Five (Simple) Rules for Going Zero Waste, According to Someone Who's Been Doing it for More Than 10 Years
Bea Johnson sparked a movement with her Zero Waste Home blog and book—and her tips for leading a zero waste lifestyle are actually doable.
Zero waste is a simple term for a relatively simple movement: The pursuit of producing as little landfill waste as possible through the use of zero waste disposal methods, reducing consumption of packaged goods, recycling only when necessary, and more. The zero waste movement is currently having a moment—see the rise of zero waste grocery stores—but zero waste in its current form can be traced all the way back to 2006, when Bea Johnson and her family began their pursuit of a zero waste lifestyle.
Johnson—the mind behind the popular Zero Waste Home blog and author of Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste (To buy: $10; amazon.com)—has helped shape the zero waste lifestyle movement as it is today, and the approach she and her family uses is a simple one.
“We had to test a lot of things,” Johnson says. “We had to test a lot of extremes. But over time we found alternatives that we could stick to in the long run, for life, and that’s when zero waste became a lifestyle. All we’re doing is following my methodology of five rules.”
Johnson and her family still follow these rules—a sort of extension of the classic reduce, reuse, and recycle mantra—today to reduce their consumption and cut down their non-compostable, non-recyclable waste to almost nothing. Read on for this approachable mentality to leading a zero waste lifestyle, from a zero waster who’s been doing it for more than a decade.
“We’ve simply learned to say no,” Johnson says. “In our society, we’ve become robots in our way of accepting things. If someone tries to hand you something, a lot of people still have that gesture of reaching out for that item. If you learn to refuse, instead you look at it twice and ask yourself: ‘Do I really need this?’”
Refusing cuts down on the number of items brought into the home that need to be dealt with. When people refuse, they have less to recycle, reuse, and trash—making this first step both the easiest and the most important.
“This means going through a decluttering process,” Johnson says. “In our home, we’ve let go of all of the things we did not really use or need to make it available to the community. When you let go of things, these things themselves are valuable resources, and it’s important to share them with the community.”
In this sense, reducing both lowers the number of items in the home and shares value with the community, whether through donations or reselling items. Johnson’s approach to zero waste centers around simplifying, and reducing the quantity of ones possessions is a huge part of that. It also means there’s less to be disposed of eventually. Less stuff = less waste.
“That means swapping anything disposable for a reusable alternative,” Johnson says. “We swap paper towels for rags, we swap tissues for handkerchiefs, we swap disposable paper napkins for cloth ones. There is really a reusable alternative on the market for anything disposable. And then that also means going to the store with a kit of reusables. To go to the grocery store we bring totes, we bring glass jars for anything wet, we bring mesh bags for produce and cloth bags for anything dry. And we’ll buy our food unpackaged using these reusables.”
Reusing is more than just using things already in the house again—it’s also avoiding bringing home brand new items.
“The second aspect of reusing is buying secondhand if we need to buy something,” Johnson says. “Secondhand can be from the thrift store, but it can also be eBay, for example. We use eBay for the items that are super specific, the items that we can’t find walking into a thrift store. If we buy on eBay, we select secondhand or pre-owned, so our whole selection is secondhand, and if we buy something we request they ship it to us in paper or cardboard.”
“The fourth rule of the zero waste lifestyle is to recycle, but it is to recycle only what we cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse,” Johnson says. “The zero waste lifestyle does not encourage you to recycle more, but less, by preventing waste from coming into your home in the first place.”
“Finally, rot, which means composting. With the zero waste lifestyle movement exploding throughout the world, so have composting systems. There are amazing composters out there on the market that can address anyone’s needs,” Johnson says. “Whether you eat meat or you don’t, or whether you have a family of four or you’re single, or you live in an apartment or you live in the country, there are lots of different systems out there for everyone’s needs.”