“This is it, this little jar,” she remarks casually. Sitting in front of me at an intimate gathering in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg is Bea Johnson. Her name may not ring a bell. Yet. But this is the Franco-American blogger and author who, driven by her passion to eliminate wasteful packaging, has created a 21st century kind of job at the fault line of environmental activism, consumer awareness and entrepreneurship.
The contents of that inconspicuous little jar she refers to is the only non-recyclable, non-food related waste that her family of four produced in 2015. It is easy to dismiss that jar as a fraud, I thought. Surely her family bury their rubbish in their backyard or in their neighbour’s rubbish bin. What started as a humble blog to document her family’s journey from a lifestyle characterised by excess and waste (notably her husband’s golf clubs, lawn mower and 4WD) to a (much) more simple one, in the wake of her husband’s job change in Silicon Valley, California, has gone well beyond her wildest dreams.
“There really was no one eight years ago to share tips and tricks about how they tried to reduce their family’s waste,” explains Bea. “The only reference to ‘zero waste’ I found was on the website of the city of San Francisco as part of their goal to go ‘zero waste’ by 2025 in terms of rubbish collection. It didn’t extend to how people were dealing with their rubbish inside their homes.”
Bea hails from a French family in Avignon, where her family and friends were resourceful. Her mother used to make her own jams and mustards and “didn’t have a vegetable peeler in the kitchen”, because even veggie scraps were re-used, while her papa was a whiz at taking scrap metal and using it to fix things. Bea took this French know-how, in addition to her degree in fashion design, and thought about how her family could reduce its waste, not just out of a conviction of saving the environment, but with economic savings, time and energy also in mind. And so arrived the five non-negotiable principles: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and only in that order, she adds). These principles are not necessarily new. Yet it is how she shares them on her blog using colourful photos and witty stories as well as on her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts, enabling her to reach almost 10 million people globally, using a touch of French humeur.
“Zero waste is not about complicating your life, but simplifying it. We were drowning in stuff, and I was tired of marketeers, that I had to put a stop to it. So the first step to zero waste is refusing what you don’t need. You need to learn to say no.”
In re-organising her entire family’s home, she started by waging a junk mail war and saying no to one-use plastic packaging like plastic bags, plastic bottles and food wrapping. A significant but often invisible waste culprit is the notorious freebie, in the form of lollies, pens, business cards or t-shirts found at conferences.
Aside from the environmental and financial benefits (Bea notes that her family made up to 40% in household savings through living zero waste), the business case for a zero waste lifestyle is compelling. “Consumers can wield an enormous amount of power over manufacturers in terms of questioning them about the lifespan and material used in the production of a product. If all consumers do this, the manufacturer will eventually be forced to make a change.”
Bea is keen to point out she is not a waste auditor or consultant. But rather the voice of a mindful consumer. She has personally phoned up her insurance company to tell them to stop sending her plastic cards, and they sent her a cardboard one instead. Likewise, she had a favourite eye cream and contacted the company to tell them how wasteful the packaging was.The company eventually ceased with the packaging.
After she won The Green Award, corporations around the world sat up and started taking notice. She has given talks about her zero waste experiences to Google in Tokyo, and Facebook and Adobe in California. She is currently consulting IKEA on how to introduce new, more sustainable products like glass storage jars and cloth bags. Her recent TEDx talk in Washington (which you can watch below) shared the hilarious beginnings of her family’s zero waste journey where she fessed up about how she made her family use moss instead of toilet paper for a few weeks.
Out of curiousity, I also read Bea’s book prior to meeting her. It seems to me that it’s impossible to go zero waste, especially with a seven month-old and a four year-old. Since adopting many of her principles, however, our family is hovering at about 80% waste-free which is good, but it could always be better. A key part of the secret, she explains, is to not produce waste lies in the art of buying bulk, where possible from bulk stores.This involves taking your own glass jars to the bulk store and filling them up, only paying for what you need. And where other household items are not available in bulk such as cheese, milk, meat or fish, Bea advises buying them from a specialty, local grocer and to take your own Tupperware or cannisters to the store and ask for the fresh produce to be placed in the glass cannisters. Bea’s creation of an interactive app created through a successful crowd funding campaign allows anyone to find bulk-store locations in 31 countries, according to food type.
And if a change feels like a little too much like swimming upstream, Bea urges you not to lose heart. “Change has to start with yourself. No matter what you do, there is going to be someone who will critique what you are doing.”