Bea Johnson On Her Personal Crusade For The Zero Waste Home

Bea Johnson

By Pamela Burke/January 11, 2011

UPDATE 9/27/13: Bea’s book Zero Waste Home has recently been adapted and published in French.  Zero Déchet just reached number one on Amazon in France.  Congratulations, Bea!

UPDATE 1/10/13: Bea has just done a photo shoot for Martha Stewart’s magazine and has a new book coming out 4/9/13 on her zero waste lifestyle

Bea Johnson is taking the zero waste movement to a new level in Mill Valley, Ca. She doesn’t just want to “reduce, reuse and recycle.” Her goal is to get rid of packaging and waste altogether.

” I’ve learned that the less I have, the easier it is.”   Bea Johnson

Her philosophy is to love, use, and know everything in her household and her motto “Refuse, refuse, refuse!” She says people aren’t willing to sacrifice today for a better future. Her Be Simpler business helps clients and friends make their lives less cluttered and wasteful.

Bea Johnson and zero waste

Cheese, meat, and olives stored in jars that Bea brings to the store

Everyday I notice packaging that is becoming more and more difficult to open and dispose of. I wrote a short post last year on Bea and didn’t have the chance to speak with her. That story keeps getting a lot of interest on the EYE.

I had many questions for Bea from how she shops successfully with jars to what it’s like managing a zero waste house with a husband and two sons. We got to talk recently so she could explain to me just how she does it. And it’s quite amazing…

EYE: How did this zero waste idea begin?

Bea Johnson, zero waste

Bea Johnson holding jar of cheese from the market

BEA: Basically we were living in a large home and then we moved a much smaller house in Marin almost five years ago. Downsizing got us thinking, and we were becoming more aware of environmental issues.

We reduced our waste with reusables but wanted to do more. Then I started shopping in bulk and saw the opportunity to push it further.

EYE: Was this whole process difficult? It sounds complicated.

BEA: It took one year to figure it out. If you’re trying to replace everything in your current pantry with bulk alternatives, you’ll drive yourself crazy. You can’t find things like crackers. At first I tried to find bulk alternatives for everything I had in different stores along with homemaking.

Then we found that we loved sliced baguettes and that they were a good alternative. Now we have simplified our pantry and made it easier on ourselves.

We didn’t start using the jars to shop with until we were nine months into it. I was already doing bulk buying and thought there was no point in bringing trash in with the meat.

We shop once a week. The only time you really have to think about zero waste is when you’re shopping. I’ve learned that the less I have, the easier it is.

EYE: Are all markets are set up for this?

BEA: The jar has been easily accepted, but the reaction to it depends on the store. I bring French canning jars with me for wet items like meat, fish, deli, olives, peanut butter and honey.

Bea Johnson French Canning Jar

French canning jar with meat

We eat meat and fish just once a week so I only need to bring one jar for each each week. You can even fit a half chicken in a jar.

I bring my own bottle for olive oil which I buy in bulk at Whole Foods. They sell olive oil in a large stainless steel kettle. You weigh the bottle before you fill it and apply a sticker with the weight amount on it.

Milk and yogurt come in reusable glass containers. I pay the deposit and return them to the store when they’re finished.

EYE: Do you think you’re in the minority living this zero waste life?

BEA: I still feel like I am one of the few even here in northern California where you’d think more people would be involved in this type of lifestyle. I seldom see others with cloth or produce bags.

I see people ripping plastic bags so quickly at the market. Hopefully plastic will be banned soon.

“They force you to buy a huge amount. It’s not about the money sometimes. I just don’t want to have it.”

EYE: You keep trash in a metal box below the kitchen sink. You say that everything else is composted, recycled or reused.

BEA: What little we have is put in a vintage chrome paper towel holder. The container ends up with odds and ends that don’t really have names like “a little plastic wrapper that was on top of a lens package that my husband wanted.”

I needed two hairpins for something. All they had at the store was a package of 90. There was no way around it. So I took the two I needed and gave the rest to customer service. They force you to buy a huge amount. It’s not about the money sometimes. I just don’t want to have it.

Bea Johnson and zero waste

Bea’s boys’ toys organized on shelf

EYE: Do your kids appreciate this zero waste idea? I understand that your sons have only four bins of toys.

BEA: I have a 9 and a 10-year old. Together we simplified their toy selection to their favorites. Cleaning is a wizz. It’s parents that drive the toy frenzy maybe because they didn’t get these things when they were growing up.

The boys used to want for things, but this Christmas they requested only one toy. They even sold some older toys. One of my sons used the money to buy an online subscription he really wanted.

EYE: Did you refuse laminated artwork done by your boys at school?

BEA: Some parents don’t understand it. They say I’m so heartless, but we get so much artwork. By refusing we tried to get the teacher to understand that lamination is plastic, and that once laminated, the recyclable piece of paper will end up in the landfill at the end of its useful life. One teacher said she wanted to meet with me and was totally responsive.

EYE: Tell me about your idea of experiences vs. stuff as presents.

Bea Johnson Christmas tree for zero waste

The topiary Christmas tree

BEA: It makes so much sense. We give experiences as gifts. The kids weren’t excited about this at first, but then they realized the excitement would last longer and they’re hooked.

We took them to a trampoline place the day after Christmas that they’d heard about. It’s part of the “Subscription to a Monthly Surprise Family Activity” that I gave as a gift this year. They can’t wait to see what’s coming this month.

EYE: I understand that you have greened Santa.

BEA: Yes. Each family member gets one unwrapped gift from Santa. We have a topiary for a tree. It’s ornamental and about seven feet high. We bring it in off the porch around the holiday. The first year it was an adjustment. Now we could not picture any other tree in the house for the holidays.

EYE: What about television? Does it fit into your new lifestyle?

BEA: We have a television set for movies only. Two and a half years ago we decided it would be a good experience to do without it because we always had trouble turning it off. Before we knew it, the TV was on for two to three hours.

It was an easy babysitter, but we didn’t feel good about it. Now we watch a movie together Friday nights and let them choose.

“It saddens me that my friend brought something I will not use and will have to regift. It’s a waste of money and resources.”

EYE: How do you do live zero waste on a daily basis? I would think that it’s a difficult lifestyle to keep up.

BEA: It is when other people bring things into our house that I do not want. I had a friend come over for dinner and although she knows about my simplified lifestyle, she showed up with a present: a pair of gloves in a paper bag. I am not going to use them.

I’m happy with what’s in my closet. I don’t want people adding to it. I already have a good pair of leather gloves. It saddens me that my friend brought something I will not use and will have to regift. It’s a waste of money and resources. I had trouble saying anything. Bea Johnson's Living Room

EYE: Is there any plastic in your kitchen or living room?

BEA: In the kitchen there is plastic on my scissors, vegetable peeler, and the interior of my dishwasher. In the living room, I have a bubble chair, a plastic living plant wall, and our audio and video systems of course have it.

EYE: Your cleaning materials are toxic free?

Bea Johnson's Laundry Room

BEA: I used to have shelves filled with different cleaners. I now just make one non-toxic all purpose cleaner with vinegar, castile soap and water. A great thing to have is microfiber cloths.

They are reusable and clean windows with just water. I use them on everything. I buy dishwasher detergent in bulk but buy laundry detergent in cardboard. I reuse the box for donations.

EYE: And your lipstick?

Bea Johnson's Homemade LipstickBEA: I make a simple balm with beeswax and oil which I can also use on my nails and the ends of my hair. The beeswax can be found in a one pound block. I buy a mild sesame oil in bulk for its Vitamin E properties.

I used to make butter, yogurt, and soy milk. But it was expensive making the butter and became too time consuming. Now I buy the one in cardboard with the wax wrapper. Wax paper is compostable.

EYE: And what about band-aids?

BEA: We don’t use them anymore. They’ve made them into a fashionable item with the latest cartoon character which has made little kids use them more even when they don’t need them.

Pouring hydrogen peroxide on the wound and letting it air works very well. Sometime we use flannel pads to wipe and just wash and iron them to kill the bacteria.

EYE: How does your husband, Scott, like this lifestyle?

BEA: At first he thought it would be too much work and too expensive, but I was able to prove the contrary. He now has completely embraced the lifestyle. When I am gone in the summer, he grocery shops for himself just the way I do for the family with reusable cloth bags and jars.

Bea Johnson and zero waste

Homemade toothpowder

EYE: People say that this lifestyle would be too much trouble and would be costly.

BEA: At first they think it’s more expensive. That’s a misconception. Buying in bulk has saved a third of the grocery bill. We simply shop the healthy bulk and don’t worry about brands. Isn’t the health and happiness of your family a priority?

EYE: How do you shop when you go to the market?

BEA: I return the milk and yogurt jars to customer service to get my deposit back. I then go to the bakery to get the ten baguettes that they bake for me each week and put them in a pillowcase. They’re all warm. At home I cut them in half and freeze them for a week.

I shop the perimeter of the store which by definition holds the fresh goods, the produce, bread, cheese, and bulk.

“I started writing the blog simply to share my waste reducing tips with friends…I didn’t start the blog to start a movement.”

EYE: People have criticized you saying that you’re too single minded.

BEA: I feel like I’ve defended my lifestyle long enough. If people don’t like it, they need to find another blog that speaks to them. Not everyone is ready for this lifestyle.

I started writing the blog simply to share my waste reducing tips with friends, not to tell people how to live their lives. I didn’t start the blog to start a movement.

EYE: Do you care about spreading the message?

BEA: I do care. I hope that markets make bulk shopping more widely available. People have commented and complained about not having food available without packaging and not having bulk available in their town. But they can do something about it. They can call, write, or email.

Bea Johnson and her pantry

Bea reaches for bulk snack in jars in her pantry

If you’re not happy with or have spotted unnecessary packaging, send an email to the manufacturer and let them know.

We can’t just wait for politicians to do something. Too often we get lazy, but one call multiplied by 1000 will make change.

Believe in the power of your smallest actions and remember that shopping is voting.

EYE: Will you do this forever?

BEA: Definitely! When we made this decision to go for zero waste, we did not talk about a deadline. I don’t see how you can try it and go back once you see the benefits.

“Think of your kid’s future… If people would only speak up, they could make change.”

EYE: What’s your advice to folks who are thinking of trying it?

BEA: Think of your kid’s future. That’s why I’m doing it. You can start small. Start by tackling the disposables in your kitchen, then the food. Then go to another room.

Bea Johnson and zero waste

Homemade blush from cocoa powder

EYE: Do you think you’ve made an impact?

BEA: My blog followers make me think that I have. They are very supportive and I am very excited to read through their progress. One reader believes that the changes in her market came from a long letter that I sent to a national chain. She is sweet.

EYE: What has all of this simplification allowed you to do?

Bea Johnson with baguette bag for zero waste

Bea opening pillowcase in which she freezes baguettes

BEA: Our diet is way healthier, and we can now focus more on quality time as a family. Things can weigh you down. Now that we are decluttered and have simplified things, we feel lighter as if a huge weight has been lifted off our life.

I could leave whatever I have behind. I’m not attached to things anymore and am rather attached to my family, friends, health and happiness.

Bea Johnson and zero waste

The family’s trash since October

EYE: And that little container with the trash?

BEA: We have six months worth now. I don’t count or weigh what’s in it. I could not be bothered and it would not apply to my simple life. I’m enjoying our simple zero waste life.

We have found our balance. If it was not for the blog, I would not even think about zero waste. We have it on auto-pilot.

EYE: You work very hard at zero waste and have come up with some fascinating and innovative ideas. Your tips are all on your blog and, as you told me, people can use them or not. I’ve tried the fresh baguettes in the pillowcase idea and they taste great! Thanks, Bea!

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  1. [...] household by changing the way they buy groceries, use consumer goods, and clean their home. In her interview with The Women’s Eye, Johnson opens up about how she and her family made the switch to a Zero Waste lifestyle. She [...]

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