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In 2008, Bea Johnson and her family adopted a zero waste lifestyle. Since then, they produce a mere litre of waste per year. 

How did you decide to adopt a zero waste lifestyle?

In 2006, we chose to move to the city to be able to walk or ride everywhere (school, stores, coffee shop, movies, theatre etc.) Before finding our small house, we rented an apartment for a year, and moved in with only a few necessities (we stored the rest). We immediately realized the benefits of living with less; we had more time to do the things that were important to us, such as spending time with family and friends, and exploring and enjoying the outdoors.

When we then bought a house, half the size of the previous one, we let go of 80% of our belongings (including those that we had stored). Voluntary simplicity was a first step towards waste-free living. But then, with more time, we started reading up on environmental issues (some shocked me, others made me cry) and that’s when we decided to change our ways for the sake of our kids’ future and aim for a zero waste lifestyle. In the midst of the recession, my husband quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company while I tackled the house and our lifestyle.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Our biggest challenge was finding balance, figuring out what worked for us and what did not. There were no books or blogs on how to do zero waste when we started in 2008. So I googled alternatives and tested many recipes and how-to’s but I eventually got too wrapped up into homemaking. At one point, I was making cheese, bread, yogurt, soy milk, butter, etc.  Some of these ideas were too extreme, too time-consuming so we dropped them for the sake of simplicity; and we’ve been waste-free ever since! The time and money savings have been so great that we could not envision going back to the way we used to live (we now see our past life as inefficient, a waste of time and money).

What tips can you share with us to live a zero waste life?

I know the zero in “zero waste” makes it sound scary and hard to achieve. However, it is actually not as hard as it seems. Our family produces just one pint of trash per year by following my methodology of the 5R’s, IN ORDER, as laid out in my book, Zero Waste Home. The 5R’s are:

  1. Refuse what you do not need.
  2. Reduce what you do actually need.
  3. Reuse what you consume.
  4. Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
  5. Rot (compost) the rest.

Refuse

  • Fight junk mail. It’s not just a waste of resources, but also of time. Register to receive less at dmachoice.org and catalogchoice.org.
  • Turn down freebies from conferences, fairs, and parties. Every time you take one, you create a demand to make more. Do you really need another “free” pen?

Reduce

  • Declutter your home, and donate to your local thrift shop. You’ll lighten your load and make precious resources available to those looking to buy secondhand.
  • Reduce your shopping trips and keep a shopping list. The less you bring home, the less waste you’ll have to deal with.

Reuse

  •  Swap disposables for reusable products  (start using handkerchiefs, refillable bottles, shopping totes, cloth napkins, rags, etc.) You might find that you don’t miss your paper towels, but rather enjoy the savings.
  • Avoid grocery shopping waste: Bring reusable totes, cloth bags (for bulk aisles), and jars (for wet items like cheese and deli foods) to the store and farmers market.

Recycle

  • Know your city’s recycling policies and locations—but think of recycling as a last resort. Have you refused, reduced, or reused first? Question the need and life-cycle of your purchases. Shopping is voting.
  • Buy in bulk or secondhand, but if you must buy new, choose glass, metal, or cardboard. Avoid plastic: Much of it gets shipped across the world for recycling and often ends up in the landfill (or worse yet, the ocean).

Rot

  • Find a compost system that works for your home and get to know what it will digest (dryer lint, hair, and nails are all compostable).
  • Turn your home kitchen trash can into one large compost receptacle. The bigger the compost receptacle, the more likely you’ll be to use it freely.