As Bea Johnson gets ready to speak in Cork, she reflects on how her blog about living with less and cutting down on packaging became part of a global movement, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
When Bea Johnson decided to start blogging about her family’s new lifestyle, her husband warned her that she was opening herself up to a lot of criticism.
“The New York Times ran an article about us in 2010. Back then people really didn’t know what our lifestyle meant,” Bea says. “They
associated it with free-living in the woods and being a hippy; we received a tonne of criticism.”
But Bea and her husband weren’t survivalists, naturists or swingers, they simply wanted to stop producing rubbish.
Bea coined the term “Zero Waste” to apply to the way her family were trying to live, because in 2008, when they started, there wasn’t even a term for what Bea, husband Scott and their sons Max and Leo were trying to do.
Almost a decade later, the family’s annual waste fits into a small mason jar each year, and gets carted around the world by Bea, now the centre of a sustainability empire dispensing tips on everything from fashion and beauty to DIY via her blog, authoring a book, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, and touring the world on speaking
But in the beginning, there was criticism. Bea’s Zero Waste model is built on a platform of non-consumption; the family buy only what they need, and what they do buy is second-hand. Bea opened the family’s sparsely furnished home to the press to show that Zero Waste living could be stylish and modern; this included her boys’ bedrooms in all their
“One of the criticisms was ‘look at what they’re doing to their children, it’s depriving them’. I thought, ‘are my children deprived because they don’t get taken to McDonalds and instead they get taken to real restaurants with real food?’ Instead of having a room full of things they don’t need, their lives are full of activities and experiences.”
The Johnsons’ Zero Waste life originated when they moved house to their home in Mill Valley, California.
Renting an apartment for a year to handle the move, the family put their possessions in storage. Moving into their new home, they realised that 80% of their belongings hadn’t been missed.
This led the way to a eureka moment for Bea: “It was in that time that we learned that when you live with less, you have more time to do what’s important to you. Time for family, friends, picnics and hikes.
“This consumer society was created by manufacturers who hired marketers to create a fiction; they promise time savings and money savings if you purchase all these products, but once you stop, you realise very quickly that it’s a lie.”
Inspired by this realisation, Bea and her husband began researching: “I began to feel sad about the future we would leave for our kids, and that’s what gave us the motivation to change our ways.”
Scott left his tech job to set up a sustainability consultancy, while Bea battled with household waste solutions, some of which were comically unconventional: experimenting with vinegar as a shampoo substitute led to complaints from her husband that she smelled like salad dressing, and lichen was just not going to work as toilet paper replacement.
The methodology Bea developed is based on five Rs:
Refusing what you do not need
Reducing what you do need
Replacing all disposables with reusables
Recycling only what you can’t reduce or replace
Rotting, or composting, the remainder.
Bea poses for photos to display just how versatile a small wardrobe of well-fitting secondhand clothes can be.
When the family travel, their white-painted, stylishly minimalist home is ideal to rent as a holiday home. Bea became the poster-girl for a movement that now has thousands of advocates, especially in Europe, where countries like France and Germany have taken the lead in setting up packaging-free supermarkets.
Now, Ireland is following in Bea’s footsteps too, with movements like Cobh Zero Waste, which aims to make the Cork Harbour town the first Zero Waste town in Ireland.
In the summer, Bring Your Own, a weekly packaging-free market, opened in Drumcondra to cater to people who want to lead a Zero Waste lifestyle.
“It’s extremely exciting to see how fast it’s growing,” Bea, who is just embarking on her ninth speaking tour, says.
Bea’s assertion that Zero Waste saves time and money is based on her own experience; comparing household spending from the year before their experiment began with a Zero Waste year, the Johnsons saw a 40% drop in expenditure.
This may be more a reflection of their pre-Zero Waste consumption habits than on savings made through buying bulk, though.
In Ireland, where 16% of people are
living on less than €218 per week, it certainly doesn’t seem to be cheaper to source bulk goods when supermarkets are running loss-leading campaigns on plastic-wrapped essentials.
But Bea says any step towards reducing packaging is a step in the right direction.
“I’m not here to tell anyone how to live their life,” she says. “I’m only here to talk about what we’ve been able to do. If that inspires anyone, that’s what matters.
"You really don’t need to do much to see a great reduction in your waste output, and any change is good.”
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