This Jar Represents One Family's Waste For An Entire Year10:44
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Bea Johnson and the rest of her zero-waste family are able to fit their yearly trash into a small jar. (Courtesy of Bea Johnson)
Bea Johnson and the rest of her zero-waste family are able to fit their yearly trash into a small jar. (Courtesy of Bea Johnson)

About 10 years ago, Bea Johnson decided to make a major change in the way she lived her life. She slashed her consumption of disposable products so much so she could fit all her family's yearly household trash into a single glass jar.

This is no easy feat. The average American creates more than 4 pounds of garbage every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And every year, nearly 262 million tons of trash is created across the country.

In her book, "Zero Waste Home," Johnson shares her strategies for creating a zero-waste home.

"It's really not as complicated as people may think it is," Johnson (@zerowastehome) tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd.

She says it's all about following her methodology of five rules: refuse what you don't need, let go of what you do not use or need in your home, reuse, recycle and compost.

The zero-waste lifestyle has also helped them save money, Johnson says.

"We've found that we're saving 40 percent on our overall budget," she says. "These savings are such that they've allowed us to install solar panels on our roof and a great water system, which we use as the water for the shower and washes. So zero waste is a gift that keeps on giving."

Interview Highlights

On her zero-waste lifestyle methodology

"It's all about following my methodology of five rules. The first one is to refuse what we do not need. So we simply learn to say no to promotional freebies, junk mail, samples, free gifts, you know, swag bags. The second rule of a zero-waste lifestyle is to reduce and that means letting go of all the things you do not really use or need in your home. When you let it go, you make it available to the community, and it boosts the secondhand market, which is very important for the future of your waste.

"The third one is to reuse, and we reuse by having swapped anything that is disposable for a reusable alternative — so we've swapped paper towels for rags, paper napkins for cloth ones. There is really a reusable alternative on the market for anything that is disposable. And we also buy secondhand if we need to buy something. Now the fourth rule is to recycle, but it's to recycle only what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse. So at the end of the day, the zero-waste lifestyle does not encourage you to recycle more, but less by preventing waste from coming into your home in the first place."

"There are some items that we've simply realized we didn't need."

Bea Johnson

On what prompted her to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle

"I did not grow up this way. I came to the U.S. as a French au pair a long time ago, but I adopted the American way of life with all the disposables that comes with it and the over consumption. But over time, I felt something was dying inside of me. It was not really bringing me any joy to be consuming so much. And I also missed a life that we had known in the big European cities that we had lived in. We had lived in London, Paris, Amsterdam where we were used to walking and biking everywhere. So we decided to relocate to be closer to a town, so we could have amenities within walking or biking distance. During that year that we discovered the advantages of a simple life, all of a sudden we had more time for friends, family, etc. And it's thanks to that simplicity that we also found time to read books and watch documentaries on environmental issues, which made my husband and I sit thinking about the future that we as parents were creating for our children — and that's what gave us the motivation to change."

On how she handles buying appliances and electronics, toiletries, going out to eat, gifts 

"We only buy really what needs to be replaced, and if that breaks, then we get it repaired. I've had my stove repaired 11 times. And actually, it was a nightmare to get it repaired because after all those 11 times, it dawned on me that maybe it was the repairman that was not good. So he kept saying it was my machine, but then we changed a repair company, and then that guy came once and we haven't had a problem since.

"There are some items that we've simply realized we didn't need. For example, shampoo, shaving cream, conditioner. We use a bar of soap. It's not a shampoo bar of soap. It's not a special bar of soap. It's just a generic type bar of soap that we use to wash our hair, our faces, our bodies, and my husband and the kids also use it to shave. So it's one product that has eliminated others.

"Well, we believe that buying is voting, just as eating out is voting. If you go to a fast-food restaurant, it's a way for you to invest your money in those businesses. It's a way for you to say that you're OK with disposables and you wish of a world filled with disposables, and of course, more disposables will be created. So when we eat out, we choose a restaurant that is sit down, that sells real food on real plates with real flatware in real glasses.

"We give the gift of experiences instead of things. And it's important to also ask your friends and family to give you the gift of experiences. Be proactive on that and let them know early on that you've adopted a zero-waste always lifestyle and that you no longer accept the gift of stuff."

"Whatever change you adopt you have to see yourself doing it for life because then that's when it becomes a lifestyle."

Bea Johnson

On how her kids have adapted to the zero-waste lifestyle

"Kids have very simple needs, and as long as those needs are met, they're happy. It's actually the parents that complicate those needs. The kids don't have credit cards — it's the parents that do. The parents are the ones that are consuming and buying the brands, and buy whatever the kids are asking [for]. And we actually were six months into it with an unpackaged pantry when I realized that my kids had not noticed that we were zero waste. Zero waste is not a term that we had been using. It's just that I adopted a simpler lifestyle in our household. I was the one bringing the totes and jars to the grocery store, and I realized that zero waste is more what you do outside the house. It's the person that consumes for the household that has the choice to one, either not consume or two, consume differently by buying food unpackaged, all the necessities secondhand. And since I was the one making those decisions, zero waste actually went completely unnoticed."

On what zero-waste means for her family's budget

"We've found that we're saving 40 percent on our overall budget. This is due to the fact that one, we consume way, way, way less than before. And if we buy something, it's only to replace what needs to be replaced. And when we buy that replacement, we buy it secondhand, which obviously costs less. But we also buy our food unpackaged. When you buy something that is packaged, 15 percent of the price or more is gonna cover the costs of the packaging. So when you buy unpackaged, you make automatic financial savings. But best of all, we've replaced anything that is disposable for a reusable alternative. So that means that we are no longer throwing our money away."

On if living a zero-waste lifestyle makes a difference

"We've shown that it makes a difference. You know when we started, the term zero waste was only used to describe waste management practices at a city level. It was also a term used in the manufacturing world, but it was not a term used to describe something you do at home. But yet when I saw that term, it gave me a goal. But there were no books, no blogs, no guide on how to eliminate trash at home, so I had to test a lot of things. We tested a lot of extremes, but eventually we found a balance that worked for us.

"But you know when we first exposed our lifestyle to mainstream, we just got hammered with criticism because people did not know what zero waste meant. Now, of course, it's a term that has gone mainstream, but back then it wasn't. So people said it was disgusting what we were doing to our children because we were depriving them of the good life because we were not taking them to the fast food restaurant. And people laughed at us, and they said, 'Well, what you do doesn't matter. You're just one family. You won't change anything.' Well, we've proven them wrong. Over time, we've been able to inspire a global movement."

On what she would recommend to someone who wants to live waste-free

"I'm not even here to tell anyone to live this way. We're only here to talk about experience. If it inspires people, great. If it doesn't, too bad. But it's, I think it's very important to adopt change in a sustainable manner — meaning that whatever change you adopt you have to see yourself doing it for life because then that's when it becomes a lifestyle. You can go grocery shopping with a kit of reusables very easily. It might be weird at first to get a real look, but I explained my whole technique in the book. Don't look at them in the eyes when you present your jar at the meat counter for the first time. Just pretend as if you've done this your whole life, and they won't turn you down. It's foolproof."


Peter O'Dowd produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on May 20, 2019.

Related:

Peter O'Dowd Twitter Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.

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