Bea Johnson and a Zero Waste Home, Part One

There is no underestimating how less waste and clutter can help you clear the mind, create time and bring you closer to the ones you love.

Bea Johnson, the queen of Zero Waste, is not only responsible for a huge shift in how I run my household and the amount of trash we produce, but also how I view and spend my time.  As a result, of her book,  Zero Waste Home, I have begun de-cluttering my home, re-organizing my kitchen and rethinking how I value and spend the moments that create my life.  I was fortunate to ask Bea some questions about her transition into a Zero Waste home and how it has affected her life and family.

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Bea Johnson’s living and dining area.

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Bea Johnson’s kitchen

Interview by Kimberly Van Der Beek.  Answers by Bea Johnson

What is a Zero Waste Home?

A Zero Waste Home strives to eliminate all forms of waste in its day-to-day activities. It’s not only about adopting waste free alternatives, but also embracing a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, a lifestyle focused on experiences versus stuff. It is achievable through the application of the 5R’s, which we’ll cover tomorrow. 

Tell me a little bit about your transition from living the “American Dream” to living Zero Waste style?

In 2006 we were living in a large home located in a bedroom community (where the car was our main mode of transportation). We wanted to be able to walk or ride everywhere (school, stores, coffee shop, movies, theatre) so we decided to move to a downtown to be closer to amenities. Our transformation from there took two years. It is downsizing that triggered our rethinking. Our transformation was not overnight, but rather gradual.

Before finding the small house, we rented a small apartment for a year, and moved in with only a few necessities (we stored the rest). We immediately realized the benefits of living with less: We had more time to do the things that are important to us, such as spending time with family and friends, and explore/enjoy the outdoors.

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Bea Johnson’s pantry

The second year, we bought a house half the size of the previous one, we let go of 80% of our belongings (including those that we had stored) and then our voluntary simplicity opened time to educate ourselves on environmental issues -that’s when we decided to change our way of living for the sake of our kids future. In the midst of the recession, my husband quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company; I tackled the house and our lifestyle.

How has your day-to-day life changed?

We found that the Zero Waste lifestyle is nothing that we would have expected it to be, it is not just good for the environment: Overall it has also made us healthier, and it saves us an incredible amount of time and money!

I once urged my husband to compare bank statements from 2005 (pre Zero Waste life) with 2010 (when we had already adopted Zero Waste as a lifestyle), he found out that we were saving 40% on annual household costs by living this way. Did you know that 15% of the sales price of a packaged product covers the cost of the packaging itself? It basically means that when you buy food from bulk bins you automatically save 15%! The savings of the Zero Waste lifestyle are so great that I beat myself for not doing it earlier and I could not envision myself going back to the way I used to live (what a waste of money it was!)

Zero Waste has even brought beauty into our life -glass jars are so much prettier than disposable packaging in my pantry for example. 

In the end, it’s all good! And I wish everyone realized and enjoyed the great hidden benefits of this lifestyle.

What I love most of the lifestyle is the simple life, and how closer it has made my family. Voluntary simplicity has changed our daily routine in these ways:  It has greatly simplified our cleaning (picking up the house only takes a few minutes each day). It makes our housework and professional work much more efficient. It has allowed us to play more (since simple living focuses on experiences versus stuff) and spend more time together (we always eat dinner together). It has even allowed us to travel more by being able to easily to rent our house when we’re gone (our minimalist wardrobes fit in carry-ons), which then funds vacation and family getaways!

What’s been the biggest challenge about your transition?

Our major challenge was finding balance, figuring out what works for us and what does not. There were no books or blogs on how to do Zero Waste when I started in 2008. So I googled alternatives and tested many recipes and how-to’s. But I eventually got too wrapped up into homemaking: At one point, I made cheese, bread, yogurt, soy milk, butter, etc.  Some of these practices were too extreme, too time consuming for my full time job, and we later dropped them for the sake of simplicity.  For example, we realized that there was no need for us to make bread if we could buy it unpackaged either directly from the bakery or from the bakery bins. Other alternatives were easy and we adopted them. 

Today, we have Zero Waste on auto-pilot in our home. We found that for Zero Waste to be sustainable in a household, one has to adopt alternatives that fits his/her schedule and are feasible in the long run.

How do you children feel about the shift?

The transition was very easy for our kids: they did not even notice that we were doing Zero Waste until we were months into it and I pointed out to them what we were doing things differently from the norm. Kids adapt so well. To help them understand the reason and need for change, we watched movies with them such as “Wall-E”, “Earth” and “Home”, and I pointed out how their efforts could make a difference.

Our kids have what they need and they live very normal lives, filled with friendships and fun! 

They very much enjoy living minimally because they have “less to clean and pick up from the floor”, and it has allowed them to live some cool experiences. For example, they received a parasailing gift certificate instead of stuff from their grandpa for Christmas. Last year we also gave them a subscription to a monthly secret family activity. So each month, we surprised them with an activity that we had never done before (strawberry picking in a farm, zip-lining, kayaking, etc) 

My kids think that Zero Waste is a breeze. In their mind, Zero Waste is mainly my responsibility because I am the one that does the shopping for the household – Zero Waste really starts outside the home, with the decisions we make when shopping.

All that is expected of Max and Leo is to be mindful about the decisions that they make outside our home -for example refuse a party favor that they know is going to quickly break and clutter their room, or bring a plate to the local pizza parlor to buy a slice. That said they also know that if they accept a wrapped candy that someone hands out to them, we’re not going to be mad at them!

Be sure to check back tomorrow.  Bea will be giving great tips for creating a Zero Waste Home and we’ll be giving away five of her life-changing books!

For more information you can check out Bea’s blog, Instagram and Facebook.

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