When Bea Johnson decided to overhaul her consumerist lifestyle and live more sustainably, she had a simple but powerful idea. Why not restrict a year’s household waste to a single glass Kilner jar?
That lightbulb moment was more than a decade ago and the see-through trash jar is now an iconic symbol of living with less waste.
Vloggers tout them on YouTube, package-free shops are opening almost weekly and even the likes of Procter & Gamble are looking to cut waste and offer refillables.
Dubbed the ‘mother of the zero-waste movement’ by CNN, Johnson sparked what has become a global movement – and one that is still growing exponentially.
“I cannot believe how it’s taken off. It’s actually growing faster than I could ever have dreamed I’d see in my lifetime,” she says.
Speaking to me from her home in California, she talks quickly in perfect English filtered through a dense French accent. It’s clear she still has plenty of tips and passion for how to go zero-waste. They tumble out at speed, as if she hardly has time to take a breath, before embarking on another tour to inspire more zero-wasting.
“When we started living this way in 2008, people laughed at us because it was so unusual. They called us hippies and questioned how one family cutting trash could make any difference. We’ve proved them wrong.”
She’s delighted that zero-waste is taking the world by storm and that, thanks also to Sir David Attenborough, we are waking up to the environmental threat of plastic packaging.
Johnson is stylish and beautifully French. A former fashion student, she looks stunning in her home-made mascara and in her thrift-shop black dress and fedora. She lives in a white, minimalist home with her family and pet Chihuahua, Zizou, who kips in a hanging Eero Aarnio-style bubble chair. Even Zizou lives a zero-waste life with bulk-bought dog kibbles.
Johnson’s zero-waste passion is even more impressive as it predates Instagram: it’s not fake, it’s just how she lives.
It all started when she and husband Scott moved closer into town and swapped their huge suburban house for a smaller apartment and a lot of stuff was sold or stored. It was a revelation.
“Living with less made my life simpler. It created more free time to read books, spend time as a family hiking and walking – and think about how to create a more sustainable future for the next generation,” she explains.
“There were no blogs or books about zero-waste lifestyles so I created it for myself. I made my own simple changes to how we lived – such as cutting trash and buying unpacked from a health food store.”
She came up with the mantra ‘the five Rs’ – refuse what you don’t need, reduce what you do need and then reuse, recycle and rot.
It's that dedication to simplicity that means Johnson is annoyed by some of the strands forming out of the original zero-waste movement, such as making everything from scratch.
“It’s driving me nuts that many zero-waster influencers are now associating the movement with everything homemade. They are blogging on how to make window cleaner, counter cleaner, stainless-steel cleaner. Lots of stupid recipes that are needless.
“You don’t need to make all those products when you can eliminate them all by just using white vinegar and baking soda. Think about keeping it simple.”
She also hates the irony of the way zero-waste is prompting its own array of lifestyle products: bamboo straws, mesh produce bags, beeswax wrappers and designer storage jars, and advises avoiding these.
“This is the commercialisation of the movement. We’ve been doing this for a decade without re-usable straws,” she says.
“If you are thinking of living zero-waste, there is one question you need to ask: ‘Do I really need this?”
Admittedly, you might need to invest in a new Kilner jar to store your year’s waste in. But in the spirit of zero-wasting, it might better to source one from a charity shop.
Bea Johnson’s tips for going zero waste:
1. Refuse stuff
Learn to say no on the spot. It’s amazing how much you can stop coming into your home. Avoid hotel toiletries, free samples, flyers and event swag bags.
2. Choose package-free
Take your business to where food is sold as package-free as possible: box schemes, farm and health food shops, and loose produce in supermarkets.
3. Have a shopping kit
Take your own containers and bags – use what you have already or make from an old sheet. No need to buy special new zero-waste shopping products.
4. Buy used and just use less
Carefully assess anything you plan to buy. Do you need it? Can you resell or share it? Try and find second-hand first. Reduce what you buy and use.
Extend the life of products and avoid buying new ones by repairing. Have three serious attempts at repairing before you throw something away. Buy new as the last option.
6. Rot and recycle
Composting is easiest when the container is big enough, aesthetically-pleasing so it doesn’t have to be hidden away and within easy reach.
7. Streamline your wardrobe
Own less clothes – you’ll see what you have and find outfits more easily. Buy second-hand. Set pre-determined clothes-shopping days, say mid-April for spring/summer and Oct for autumn/winter.
8. Give and receive zero-waste presents
Opt for experience presents or vouchers, instead of stuff. Try concert tickets, dining out, overnight hotel stays, entry to theme park or exhibition or boat hire, making something.