Bea Johnson is hailed in the United States as the guru of the zero waste movement. Johnson is a native of France and currently lives in Mill Valley, California. She first adopted the zero waste lifestyle in 2008.

“Since then, my life and that of my family have changed for the better,” she says. “We not only feel happier, but we also lead more meaningful lives based on experiences instead of stuff.” Here is our e-mail interview with her.

What inspired you to move towards a zero waste lifestyle?

In 2006, we chose to move downtown (from the suburbs) to be able to walk or ride everywhere (school, stores, coffee shop, movies, theatre, etc). Before finding our small house, we rented an apartment for a year, and moved in with only a few necessities (they stored the rest).

We immediately realised the benefits of living with less: we had more time to do the things that are important to us, such as spending time with family and friends, and exploring/enjoying the outdoors.

When we then bought a house, half the size of the previous one, we let go of 80% of our belongings (including those that they had stored).

Voluntary simplicity was a first step towards waste-free living. But then with more time, we started reading up on environmental issues – some shocked me, others made me cry – that’s when we decided to change our ways for the sake of our kids’ future and eliminate trash from our lives.

In the midst of the recession, my husband quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company; I tackled the house and our lifestyle.

What was the hardest and easiest part of the journey?

Our biggest challenge was finding balance, figuring out what worked for us and what did not. There were no books or blogs on how to do zero waste when we started in 2008.

So I Googled alternatives and tested many recipes and how-tos. But I eventually got too wrapped up into homemaking: at one point, I was making my own cheese, bread, yoghurt, soy milk, butter, etc.

Some of these ideas were too extreme, too time consuming, and we later dropped them for the sake of simplicity. For example, we realised that there was no need for us to make bread if we could buy it unpackaged either directly from the bakery or from the bakery bins.

We found that for zero waste to be sustainable in a household, one has to adopt alternatives that fits one’s schedule and are feasible in the long run.

Zero waste then became easy and automatic. We’ve been living this way for the past 10 years.

When people hear of zero waste, they think it’s very difficult to do. How would you encourage people to take this up?

The misconceptions about zero waste are that it is about recycling more, that it means that you need to look like a hippy. That it takes more time. And that it costs more.

We’ve been able to prove the complete opposite!

The zero in “zero waste” makes it sound scary and hard to achieve. It is actually not as as hard as it seems, and it is as simple as following my five Rs, in order:

> REFUSE what you do not need.
> REDUCE what you do need.
> REUSE by buying secondhand and swapping disposables for reusable alternatives.
> RECYCLE what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
> ROT (compost) the rest.

The zero waste lifestyle is about reducing as much household waste as possible while living simply. It translates into a life based on experiences (lots of fun activities) instead of stuff.

Once you get started, all you’ll regret is not having started earlier!

Bea Johnson will be speaking in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 23 during Malaysia’s first Zero Waste Fest.