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This is part of an occasional series on zero-waste initiatives.
Imagine, producing only a jar’s worth of trash every year. To many, that seems an out-of-reach goal.
But for Bea Johnson and her family of four, fitting all 365 days’ worth of garbage into a single glass jar is simply the end result of having a zero-waste home.
“It’s a life based on experiences instead of things,” says Johnson, who grew up in France and now lives with her husband and two teenage sons in California. “By going zero-waste, you make room in your life for what matters most to you.”
The path to waste-free living started in 2008, when Johnson and her family moved into an apartment while waiting for the right family home to become available in downtown San Francisco. They put 80 per cent of their belongings in storage and found, at the end of their apartment stay, they didn’t need them or miss them. So, Johnson says, they let go of their excess stuff and embarked on their zero-waste lifestyle.
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Johnson, who is in Toronto on Thursday to talk about the waste-free movement, spoke to the Star about how a zero-waste home is easier, healthier and cheaper than you might think.
You sealed your most recent annual jar of trash on Oct. 15. You have it nearby; can you describe some of its contents?
Every year, we have the bristles of our toothbrushes. We buy compostable toothbrushes, but the bristles are not compostable. I see some photo paper — it’s not recyclable — because my husband recently went through his memory box and let some photos go. I have caulking from the back of our sink that we replaced because it gets mouldy over time. Every year, we have fruit and veggie stickers. We can eliminate those if we shop at a farmers market, but sometimes we can’t go. We also have the foam pad of my son’s earphones, the gasket of a jar. Every year, we have the backing from our licence plate sticker, which is not recyclable; the backing of every sticker goes into the jar.
And for everything else that you no longer need in your life, you are able to use your five Rs — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot — rather than relegate those items to the trash. All the Rs must be used together, but is there one that’s most important for a zero-waste lifestyle?
What’s very important is to follow them in order. The more you refuse, the less you have to reduce, the more you reduce, the less you have to reuse, etc. For us, zero-waste lifestyle is not all about recycling or composting, though that’s important. It’s actually about preventing waste from coming into our home in the first place. The first thing you can do to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle is to simply learn to say no. Today, in this consumerist society, we are the targets of many things. Every time we accept them, we are creating a demand to create more. By refusing these things, not only do we stop the demand for more to be created, but also we stop them from coming into your home and creating a trash problem.
You’ve spoken all over the world and you insist that almost anybody can do this. But I’m sure not everyone is convinced. What is the most common protest you hear from skeptics and what is your advice to overcome it?
There are a lot of misconceptions associated with this lifestyle. Ten years ago, if I had heard about a zero-waste family, I would have thought these people must be hippies, living in the woods, that this must be a stay-at-home mom with way too much time on her hands. This is not at all the truth. People also think this will cost a lot more and take too much time. But what we have found is the zero-waste lifestyle creates the opposite. It’s not just good for the environment, it’s also good for our health because we’ve been able to eliminate all toxic products from our life; we clean with white vinegar, on my face I use food items. This lifestyle is also saving us a huge amount of money. My husband made the calculation and found we are saving 40 per cent on our overall budget. More importantly, we found it has been saving us a huge amount of time.
I can understand how adults can get behind this. What about your kids, do they find it more difficult to be zero-waste than you or your husband?
My kids do not even notice. Kids actually have very simple needs. It’s the parents that complicate those needs. It’s the parents who consume for the household, who have the choice to either not consume or consume differently by buying food unpackaged or buying the necessities second-hand. Growing up zero-waste is like growing up with a certain diet or certain religion; you don’t question it, you take it for granted. You might only question it when you become an adult and you have to make those decisions yourself.
So much of this goal is tied up with geography and opportunity. Here in Toronto, for example, there are food deserts, where people are forced to do the bulk of their shopping at convenience stores. Or in some parts of rural Ontario, recycling is limited. What are people who live in these places to do?
If you think about the five Rs, they are applicable anywhere in the world. Zero-waste is not just about buying your food unpackaged. It’s about learning to say no to the things you don’t need. Anywhere in the world you can say no to the things that are handed out to you. The second rule is to reduce what you actually need. Of course, we need a roof over our head, a few pieces of furniture and some clothing. But it’s important to learn to let go; to let go of the things you don’t fully use or need to make them available to others. You can do that anywhere in the world. The third rule is to reuse. For us, that is swapping anything that is disposable for a reusable alternative. For example, using old t-shirts instead of paper towels or using reusable containers to buy your foods unpackaged.
You’ve been living this lifestyle now for nine years. Do you and your family get closer and closer to zero-waste each year?
I would say our trash output has been the same since 2010. We’re not producing less trash, we’re not producing more. It varies between a pint-size jar of trash to a quart-size jar a year. For us, zero-waste is completely normal and automatic. What was difficult (in the beginning) was to find a system that worked for us. At first, I got a little bit too wrapped up in homemaking; I made my own cheese, my own butter, my own soy milk until I realized that these were not solutions I could see myself doing for the rest of my life with two full-time jobs and a family of four at home. So we let go of those extremes and it took us two years to find a system that worked for us. What becomes easier over time is to learn to say no.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Three tricky trash problems solved by Bea Johnson
Toilet paper comes wrapped in plastic, which often can’t be recycled. What’s the zero-waste solution?
I found that I can buy toilet paper from restaurant or hotel supply stores. It’s wrapped in paper, not plastic. Now this is a place that is not near me so when I go, I buy enough toilet paper to last me a really long time.
Other bathroom things also seem tricky, such as menstrual products or condoms. What do you do with those?
I now use a menstrual cup and there are also reusable napkins. I personally like the cup. It’s one of those items I wish I had known about earlier because now I realize I wasted a lot of money and lot of trash space with (menstrual products) in the past. As for condoms, we don’t use them. My kids are not sexually active yet and my husband and I don’t use them. However, this is something I am concerned about because I know my kids will become sexually active soon and it would be embarrassing if our jar of trash was filled with condom packaging. That said, there are reusable condoms.
What about shoes? Even if you are in the habit of re-soling your shoes, there comes a time, despite your best efforts, when they wear out. What do you do?
In the 10 years that we’ve lived this lifestyle, I’ve only had one problem like this. I had one pair of boots that I had re-soled, re-soled, re-soled by an awesome cobbler. Maybe three years ago, I made a hole in the toe and my cobbler said they were not repairable any more. So I thought, who would be interested in this material? I found, on Etsy, a woman who buys second-hand boots in order to make purses and different items. I contacted her and donated the boots.
Bea Johnson is speaking in Toronto on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Holy Trinity. For tickets, go to https://zerowastehome.com/zerowastehomeEND