The mother of the zero waste lifestyle, Bea Johnson, visited Finland in September. We got to spend a whole day with her and learn from her experiences over a zero waste picnic. Here’s the story of how Bea and her family created a movement that has inspired climate-smart lifestyles all over the world.
“Thanks to zero waste, our family discovered a life based on being instead of having. We’ve also been able to show that the habits of a single family can have a huge positive impact and initiate a global movement. I can only imagine what it would be like if our whole society was based on being instead of having. I think it would solve a lot of problems.
It all started back in 2006. We were living in a house in the suburbs and had to drive everywhere. We missed the life we had lived in the big cities, such as London and Paris, where we were used to walking and biking. So, we decided to relocate, but before finding the right house we lived in an apartment for one year and only moved in with the necessities. And during that year we found out that when you live with less stuff then all of a sudden you have more time to spend with your family and to do what you enjoy most, whether it be hikes or picnics.
Once we did find the right house in a town that interested us, we got everything out of storage only to realise that 80% of that stuff we hadn’t even missed for one whole year. So, we let go of them.
Thanks to that simplicity we also found time to read books and watch documentaries on environmental issues, which made my husband and me start thinking about the future that we as parents were creating for our children. That’s what gave us the motivation to change our consumption habits.
First we started to monitor our energy and water consumption. Then I started questioning our trash. As I tried to find ways to reduce it I stumbled on the term zero waste, which back then was only used in the manufacturing world and not to describe something you do at home.
As soon as I saw it, a light bulb went on in my head: zero waste should be my goal!
But there were no books, no blogs, no guide on how to eliminate trash from your household, so I had to test a lot of things – among them a lot of extremes – and over time we found alternatives that we can see ourselves doing in the long run for life. And that’s when zero waste became a lifestyle.
The zero waste lifestyle helps you reduce the amount of trash you’re producing. But what it’s really all about is leading a simpler and happier life – a life that is based on experiences instead of things. To get there, I’ve created the method of the five R’s, a set of guidelines to support the journey:
The first one is to refuse what you do not need – to simply learn to say no. Everytime you accept promotional goods you’re creating a demand to make more of them. So, learn to say no on the spot.
The second is to reduce and that means letting go of all the things you don’t really use or need. When you do, put it back on the market and boost the second hand market. If you’re a fashionista, don’t start with your closet, maybe start with the kids’ closet instead. If you’re a cook, don’t start with the kitchen but maybe with the garage or the living room. And it’s all based on how much time you have: you can do one drawer at a time. Take it slowly but surely!
The third rule of the zero waste lifestyle is to reuse, and for us that means having swapped anything disposable to reusable alternatives. You can swap paper towels for rags, disposable razors for reusable ones and disposable feminine products for a reusable menstrual cup. There is really a reusable alternative for anything that is disposable. Reusing also means buying second hand when you need to buy something.
The fourth rule of the zero waste lifestyle is to recycle, but to recycle only what you can’t refuse, reduce or reuse. So zero waste actually encourages you to recycle less by preventing waste from entering your home in the first place.
The last rule is rot, which means composting the rest. This method of the five rules is to be applied in order: the more you refuse, the less you have to reduce etc.
Today, millions of people all around the world are implementing the zero waste lifestyle . However, changing social norms doesn’t happen overnight. When we got started, people didn’t know what a zero waste lifestyle meant. The first article that was written about us was in the New York Times in 2010, it had no pictures of us, and the comments were horrible. People said that we were probably hippies living in the woods and that what we’re doing to our children is disgusting. But me and my husband decided not to care about the criticism since we knew that what we were doing was right for us, and in the end that’s all that matters. At the time, that type of criticism was typical, because people were stuck with misconceptions about eco-friendly lifestyles.
Nevertheless, the attention we got from the media made it possible to open our doors to the world and show people what we look like, how we manage zero waste and what our interior look like. As people saw our house and how we lived they wanted to give zero waste lifestyle a go, some for aesthetic or financial reasons and some for the simplicity.
From there, we could already see a movement starting to take off.
When I first got started with the zero waste lifestyle, I got wrapped up in home making. I was making my own bread, my own cheese, my own butter, my own soy milk and I thought to myself that there is no way I can stick to zero waste doing all these things with two full-time jobs and a family of four for the rest of my life! But once I let go of the extremes I was able to simplify zero waste and make it something we could see ourselves doing for the rest of our lives.
You see, zero waste becomes a lifestyle when you let it simplify your life, not complicate it.
When you adopt a zero waste lifestyle, you’re going to be changing many different aspects of your life. It’s a gradual change, and the zero waste journey is going to be different for everyone - what matters is that you’re adopting a change that’s sustainable and that you can see yourself doing in the long run. Taking up new habits can be hard when you’ve been doing things a certain way your whole life. So, remember that any step is a step in the right direction. Don’t get overwhelmed - just take your time, first learn to refuse, and then you can tackle the other R’s.
I know that the U.S. and other Western countries serve as role models and define the image of prosperity for a lot of developing countries. The image we’re painting right now is of a successful economy built on an endlessly growing consumption, and I really want to change that. That’s why I’m about to start a year-long road-trip throughout the U.S. and Canada with an ambitious goal - to change people’s mentalities. I believe that if the zero waste movement was growing at a stronger rate here, it would create a new image of prosperity; an image of people that enjoy being rather than having.”
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