Zero Waste Home pantry

Zero Waste Home pantry. Image courtesy of Zero Waste Home.

Zero waste living.  The term brings with it all kinds of connotation – disbelief and even fear for some people, intrigue and admiration for others (and we’ll throw in indifferent for good measure). Whatever your perception, author and influencer Bea Johnson strives daily to shatter misconceptions about just what exactly zero waste living is.

For those not familiar, Johnson is a speaker, blogger, consultant and the author of Zero Waste Home – The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste.  The book has been so well received that is has been published in five different languages to date. Part chronical-of-the-journey, part how-to-guide, Ed Begley, Jr. describes the book as

‘Bea Johnson’s book has allowed me to get even closer to Zero Waste than I was before I picked it up. Read it today. It will transform the way you view waste.’

We were fortunate enough to recently sit down via phone with with Johnson and catch up.  The following is the result of our recent interview.

I too once was…

Johnson describes her journey towards zero waste like this

“Zero waste was never a ‘project’ for our family. It was then and is now a lifestyle.”

Moving to the U.S. from France in 1992, Johnson soon started a family with her husband.  “We lived in your typical suburban setting for years. Trips to get just about anything required travelling by car. We realized we were wasting a lot – money, time and resources.”  Was there another way?

Life in boxes

Sensing that something else was within reach, Johnson and her family put everything they owned into storage and lived in a small apartment for one year.  The contents of the apartment? Only what their family (now with two sons and a dog) needed to live.  ‘After that year in the apartment, we revisited our storage unit and did a complete assessment of everything in it. What we discovered was that upwards of 80% or more of what was in storage we didn’t really need.”

Johnson and her family then dove into educating themselves using various environmental and green living documentaries.  Around that same time, Johnson and her family made the decision to move into a home with a walkable community.  That home and the fruits of Johnson’s efforts are located in Mill Valley, California where she now resides with her husband, two sons ages 15 and 13 and their beloved dog since 2007.

“The biggest challenge at first was tempering my enthusiasm,” said Johnson. “I started making all kinds of things on my own – if I thought I could make something myself I would.  What I soon realized was that doing that was not going to be sustainable in the long term given our family’s needs and obligations.”  “It’s all about finding your balance,” adds Johnson.

Zero Waste Home office studio

Zero Waste Home office studio. Image courtesy of Zero Waste Home.

The 5 R’s

Bea Johnson holds an entire years worth of household waste in a pint size jar. Check out this article to see how to create a zero waste home.

Bea Johnson holds an entire years worth of household waste in a pint size jar. Image courtesy of Zero Waste Home.

The pillars of Johnson’s home are the 5 R’s – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.

“Zero Waste really starts outside the home, with the decisions that we make when we shop. If you do not buy packaging (by buying secondhand and in bulk for example), you don’t have to deal with its waste later.”

Johnson’s family of four now generates a quart-size jar of waste per year which they still have and continue to debate what the best use is. Johnson says that she does not want to send them to a landfill (or incinerated) and has suggested making art with it.

“We are not here to tell anyone how to live their life.  We are here to show people what is possible.  Living a zero waste lifestyle doesn’t have to be and is not extreme or hard.  In fact, it is I would argue the opposite.  By living with less, we actually now have more time to live.”

Call it life – simplified.  “We strive to fill our life with experiences, not stuff,” adds Johnson.

As the name implies, Johnson’s Zero Waste Home focuses on all aspects of waste including water and energy too.

“All aspects of our lives have naturally been considered. We have modified our diet to vegetarian weekdays. We have had water and energy audits and found out that our family of four consumes half that of the average. We have since installed solar on our roof and replaced all bulbs with LED’s. We monitor our water usage, and try to limit it as much as possible. You should see how dirty my car is!”

Not everyone is buying…

“My husband was not on board initially,” said Johnson. “After several years of living a zero waste lifestyle, I had him do a before and after assessment of our finances.  What he discovered was that we reduced our living expenses by at least 40%.”

In addition to information contained in Johnson’s book, she offers dozens of green living tips about how to reduce waste in your household – all broken out into room types.  For example;

If you cannot find it in bulk, find a supplier (bring your jar to the ice cream shop, a pillow case to the bakery for your bread, or your bottles to the winery/brewery)… or make it (mustard, salad dressing, hot sauce, jams, OJ, hummus, cookies, canned tomatoes).

Reimagining purchasing

Bea Johnson shopping at grocery store.

Bea Johnson shopping at grocery store. Image courtesy of Nicole Markwald. 

A large part of Johnson’s winning formula is her use of bulk purchasing. In 2011, she won the grand prize ($25K) in an environmental competition.  Johnson then chose to turn that winning money into what is today, BULK, Johnson’s bulk purchasing app. BULK ‘helps you eliminate packaging from your life by pointing to bulk food bins and liquid refills near you – and it lets you share the locations that you find with others.’

“For those exploring living a zero waste lifestyle, I would encourage them to follow living out the 5 R’s – in order. There is a great deal of emphasis by many placed on recycling.  Recycling is good, but there is much that one can do prior to recycling which results in achieving a zero waste lifestyle.”

So, are you ready to start living a zero waste lifestyle? Check out these articles to help you get started:

  • Zero Waste Cleaning and Laundry Tips
  • How to Cook up a Zero Waste Kitchen
  • There’s More to Zero Waste Than Being Green
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    Chase Ezell

    Chase has served in various public relations, communications and sustainability roles. He is a former managing editor for Earth911.com.