Can you fit your yearly output of household trash in a single quart-sized jar?
Bea Johnson can.
Sometimes I meet people who take sustainable living to a whole new level. They challenge me to look more closely at my own efforts at environmental stewardship and the values that shape my life. Recently I spoke by phone with Johnson, author of a book entitled Zero Waste Home, curious to learn how she implements her philosophy of “zero waste.”
Johnson is French, her husband American, and they have two boys. She told me that after living a “big American life,” her family decided to move closer to town (they live in a California coastal community). While house shopping, they rented an apartment, storing everything but the basics until they could move to their new home.
The Johnsons discovered that living with less had certain rewards – less housework, less stuff to maintain, and more time for fun. Instead of reclaiming all their former possessions, they did something radical – they shed 80 percent of their stuff and now live in a house one-third the size of their previous one, just 1,400 square feet. Johnson believes simplicity has allowed her to focus on her relationships. “Living more simply is so rewarding,” Johnson says. “A simple life has allowed our family to travel more, to have more experiences together. Life should be based on experiences, not things.”
She also believes that recycling alone will not solve our environmental problems. Johnson now lives by this mantra: “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, or rot.” Refuse comes first, because it’s the best way to reduce the waste in our lives.
Johnson prevents junk mail delivery by opting out of mailing lists. Stop it, she says, don’t just recycle it. “If you accept junk mail and then turn around and recycle it,” she says, “you are basically telling that company, ‘Send me more of your stuff!’” Contact the Direct Marketing Association to opt out of unsolicited commercial mail by registering at www.dmachoice.org.
Johnson also refuses freebies or giveaways – the t-shirts, pens, and gewgaws she is offered at trade shows, conferences, or events. “Once you pick up a freebie,” she says, “it becomes your problem. Then you have to figure out what to do with it.”
Packaging contributes a huge amount to household waste, so Johnson refuses it by buying her food and household supplies in bulk, bringing her own jars, reusable bags, and baskets for items such as deli meat and produce. By providing her own containers, buying whole foods, and choosing loose or bulk items, she has no plastic bags or containers to dispose of. Occasionally a grocery store clerk will question putting deli turkey in a Mason jar, but Johnson says, “I just tell them I don’t have a trash can.”
What about refusing family heirlooms? “I have told my family that I don’t want more stuff in my life,” says Johnson. “Stuff is not irreplaceable. I prefer to remember loved ones by the things I did with them versus keeping the stuff they lived with. I’m sure my grandmother would not want me to have something I don’t want or can’t use.” She does own heirlooms, she told me, but she uses them every day instead of storing them like museum pieces.
Johnson told me that her family’s zero waste lifestyle has been a gradual process, and that she does compromise on some things. Some of her friends don’t understand her choices. Learning new habits isn’t easy. However, she would never return to her life before she downsized.
One challenge for my family is cutting out consumerism – that constant drumbeat to acquire stuff, so prevalent in the media and so engrained in our culture. The act of refusing sometimes feels uncomfortable—even if I’m refusing something completely unnecessary to my existence. It’s as if my inner spendthrift is whispering, “What? Are you crazy? More stuff!”
Perhaps refusal is a kind of spiritual discipline – as I encounter that temptation, I can remember that my deepest needs are met in God and in the community in which he’s placed me.
Find out more about Bea Johnson or her book by visiting her blog here.