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Zero waste pioneer prefers experiences to things: Bea Johnson says that eliminating trash is not just about being green, but improving her quality of life

June 11,2019
Johnson’s family produces just one jar’s worth of trash every year. This jar contains their waste from 2016. [ZEROWASTEHOME.COM]
Jigu is one of several zero waste shops in Seoul that encourages customers to use reusable containers instead of disposables. [KIM MIN-WOOK]
Johnson holds up the Korean edition of her book, “Zero Waste Home,” in Seoul on May 25. [SEOCHO DISTRICT]
Before Bea Johnson, zero waste was a term that was mostly only used in the manufacturing industry to describe waste management practices.

Now, it’s become a lifestyle that’s taken the world by storm. With her successful blog, Zero Waste Home, and her book of the same name, the San Franciscan has been inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to adopt a simpler, less wasteful way of living since 2008. All they need to do is to follow her five easy rules: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot (compost).

Her advice is practical. She encourages replacing disposables with reusables, but admits that she uses toilet paper and eats meat. She emphasizes the personal benefits of her lifestyle instead of vague environmental gains. Johnson’s widespread appeal has caught the attention of major organizations like Amazon, Google and even the European Parliament, who have all asked her to speak and she now provides professional consulting services to Ikea.

“People have said that what you do doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things because we’re just one family,” she said during an interview in Seoul ahead of a talk at an event hosted by Seocho District, southern Seoul, on May 25. “We’ve proven them wrong.”

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. What are the perks of a zero waste lifestyle?

. A zero waste lifestyle is not just good for the environment - it’s also been amazing for our health. We eliminated all toxic products from our home. We clean the whole house with white vinegar; on my skin, I only use food items; the black on my eyes is actually activated charcoal.

This lifestyle saved us a huge amount of money. When we started, it was in the midst of the recession, and my husband had quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company.

But we saved 40 percent on our overall budget after zero waste. We were consuming way less than before and only buying replacements or secondhand. We also bought our food unpackaged. This translated into huge accumulative savings that allowed us to install solar panels on our roof and the drain water system.

To me, the best advantage of this lifestyle is the simple life, making room for what matters most. Thanks to zero waste, we discovered a life based on experiences instead of things.

What do you tell people who say it’s too difficult to do zero waste in their country or region? Or that they’re too busy for it?

A lot of people say we can do zero waste because we live in the United States. But I actually live in the most wasteful county per capita in the United States, so probably one of the most wasteful places in the world: if I’m able to do it, I believe anyone can.

Every country in the world has its advantages. Yesterday, when I went to the market [in Seoul], I saw unpackaged rice, a lot of vegetables and more fish than what I have available to me. In Malaysia, I’ve seen stores with 20 different types of rice. When we arrived in Iceland, it was like every gas station had a huge selection of bulk snacks. When you adopt a zero waste lifestyle you acquire a selective vision of what is unpackaged.

I’m a full-time professional. It’s actually thanks to zero waste that I’ve been able to fully focus on my work. I make my own mascara and multi purpose balm, but it’s not like I’m making them all the time, just twice a year. I don’t have to go to the store, I don’t have to look in the aisles or read labels. By definition, the less you have, the less you have to clean, maintain, store, repair, discard and repurchase.

Was it difficult living a zero waste lifestyle with children at home?

We started when our sons were 5 and 6. Zero waste is more about what you do outside the house, but since I was the one making the decisions of consumption, zero waste went completely unnoticed. We took the kids to the store and told them to pick whatever they want, unpackaged, and in the end they found what they liked.

I also kept an open ear for their needs. I understand kids have social pressures of having certain brands and toys. I go clothes shopping twice a year at a thrift store, but before going, I ask them specifically what I can buy for them because I don’t want them to be angry at me in 10 years.

So in the end, they’re dressed like any other teenager. Their friends don’t know their clothes are secondhand. My sons wanted Legos and Pokemon cards, and we just got them secondhand. Later, we moved on to giving them the gift of experiences. We’ve done snorkeling, kayaking and canoeing. It really reinforced the bonds between us.

Some people criticize you for not being vegan. How do you respond?

We’re flexitarians. We have vegetarian weekdays and we eat meat and fish on the weekends.

Can we say it’s a waste of meat if I eat meat? If it’s sustaining my life, I don’t think it’s a waste. But this is debatable. And we never said that we were the greenest family on earth.

We did go vegan for a while, but my husband lost a lot of weight, to the point that friends asked what was wrong with him. So in the end, we added animal products and found a balance that worked.

But at least the meat and fish that we’re buying now are sustainable. Before, I was buying from the supermarket, supporting intensive farming. Now we’re buying local, organic and breast-fed meat, and we eat less of it. I’m still open to being vegan.

How do you think your movement gained such big momentum?

I think we have been successful in proving that zero waste is not just about the environment, but it can improve your standard of living. And it’s not going to deprive your life, but make it better.

If I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face it’s not because I produced one jar of trash per year. The best advantage is really the simple life - that’s what gives me joy.

What advice do you have for those just starting out the lifestyle?

I think a lot of people want to complicate zero waste in their head because they think it sounds extreme. But zero waste is going back to simple ways of doing what our parents used to do.

What will take time is putting zero waste in place. One is to learn to say no. In this consumer society we almost become robotic at accepting something.

BY KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]