Talking Trash | Zero Waste Influencer Bea Johnson

We shared a cuppa and a skype chat with Zero Waste innovator Bea Johnson about saving time and money, as well as improving our health and the planet by living the simple life.
For many going waste free is something that seems complicated or time consuming, can you share with us how long it took for you and your family to make the switch to a zero-waste lifestyle?

For us it all began in 2006 when we simplified our life through a move. We had to put most of our belongings in storage and move into a small apartment while we looked for a house. From 2006-2007 we learnt how to live simply by moving into a small apartment and only being able to have the necessities. Then when we finally found a new house and moved in with all the things that we had had in storage, we realised we didn’t need everything that had been in storage, so from 2007 to 2008 we began to declutter our life. You have to realise that when I took on the role of zero waste for our house - there were no books, no blogs and no guides on how to do that, so I had to test how to do a lot of things. It took me about 2 years to find a balance, to find simple alternatives that we could see ourselves doing in the long run in everyday life. I would say that from 2010 we have been using the same solutions to achieve a waste-free life.

For people who want to make the effort to reducing their own waste, but feel overwhelmed as to how to begin, how would you recommend they start?

I outlined in my book, Zero Waste Home, a 5-step method. I developed this method in order to reduce our trash to just one jar of waste per year. The first step is to Refuse what we do not need. Today in a consumerist based society, we are the target of many promotional goods and anytime that we accept them into our life or home, we are contributing to the cycle to make more. Once we bring these things into our home, not only does it clutter our space, but it also becomes a trash problem. If you learn to say no to these things on the spot, you will be amazed at how much stuff you can stop from coming into your home. For example, we say no to junk mail, business cards, single-use plastics, straws, freebies, samples and birthday party bags. All these things are unnecessary, and we have learned to say no to them all. We say no to the things that we simply do not need.

The second rule in the Zero Waste lifestyle is Reduce. That means letting go of all the things that you do not use or need in your home. When you let go of them, you make these things - which are valuable resources - available to your community. You put it back on the market and it boosts the second-hand market which is very important for the future of the zero-waste community. So, in my case, for example, I had a jar of utensils next to my stove until I realised that I don’t need 10 wooden spoons, one is enough. I used to have a closet filled with clothes and shoes until I realised that actually, a wardrobe of just 15 pieces is a much more practical option. It’s also much easier when I travel because I can take it all with me. Obviously the less you have, the less you have to store, maintain and repair or discard.

The third rule of the zero-waste lifestyle is to Re-use and for us, reusing means we have swapped anything disposable for a reusable alternative. We swapped paper towels for rags, paper napkins for cloth napkins, tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable razors for reusable ones, disposable menstrual products for menstrual cups. It also means going to the store with a kit of reusables, we go to the grocery store with 3 totes for our weekly shopping, and we also bring glass jars for anything wet like meat, fish, dairy, cheese, peanut butter or olive oil. We bring mesh bags for produce, cloth bags for anything dry like flour, salt, sugar or cereal and a pillow case to buy bread. The second aspect is of Reusing is also to buy second hand if we need something. So, of course, all of our wardrobes are purchased second hand. Basically, our first reaction, if we need something, is that we are getting it from the thrift store, or sometimes eBay for the things that are super specific. Sometimes we may look at consignment shops or the local peer to peer websites.

The fourth rule of the zero-waste lifestyle is to Recycle. But of course, recycling only what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse. At the end of the day zero-waste is not about recycling more, but less, by preventing waste from coming into the home in the first place - which is done with the first 3 rules.

Finally, the last of the methods is Rot - which is composting. So, we compost whatever is left. That means fruit and veggie peels, and also floor sweepings, nail & hair. Now that the zero-waste lifestyle is becoming a global movement, it has also inspired a lot of different composting systems to be available on the market, so there really is a composting system for everyone’s individual needs now.

Bea_Johnson_Zero_Waste_Home_DiagramAnd you can compost things like wooden toothbrushes too?

We do indeed buy wooden toothbrushes, but the bristles are not actually compostable. A lot of manufacturers tell you that they are compostable, but that is not true. I have done the burnt test on these bristles and found that they were not burning, but in fact melting. When something is melting it is made from plastic which is not recyclable, so in that case we just pry them out and we throw the bristles into our jar of annual waste, but we definitely compost the handle.

As a family of four that produces only one jar of waste per year, do you know how much waste the average household produces annually in comparison?

It’s different for different parts of the world. But I have heard that the average family in America, Europe and Australia produces a tonne of waste per year. However, we are not here to compare ourselves to other people, we are only here to tell our story and if it inspires people great if it doesn’t too bad. It’s not a competition, we are just showing what is possible.


You decided to embark on the zero waste journey when your sons were quite young, how did the zero waste lifestyle influence their choice of toys & playtime?

When we started the kids were 5 & 6 and they already had quite a few toys, so we did not add toys. When we began to declutter, we asked them to pick their favourite toys from what they already owned, and they chose to keep Playmobil and Lego. They let go of all the others and because the Playmobil and Lego are made to last for so long, when they had out-grown them, they were able to sell them to buy themselves more age appropriate replacements like second-hand video games. Of course, if I had young children today, I would probably pick wooden or cloth materials toys instead of the plastic that we had already purchased before adopting a zero waste lifestyle. At least with Lego and Playmobil, we were able to get them from the second-hand market for birthdays and Christmas.


Our audience is mostly females, so we have a lot of mums out there who may be interested in reducing their household waste consumption, but wonder how that will impact their beauty or self-care routine. What advice can you offer to women about this topic?

Reducing waste means applying the 5 rules to every aspect of your lifestyle, refuse, reduce, recycle, reuse & rot. When it came to hygiene and cosmetics, I asked myself ‘what it is that I really need?’ With this aspect of the lifestyle, it really starts with refuse. If someone offers me a sample, or if I go to a hotel and there are mini shampoo & conditioner bottles, I don’t touch them.

When applying the second aspect of reducing, I asked myself what are my essentials? What are the things that I would need on a trip? Basically, when you go on a trip you are really thinking about only packing the essentials, which helps you identify what you really need because you can’t take it all. When it comes down to it my essentials are black kohl, mascara, blush, and lip-gloss. When I worked this out I realised that I didn’t need all the extra colours, the waterproof mascara or all the nail polishes and other products that I was only seldomly using. With the essentials decided I then found solutions for each of them. That’s actually one of the reasons that I decided to write the Zero Waste book because I found that it was not easy to find solutions at first. Now for blush, adding colours to my brows or dry shampoo, I use a cacao powder. I buy it in a little jar unpackaged and it costs around 70 cents and it lasts me 1-2 years. A lot less than purchasing a bronzer from Sephora. On my eyes, I used to use burnt almonds that I had to make, but now I use activated charcoal because I was able to find it unpackaged and I can apply it with a Moroccan kohl applicator like they do in the middle east and India. For the Mascara, I actually have a recipe in my book and it is made from very few ingredients which are all easily available unpackaged. Interestingly since I started making my own mascara in 2012, I have not had conjunctivitis. Before when I was using store-bought mascaras I would get it every 6 months. I also make my own multipurpose balm from vegetable oil and beeswax and I use it to smooth out my hair, moisturise my nails and lips and to highlight my cheeks.


What about shampoo & conditioner – do you buy these in bulk?

At one point I tried scrubbing my hair with baking soda and rinsing it with apple cider vinegar, but after 6 months the oil of my hair had migrated down to my mid-lengths and I looked like I had dipped my hair in a deep fryer, not very sexy. I then went to buying bulk, but I was tired of bringing the container back and forth. Shampoo is made to make your hair dry, so you need to buy conditioner to rehydrate it. It's a completely unsustainable system, so I started getting away from it and using a generic bar of soap. It's not a shampoo bar and it’s not a special soap - it's just a generic bar of soap. Of course, the first time I used it - it was very weird and it made my hair all sticky and feel odd. But my hair got used to it within a week so there was no longer any need to buy anything else or apply conditioner. That one bar of solid soap has replaced face wash, body wash, shampoo and shaving cream. One product has eliminated 4 others and is so much easier to transport home from the store.

You recently toured Australia, how did you find our approach as a country to waste free life?

Yes, the The Source Bulk Foods Store brought me over, and it was great! Every show was completely sold out. It was obvious that there is a lot of interest and awareness within Australia. The fact that you have stores like The Source Bulk Foods also makes it so much easier to shop zero waste. We, unfortunately, do not have stores like that. What you have available unpackaged is incredible and completely different to us here in the US. But we have learnt to make do with what is available to us. Unpackaged means anything that is sold without packaging so not necessarily a store that is labelled as being a bulk store, but any local store that sells products without packaging like the local ice-cream store, fish shop, butcher, produce store - anything that is sold without packaging. When you adopt the zero waste lifestyle, you acquire a selective vision, so when I go to a new place, a new country, a new store I don’t see what is available in a package - I only see what is available to us unpackaged. You acquire a selective vision and it doesn’t take long to see that unpackaged is actually available to you everywhere you go.


You have inspired so many people and a global movement, what stood out most when watching your clip with CNN, is that not only do you make the switch to waste free seem so easy – but that you must have so much extra time with less items to sort, clean and manage plus be healthier with less processed foods in your life.

Yes, absolutely we are way healthier, and we are able to discover a life based on experiences and that makes our life richer. We also save 40% on our previous annual household spend. Many people assume that this lifestyle takes more time, but when you live simply it doesn’t, it’s the opposite and it actually simplifies your life and makes room for what matters most to you. I think people picture me as someone who is a stay-at-home mum spending her days worrying about her trash and making a bunch of things from scratch - but that could not be further from the truth. I’m a full time professional and I only make a few things like my mascara and multipurpose balm once a year. For everything else we have adopted very simple solutions that don’t take up time, they actually save time. It’s really about eliminating all the consumption that doesn’t make any sense and adopting reusable options that are so much better than the single use options. We have been able to discover a lifestyle that is so much better and we can’t go back!


With this sort of lifestyle and shopping with less processed foods means you are naturally making healthier choices too

Exactly – our diet has changed and the fact that we eat whole foods, means that we only shop the perimeter of the grocery store. It’s the perimeter of the store that actually carries the foods that are less processed like fish, meat, produce or bulk foods. We don’t go in the middle aisles that have all the products that are over-processed and contain the ingredients that we know are the causes of many health problems. The elimination of waste also eliminates so many toxic products from our life. We no longer have cabinets full of cleaning products because we’ve eliminated them all with just white vinegar. On my skin, I use food items so I no longer have to worry about the ingredients of beauty products and the effects that their chemicals could have for me. We have replaced all these things with natural simple ingredients.

You’ve also created a worldwide web-based bulk finder to help people transition

Yes, we created the Bulk Finder to help the global zero waste community share all of the locations that have been discovered. We have discovered 46,000 locations worldwide across 160 countries. People say that it’s the zero waste communities most useful tool because it’s something you can use anywhere. When we travel if we have to buy groceries, that’s the tool that we use to find our available options.

You can find Bea’s book Zero Waste Home here, read her blog here and try out the Bulk Finder here!

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