Updated: Dec 7, 2020
The Zero Waste Collective is incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to interview Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home (best-selling book and blog!). Bea Johnson and her family have only produced a pint of trash per year since 2008. Coined as "The Mother of Zero Waste lifestyle movement" by CNN, Bea has been featured on TV shows and in publications worldwide. With the 5R method quickly replacing the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) everywhere, Bea has truly started a global movement for zero waste living. Catching a moment of Bea's time is no easy feat, as she is the leading spokesperson for this lifestyle, having given talks in 60+ countries!
Luckily, I managed to sneak this interview into her roster to get the nitty gritty details on how Bea's life has changed since she started her journey, and discuss how her lifestyle has now become a global movement. Thanks for your time Bea!
ZWC: You're known as "The Mother of Zero Waste lifestyle movement" by CNN. How does this accomplishment make you feel?
Bea: When we first exposed our lifestyle to the general public through my blog and then the media: The term Zero Waste was, at the time, only used to describe industrial or municipal waste management practices, it was not used to describe something you do at home. So we received a lot of negative comments from people who did not understand what living waste-free meant, what we were doing and, why we were doing it.
Some people said our lifestyle was too extreme and not realistic (-how could it be unrealistic if I am living it?) Others said that we were not doing enough because we occasionally fly, eat meat once a week and use toilet paper.... I must say that had I heard about a Zero Waste family a few months earlier, I too would have thought to myself: «These people are nuts, I’m sure they are hippies or she is a stay at home mom who spends her days homemaking and obsessing about her trash». So I am not surprised by the criticism that we received. In this consumerist society, I expected it going into it because our story made people reflect on their own shopping habits and sometimes shattered their way of thinking.
With time, and thanks to the press, my blog and my book Zero Waste Home (now translated in 26 languages and bestseller on Amazon), we changed the misconceptions associated with waste-free living and gave a face to this way of life. Over the years, the term Zero Waste became accepted, (it lost its capital letters), and the critics died down: people realized that we are not hippies, but that we live a normal, simple, modern life, and the movement emerged from there...
So today, I just feel humbled by the CNN title. I feel humbled by the millions of people that have trusted my family’s example to adopt waste free living, I feel humbled by the corporations that are taking it on as a result, and the thousands of entrepreneurs that have been inspired to open package-free stores, I feel humbled by the snowball effect and the size of the movement that all of this has created!
ZWC: The 5 Rs (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot) from your book Zero Waste Home seem to be replacing the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in households worldwide. How did you develop the 5Rs? And which one do you think is the most difficult for people to adopt into their own lives?
Bea: In 2008, when we embarked on our zero waste journey, the 3R's of sustainability were thrown left and right, out of order. I found them useful as a guide in reducing waste in my home, but everywhere I looked much emphasis was put on recycling, very little on reusing, and practically none on reducing. As a matter of fact, at the beginning we got a lot of push back for associating living simply/minimalism/decluttering to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle. People just did not understand the correlation: “Decluttering is bad for the environment” they’d say. Of course, now it seems evident that living simply and waste-free living come hand in hand but it took a lot of work to change that misconception alone.
Along the way, it also became obvious that composting (Rot) was a very important tool in getting close to zero, but I realized as well that no matter how much I applied the 3R’s (plus Rot) in an order that made sense to me (“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and only in that order” was my motto at the time), waste was still coming into our home (junkmail, business cards, freebies, samples, etc.).
One day, a guest showed up on my doorstep with a box filled with individually wrapped pastries, even though I had informed her that my family had adopted a zero waste policy. It’s that night that I decided to add Refuse to the R’s, and started blogging to publicly give my definition of zero waste so there wouldn’t be anymore misunderstanding with family and friends about what the lifestyle entails -little did I know then that it would turn into a movement, so I am now actually grateful that I received that box of packaged pastries!
Readers tell me that Refusing is the hardest step for them, but from experience I can attest that it only is for a few weeks… that is until you have learned to not reach out when something is handed to you, and you have found your go-to refusal sentence. In my case, that sentence is “No thanks, that’s really nice of you, but I don’t need one”. My teenager is more straightforward with “No, Am Good”
When you reflect on your previous lifestyle, before reducing your waste, you had a large home (3,000 square feet) with lots of stuff and "weekly shopping trips at Target". Do you ever miss that lifestyle?
Bea: Not for one second! If this lifestyle has brought an incredible sense of happiness, if I wake up in the morning with a big smile on my face, it’s not because my family of four produces a jar of trash per year, it’s rather because simplicity has been the most rewarding perk of this lifestyle. As the first words of my book state: The less I own, the richer I feel.
Voluntary simplicity has been a real epiphany, it’s improved our standard of living, it’s made room in our lives for what matters most to us. I could never go back to the way we used to live. I now see it as a life that was based on the wrong priorities, a waste of time and money. Life is so much sweeter now. All that lingers though is this one question: What the heck was I buying at Target each week?? (I now have no idea).
ZWC: Fast forward to today, your life looks so different. It also sounds like you've got plenty on the go: speaking tours, helping open unpackaged shops, and working with clients like Google and Amazon. How do you find time to maintain your zero waste lifestyle with everything you have on your plate?
Bea: The hardest part of this lifestyle is finding balance and finding a system that works for you. Once you have that system in place, zero waste does not take more time, it actually saves time!
Zero waste becomes a lifestyle when you let it simplify your life, not complicate it.
The road getting there was bumpy not knowing where we were going and having to pave the way, but once we found our balance, it all went into auto-pilot. So it’s actually thanks the time savings associated with this lifestyle that I am able to dedicate my life to spreading the word about waste-free living and growing the movement!
ZWC: Speaking of your tours, you've given 60+ talks on 6 continents. The zero waste lifestyle movement has truly become global, and you've inspired this worldwide movement. Out of everywhere you've visited, where would you say is the most zero waste friendly place to live?
Bea: Quebec is really strong and the movement is also growing very fast in countries like Russia, Ireland, and Malaysia but the hot spot for zero waste right now is without doubt, France. The talks I have given all over the country, the translation of the book, and the way the media has portrayed my story (they’re rather proud of my French roots!), have inspired a very rapidly growing movement. Bulk shops are opening all over the place, the press loves to cover the subject, entrepreneurs are innovating ways to sell sans packaging and the government is even on board… the previous minister of the environment invited municipalities throughout the country to go zero waste.
Contrary to the US, where zero waste means recycling more instead of encouraging people to refuse and reduce, zero waste there, is all about prevention and my 5Rs, just the way we do it in my home. I am proud of my native country! Starting in the fall, I will be touring/speaking throughout the US/Canada for a year, so the lead might just change -at least, that’s what I hope to achieve on the trip!
ZWC: You've probably also had the opportunity to see many different communities take part in this lifestyle (different cultures, income levels, etc.). How accessible is this lifestyle? What types of barriers have you come across?
Bea: With zero waste becoming a global movement, it’s proven that this way of living is applicable anywhere in the world. Of course waste management and resources will differ from a country to another… For example, in the US where I live, the problem related to waste is all about managing the incredible amount being generated. In other parts of the world, like India or South America (where the average household consumes way less than the average US household), it’s a question of providing adequate collection of the few materials that they consume.
But regardless of location, anyone in the world can apply my 5Rs. Anyone can learn to say no (Refuse); anyone can let go of the things they do not need to make them available to their community (Reduce); anyone in the world can swap disposables for reusables, repair, buy secondhand (Reuse); anyone in the world has access to some type of recycling (Recycle); anyone can implement a compost system fit for their needs (Rot).
From experience, I have found that recycling is probably the trickiest. In some places, the city does not collect it, like in Vietnam for example where it’s managed by individuals, but the solutions are there. And again, the great thing is, if you apply the 5Rs in order, you won’t have much to recycle. Interestingly, through my travels I have noticed that those countries that have a tricky recycling system also happen to have the best unpackaged solutions! They have way more bulk than I do in California.
At the end of the day, every part of the world has advantages and inconveniences in regards to zero waste. It’s up the individual to adapt this lifestyle to his/her region, to recognize the advantages of his/her region has to offer and make the best of it! My bulk finder on Zerowastehome.com, has 46K bulk locations in 160 countries, and can get you on the right track!
ZWC: You started your family's zero waste lifestyle when your 2 boys were little. Now that they are older, do you think they will continue this lifestyle moving forward?
Bea: I cannot predict the future and tell for sure whether or not my boys will choose waste-free living when they grow up. I do expect them to rebel, just like any young adult does, no matter how they were raised. That’s the part of growing up! They’ll have to challenge what we’ve taught them. But what makes me feel comfortable as a mother, is to know that I have given my boys the tools to do it if they choose to keep it up. But whether or not they keep going is really up to them.
When I give talks in school to kids (12+ yrs old), they ask me what we do with handkerchiefs after we’ve used them, they ask me if we compost them… Crazy no? this is a generation that sadly does not even know what handkerchiefs are and would not know what to do with them if you gave them some. This is an example of a very simple zero waste alternative that has been forgotten through our consumerist society. I think it’s the job of parents to bring those solutions back and teach their kids how to use them. I can assure that my kids know how to use handkerchiefs.
All I can say right now in regards to them sticking to zero waste, is that my eldest who now studies in Canada, asked me for additional cloth bags and glass jars and showed me where he buys in bulk, last time I visited him. It made me so proud!
When my youngest was 13, a reporter asked if he’ll do zero waste when he grows up. He replied: I don’t know… but one thing is for sure, I won’t buy paper towels. What a waste a money that is”. I think that answers speaks for itself :-)
ZWC: Handkerchiefs have become a staple in our household in the few years, and it boggles my mind that kids wouldn't even know what to do with one! Thanks for sharing that story. Education is such an important component of this lifestyle.
ZWC: What has been the biggest challenge for you in reducing your waste?
Bea: Our major challenge was finding balance, figuring out what worked for us and what did not. There were no books or blogs on how to do Zero Waste when we started in 2008. So I had to google alternatives, test many recipes and how-to's, interview my mom, grandma and mother in-law about how people lived before our consumerist society. But along the way, I got too wrapped up into homemaking: At one point, I was making our cheese, bread, yogurt, soy milk, butter, etc.
Some of these practices were too extreme, too time consuming for my full time job, but 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 just adopted them.
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 - I wrote Zero Waste Home book to provide the solutions that work for us, so you don’t have to go through the extremes like we did.
Interestingly, I have noticed a trend in recent zero waste blogs and social media profiles associating the zero waste lifestyle with "everything homemade": Homemade cleaners, homemade toothpaste, homemade lotions and potions... My family has been living waste free for a decade without the recipes that I see posted online: no homemade cleaner, toothpaste or lotion. One Instagramer once tagged me in a photo for a "zero waste" toothpaste recipe showing 9 packaged ingredients! And I thought: Why make toothpaste when you can sprinkle bulk baking soda straight onto a toothbrush? (we’ve been using it for 10 years without problem). I guess these bloggers are going through the same growing pains I did.
Sadly though, all of this nonsense not only deters full time working individuals from considering waste-free living, it also creates the misconception that in order to get close to zero, one has to spend countless hours in the kitchen handcrafting products. Breaking that misconception is one of my biggest battles in growing this movement.
ZWC: DIY is definitely not for everyone, that's for sure. It's not my cup of tea! But for some people, they love DIY! It really depends on the situation. However, I think it's really important to reiterate your point: you don't have to DIY in order to reduce your waste. Thanks Bea!
ZWC: What is your biggest joy in reducing your waste?
Bea: Apart from the obvious environmental aspects, a better health, and the huge cumulative financial savings associated with this lifestyle, the biggest joy is without doubt: Having discovered a life based on experiences instead of things, a life based on Being instead of Having. It’s allowed me to find my true self, live life to its fullest, and do things I would have never thought possible. It’s brought my family closer and created memories that only death can take away from us.
Shoot, I am getting goosebumps and a tear in my eye, just writing this. My homemade mascara (one of the 2 cosmetics that I do make) is going to run!
ZWC: Thanks so much for your time Bea! The benefits of zero waste living are hard to beat: save money, live better, and love life. If you're new to this lifestyle, definitely read her book.