Path finder I grew up in the south of France with my parents and two brothers. I wouldn’t call my upbringing “environmental” but my dad could repair anything, even incandescent light bulbs, and my mom made all our clothes. She cooked a lot, she canned a lot, she sewed, she knitted. And I sort of ignored all this.
After high school, my friends seemed to have a path, but that was not my case. Since I had really bad grades in English, I thought I should be a French au pair, so I moved to California. Towards the end of that year, when I was 19, I met my husband, Scott.
Cultural exchange After we married, we lived in London, Amsterdam and Paris – my husband was project manager for a tech company – but when I got pregnant, I wanted to experience the American-soccer-mom-as-seen-on-TV way of life. We lived in a large home outside San Francisco, and after seven years of driving my sons Max and Leo everywhere, part of me felt I was kind of dying.
In 2006, we decided to rent an apartment for a year while we looked for a place closer to the city. We only moved in with the necessities and it was during that year we discovered the great advantage of living simply.
Setting a goal When we found our new house and got everything out of storage, we started letting go of all that stuff we’d accumulated and hadn’t even missed. In 2008, we decided to adopt a more environmentally friendly way of life. We watched our energy consumption, we watched our water consumption and we started looking at our trash.
One day I found the term “zero waste”, which, back then, was used only to describe manufacturing practices and waste management at city level, not something you did at home. I thought zero waste? Is that even possible? But it gave me a goal.
Zero waste living Once I had “zero waste” in my head, it changed everything. That’s when I started to look back at the way I’d been brought up – to think about extending the useful life of the few things we had in our home by repairing them, like my dad, and about alternatives to packaged food.
I started making my own cheese, my own butter, my own soy milk, my own bread. But at one point I visited my mom in her regular household in France and I realised I’d made zero waste way too complicated. There was no point in making my own bread if I could just bring a pillowcase to a bakery – they make bread way better than I do. And what’s the point of making cheese if I can bring my own container to the cheese counter?
Little by little, we let go of all the extremes, and that’s when we found a system we could see ourselves sticking to for the long run.
Following the Five Rs Our methodology is the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot, in that order. The ideal is not to do more recycling but less. So we refuse things like freebies – for example, business cards. People I’ve already emailed give me their cards. What’s the point?
On planes we refuse the packaged meals. Hotels have shampoos but we bring our own soap with which we can wash our hair, our faces, our bodies and that my husband can use to shave. That’s one product, sold unpackaged, that eliminates four others. Very simple.
We each have a personal computer and a smartphone but we purchase those things second-hand. Our clothes are also second-hand. My wardrobe has 15 pieces but I can create 50 outfits from that, and it all fits in one carry-on.
Face value I make my own make-up. On my eyes is kohl made from burnt almonds. My bronzer is chocolate powder that, of course, I buy in bulk: it costs 72 US cents to fill a little jar. To add shine to lips, to highlight my cheeks and to smooth my hair, I make a multipurpose balm from beeswax and vegetable oil. I let my hair grow down to my elbows and then I cut it and send it to an organisation that makes wigs for cancer patients. I used to wash it with baking soda and rinse it with apple-cider vinegar until my husband said I smelt like vinaigrette. And I do not recommend moss in lieu of toilet paper. Or stinging nettles as lip plumper – it hurts like hell.
Boxing clever In 2009, I watched that movie called, I think, Julie (in fact, Julie & Julia ). I had never heard about blogs. We were telling friends and people we met what we were doing, and we’d invited a new couple to our house for dinner. When I opened the door, the woman had this huge box of pastries. I thought, “Maybe she doesn’t take our zero waste seriously.” That night I told my husband, “I need to write a blog.”
At first, I just wrote it to put my rules down for friends and family, so that they would understand what it meant for us. Then it got picked up by The New York Times, who did an article on us.
Zero tolerance After the article came out, readers thought we were hippies living in the woods. They said, “Oh, I’m sure she doesn’t shave her legs” and “It’s disgusting what they’re doing to the children, depriving them”, because we said we didn’t eat at fast-food restaurants.
I understand why people get angry. Every time our story comes out in a new country, and people don’t know what zero waste is, they think we’re trying to be the greenest people on Earth. We’ve never said that. We’re here to say that a zero-waste lifestyle is the complete opposite of what people think. It’s not going to cost more – we’ve saved a huge amount of money, 40 per cent of our overall budget – and we’ve been able to afford a lifestyle based on experiences instead of things.
At their ages, 17 and 16, my teenagers have been snorkelling with humpback whales, ice-climbing, skydiving. It’s a life based on being instead of having that makes them different from other kids.
Jar head What’s in the jar is all the items we were not able to apply to my methodology of the five Rs. This is the jar for 2017. I always carry the previous year’s one for my talks. Actually, this jar is really packed – if you open it, it explodes. It has foam from my son’s headphones; bristles from our bamboo toothbrushes, we prise them out because they’re not compostable; Scott’s contact lenses; the green thing is my son’s retainer; labels from clothing, they itch and I can’t stand them.
When I talk, my passion comes out. We’ve reduced the film crews coming to our home because the kids can’t take it any more – it came to the point where they started asking me to pay them to participate. I want to respect their privacy. But I’m here to say we tried this, we tried that, some things worked, some didn’t. It’s up to everyone to work out what they can do.
Bea Johnson was speaking at a Zero Waste talk co-hosted by The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and No!W No Waste. Her website is zerowastehome.com.