I live in the beautiful city of Vancouver, Canada. Surrounded by rainforest, mountains, ocean and a 1,000-acre park, it was voted the fourth greenest city in the world by the Global Green Economy Index in 2014, thanks to its aggressive environmental policies. This year, Vancouver has taken it up another notch: As of January 1st, no food scraps can be thrown in the trash (normally food makes up to 40% of a household’s garbage). (This is also in line with San Francisco and Seattle.) As this ban affects all households, including multi-residential apartments, my building recently installed a scrap collection system. Although no stranger to composting, I’m already surprised at how much of an impact it has on my own waste disposal. But I also know I can do more, such as buy fewer packaged items, seek out bulk stores and reuse more items.
Looking for inspiration and ideas on the topic quickly lead me to Bea Johnson, a.k.a. the “High Priestess of Zero Waste.” In the past few years, Bea and her family have gradually reduced the amount of waste they produce from two “enormous” carts of trash going out each week to filling one Mason jar a year. The catalyst came when the Johnsons moved from a large suburban home to a smaller rented apartment in the city. The downsize required them to let go of 80% of their belongings in what Bea describes as “voluntary simplicity” – a move that ultimately launched her as a leader in the “Zero Waste” community and a best-selling author on the subject.
Needless to say, I had a lot of questions.
What was your “ah-ha” moment that made you consider this lifestyle?
It’s definitely downsizing that triggered our rethinking, but our transformation was gradual. We started reading up on environmental issues (some shocked me, others made me cry). That’s when we decided to change our ways for the sake of our kids’ future and aim for Zero Waste. In the midst of the recession, my husband quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company; I tackled our household and lifestyle.
Who were your sources for guidance and inspiration?
There were no books or blogs on how to do Zero Waste when we started in 2008, so I researched alternatives and exchanged ideas and traditional recipes with my mom and friends. I never expected to start such a movement with my blog! Ultimately I wrote Zero Waste Home to share all the legwork our family did to reduce our waste so others could adopt those methods much faster.
How long did the transition take?
It took two years to declutter our lives and one year to test and adopt the alternatives that are now part of our routine. Since 2009, we have Zero Waste on autopilot in our home. We found that to be sustainable you have to adopt alternatives that fit into your schedule and are feasible in the long run.
Did you encounter any challenges when you first started?
Our biggest challenge was to find balance, figuring out what worked for us and what did not. At one point I got too wrapped up in homemaking: I was making cheese, bread, yogurt, soymilk, butter… Some of the ideas were just too extreme and time consuming, and we ultimately dropped them for the sake of simplicity. For example, we realized 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.
Does living in California make going Zero Waste easier?
Living in Marin County we are surrounded by nature, so it’s easy to want to protect it. Although this county also happens to be the most wasteful county per capita in the U.S. – life is full of contrasts!
What have been the most unexpected and rewarding parts of living waste-free?
Zero Waste is not just good for the environment; it’s also made our family healthier and saves us an incredible amount of time and money. Voluntary simplicity has brought us closer together and changed our daily routine: It has greatly simplified our cleaning (picking up stuff around the house takes only a few minutes) and has allowed us to spend more time with friends and family (simple living focuses on experiences rather than stuff).
We also consume considerably less than before. We only buy what needs to be replaced and we try to buy secondhand. We no longer buy single-use products (except for toilet paper). A few examples of everyday household items we don’t need to purchase, either because we don’t need them or we have replaced them with a reusable alternative: paper towels, aluminum foil and plastic wrap, sponges, trash bags, dental floss, disposable razors, band-aids, cleaning products of every sort, magazines and newspapers, staples, tape… We don’t even miss these products – quite the contrary! We prefer the solutions we have adopted. The money we’ve saved from paring down has even allowed us to install solar panels on our roof, which saves us even more. Zero Waste is truly a gift that keeps on giving.
Was it difficult to get your family on board? Have your friends adopted some of your habits?
At first my husband was worried that buying reusables and stocking up from health food store bulk bins would be financially draining. But when I asked him to compare our 2005 bank statements with those from 2010 (when we had fully adopted a Zero Waste lifestyle), he found we were saving 40% on annual household costs. He has been fully on board ever since! (Did you know that when you buy food from bulk bins you automatically save 15%, which is the amount companies usually include in the sales price to cover packaging costs?)
The transition was very easy for our kids; they didn’t even notice we were doing Zero Waste until I pointed out the changes. Max and Leo very much enjoy living minimally since it has allowed them to have some incredible experiences. For example, they received a parasailing gift certificate instead of regular “stuff” at Christmas. All that is expected of them is to be mindful about the decisions they make outside our home, such as refusing free trinkets they know will break easily.
Our friends have been very supportive, just as I would be to them if they chose a different way of living – that’s what friends are for! Some of them were inspired to simplify their lives. Zero Waste is contagious. Once you’re aware of the possibilities, it’s hard to ignore them.
You live in a house where composting is possible. What’s your advice for apartment dwellers without access to a yard or a community program?
There are lots of different composting systems available to answer the very needs and specificities of your household. You can also take your scraps to a gardening club, which will be happy to turn them into a rich soil amendment.
What are some of the most impactful tips for people just starting out on this path?
What we do to generate only a one-liter jar full of trash per year is no secret. We found that following a set of five Rs in order is the key to eliminating waste. Refusing is the first rule to Zero Waste. The most important thing you can do to stop clutter from entering your home is to simply say no. Think before accepting something that is handed out to you, such as flyers, party favors, business cards and single-use plastics (such as plastic bags). This only creates a demand to make more. Here are the general guidelines I recommend:
Refuse what you do not need (e.g.: single-use plastics, junk mail and freebies)
Reduce what you do need (furnishings, clothes)
Reuse by buying secondhand and swapping disposables for reusables (including shopping with reusables such as cloth bags, jars and bottles)
Recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse
Rot (compost) the rest (fruit peels, lint, floor sweepings)
How do you deal with reluctant family and friends?
“Be the change you wish to see.” Inspire others by example. Don’t wait for change to happen around you. Adopt the Zero Waste lifestyle and others will follow your lead…
A few easy tips for reducing your waste everyday:
Welcome natural cleaning alternatives: Castile soap on floors and sinks, baking soda for scrubbing jobs and vinegar for mildew and unclogging drains.
Save time and dryer energy costs by washing laundry once a week, using full loads and cold water cycles as much as possible. (Savon de Marseille, chalk, lemon or vinegar work great on stains.) Dry your laundry on a clothesline whenever possible.
Collect water in a bucket while your shower heats up and water your plants with it.
When attending a dinner party, bring a jar of a homemade consumable, or your favorite bulk item wrapped in Furoshiki as a gift. At restaurants, take leftovers home in a reusable container.
Shop the farmer’s market: they’ll take the egg cartons and berry baskets back for reuse. Your veggies will also most likely be free of plastic and stickers.
For more ideas, read Bea’s extensive list here.