Published on June 15, 2017—  Leave a comment

How A Zero Waste Lifestyle Will Improve Your Life (AND Save The Planet)

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Back in April, we launched our Be a Zero campaign for Earth Day. Thousands of you participated in our #1in1out challenge (for every piece of clothing you add to your closet, take one out you no longer wear), so we wanted to continue the conversation and find relatively easy ways to incorporate this philosophy into our everyday lives.

We thought, “Hey, let’s just call the founder of the whole zero waste lifestyle movement and hear what she has to say.” Turns out Bea Johnson, the best-selling author and blogger behind Zero Waste Home is a huge fan of thredUP and was thrilled to give us some tips and tricks on how to get started living a zero-waste lifestyle. Hint: It’s (a bit) easier than you think. “Once you have zero in your head, it helps you to push things further,” she says. Plus, she’s French and super chic. We’re all ears.

Bea in her zero-waste kitchen. Photo by Zona Foto-Coleman-Rayner.

What prompted you to go zero waste and launch a worldwide lifestyle movement?

It was moving to Marin, CA that kind of triggered everything. We wanted to be closer to a downtown where we could walk and bike to things. But before finding the right house, we rented a small apartment for one year. We only moved with the necessities and we discovered that when you live with less, you have more time on your hands to do what’s important to you. We finally found a house but when we got everything out of storage we found that 80% of the belongings we had put in there, we hadn’t even missed.

We let go of it all and it’s thanks to that voluntary simplicity that we found time to read books and watch documentaries on environmental issues. That’s when the light bulb went off in our heads and we decided we wanted a better future for our kids.

What are some of the things you decided to change first?

 At first, we watched our energy consumption and our water consumption and then I turned towards the waste. One day I found the term Zero Waste, which back then was only used to describe environmental practices at a municipal level. It was not something used to describe something you do at home.

Because there was no guide on how to live a zero-waste lifestyle at the time, I had to test a lot of extreme things before I realized, okay, we’ve gone too far. For example, I tried baking soda on my hair for six months. I tried sting nettle as a lip plumper. I tried moss as toilet paper. I was baking my own bread. Making my own cheese.

“It’s wanting the goal. Once you have zero in your head it helps you to push things further.”

Then I found that all of this was too time constraining and there was no way that I was going to be able to do these things with a full-time job and a family of four.

Instead of making my own bread I thought, “Oh I can bring my own pillowcase to the bakery to carry my bread home in.” Instead of making my own cheese, I can just bring my jar to the cheese counter. They make cheese much better than I do.

Little by little we let go of all the extremes and we found a system that worked for us. Zero waste has been easy and automatic ever since.

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Bea in the bulk food section of her local market. Photo by Nikola Bruncov.

How do you practice zero waste with your wardrobe and closet?

 In a typical wardrobe people only use 20% of their clothes. The other 80% people keep for the “what ifs.” “What if I lose weight? What if I gain weight? What if I have a wedding? What if I have a job interview?” And you end up holding on to all these things that you don’t need. It’s easy for you to know what your 20% are. They’re the clothes that you keep on wearing and washing. They’re the clothes on top of the pile and in the middle of the closet.

In my case, it’s 15 pieces. One pair of shorts, two dresses, two skirts, two pairs of pants, two sweaters, six tops, five pairs of shoes, seven pairs of underwear, one bra.

Having less does not mean that I have less options because I have found that my 15 pieces allow me to create more than 50 looks. My black dress alone can be worn 20 different ways.

I showed up at a Ted Talk once and they said, “We have a cocktail party now.” I thought, “What? I didn’t know I just brought my general clothes.” I had brought my trench coat and I thought, “Well I guess I’ll wear that.”

I love doing that. I went to fashion school and people ask me, “Well, don’t you miss the world of fashion?” I say, “Not at all. The zero-waste lifestyle has actually completely boosted my creativity.”

“The zero-waste lifestyle has actually completely boosted my creativity.”

Tell us about the 5R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot

The order is super important. Refuse what you do not need, reduce what you actually need, reuse by swapping anything disposable for a reusable alternative. Buy secondhand when you do need to buy something. Then recycle only what you can’t refuse, reduce, or reuse. Then finally it’s rot, which is composting the rest.

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The amount of trash collected in Bea’s home in one year. Photo by: Zona Foto-Coleman-Rayner.

What is the biggest challenge of having a zero-waste home with kids?

When they were little, the hardest thing was to explain to them that we were making different choices than other people. In a way, they don’t understand why adults keep wasting if they know that wasting is not good. They say, “Well, why should we use reusable cups when people are using disposable ones? Why should I refuse a plastic bag filled with freebies when adults are accepting these huge bags filled with freebies at a conference?”

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Bea Johnson and her family in their zero-waste home in Mill Valley, CA. Photo by Zona Foto-Coleman-Rayner.

You don’t mention the environment very much in your speeches. What do you focus on instead?

I only mention the world environment twice in my speech because my vocation is really to shatter the misconceptions associated with this lifestyle. To really emphasize what you can gain on a personal level. How it’s going to benefit your life. You’ll discover a healthier lifestyle. Make huge financial savings. In our case, we found we were saving up to 40% on our overall budget. Better yet, we were saving a huge amount of time.

The less you have, the less you have to maintain dust, clean, repair, and eventually discard. To me, that’s the key. That’s why it’s refuse first, reduce second, and then reuse. If you do these things in order, zero is just automatic. It just comes naturally.

How does the US differ from other countries and cultures when it comes to the adoption and acceptance of zero waste?

When I return home from speaking tours, it always strikes me how many people have a disposable cup in their hand. You just don’t see that anywhere else. People just go to the café; they sit down at the café. They don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to sit at the cafe to have a coffee.

What are the origins of the zero-waste lifestyle?

 The zero-waste lifestyle is nothing new. It’s basically what our grandparents used to do. Disposable items promise money savings and time savings in our busy schedule, but once you adopt a zero lifestyle you’re like, oh my gosh, we’ve been lured into this thing. Buying disposables is literally throwing your money away. Once you eliminate it, life gets so much easier, and once you see the financial savings you would never think of going back to the way you used to. You’re all in.

What’s the single best advantage to a zero-waste lifestyle?

Discovering a life based on experiences instead of things. Our money is no longer invested in things or throw away. We invest our money in moments. Travel, activities, and what matters most. Life based on being instead of having.

“The best advantage to a zero-waste lifestyle is discovering a life based on experiences instead of things.”

Where should newbies to the movement start their journey?

The first thing you can do is to refuse— to learn to say no. When you say no on the spot, when you say no to single use items, to freebies, business cards, junk mail, then you stop the demand. You stop the things from coming into your home and cluttering up your space, and adding to your trash pile. Next time someone gives you something think about whether you really need it.

My second tip would be to let go of things that you don’t naturally use. Start with the room or the drawer that’s easiest for you and then work your way up to what’s most difficult.

When something is given to you, the person who gave you the item is not wanting to put a weight on your shoulders and burdening you for that thing for the rest of your life. They’re only trying to make a gesture. Don’t be afraid of letting go of it.

The third tip is to reuse. Go in your home and look at all the things that are disposable. Ask yourself, “What can I replace it with?” The more you swap your disposables for reusable items, the more money and time you’ll save.

Swap paper towels for rags, disposable tissues for handkerchiefs. Even menstrual products for a menstrual cup.

My fourth tip is to buy secondhand. For the things that you do actually need, only buy secondhand. There are so many different ways of buying secondhand and thredUP is doing a great job with that. It’s made it easier for people to buy secondhand and also to let go of things that they don’t need. It’s a win, win.

Bea’s 7 Tips to a Zero-Waste Closet

1. Buy secondhand clothing

2. If you must buy new, buy quality with minimal tags (leave the shoebox at the store).

3. Be ruthless on fit. If it fits well, you’re most likely to wear it.

4. Bring a reusable bag for your purchases.

5. Sell or donate unworn pieces.

6. Keep some of your worn-out clothes for rags.

7. Learn a few sewing tricks (like shortening a hem).

Bea Johnson and her family produce one jar of waste per year. With her passion and positive outlook, Bea launched a global movement and has become the spokesperson for the zero waste lifestyle. She inspires a growing community to live simply and take a stance against needless waste with the application of the 5R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. She shatters misconceptions, proving that waste-free living can not only be “stylish,” but also lead to significant health benefits, and time and money savings. She is a French native who currently lives in Mill Valley, California. 

Is a zero-waste lifestyle for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!