My Top 5 Takeaways from Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson

Even though cutting down on waste in the home may be relatively common concept these days, there was once a time that undertaking a lifestyle change of such magnitude had only crossed the minds of very few.

Among these pioneers, Bea Johnson rose up to share her journey through the blog Zero Waste Home, later followed by a book of the same name.

When I decided to cut down on plastic consumption in my own home earlier this year, I started following her work more closely. However, I only recently got my hands on Zero Waste Home (the book) and found it to be the all-encompassing, easy-to-follow guide I’d been seeking all this time. In 260-plus pages, Johnson unpacks the philosophy of voluntary simplicity that underscores her  family’s lifestyle and also shares a wealth of practical tips, advice and recipes. The book is built around the 5R’s of Zero Waste – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot – related to each aspect of  homelife.

While I highly recommend reading the book in its entirety, here are five points that really stood out to me:

1. Decluttering your life, declutters your time

We all know that a messy space leads to a messy mind. However, did you ever consider that a cluttered space also robs you of precious time? Quite honestly, I never really made that connection. However, Johnson makes it clear that cutting down on unnecessary space, furniture, décor etc actually also made space for her family to a live a fuller life.

“What we found during this transitional period is that with less stuff, we had time to do things we enjoyed doing. Since we no longer spent every weekend mowing our lawn and caring for our huge house and its contents, we now spent our time together as a family, biking, hiking, picnicking and discovering our new coastal region. It was liberating,” she writes.

2. Waste reduction starts outside the home

Realising that your ‘junk’ problem starts far beyond the four walls of your home is probably the crux to living a successful zero waste lifestyle.
Once you understand this, you can start implementing the first and most important of Zero Waste’s 5R’s – ‘Refuse’. It also happens to be the most difficult of the 5R’s, because it can put us in very awkward positions socially. That is until we decide to stop caring about feeling like a weirdo for
taking our reusable containers to our favourite takeaway outlets or saying ‘no thank you’ to the goody bag at a conference.

“Curbing consumption is a major aspect of reducing waste (what we do not consume ultimately will need to be discarded), but consumption does not occur solely through the obvious act of shopping,” writes Johnson. “In our society, we start consuming the moment we step out the door and pick up a dry-cleaning advert hanging on the knob, or a plastic bag stuffed with a leaflet promoting landscaping services in the front yard.”

Ultimately, she argues that we need to be continually conscientious in making decisions AGAINST mindless consumption. Also, it’s up to all of us to refuse, so that eventually, we no longer need to. Supply affects demand.

“Refusing is a concept based on the power of collectivity: if we all refuse hotel freebies, then they will no longer be offered; if we all refuse receipts, then they will no longer need to be printed.”

If you’re still struggling to refuse products politely, you can start by carrying reusable coffees mugsstraws, shopping totes or produce bags with you wherever you go. There are amazing, and easy, replacements for single-use items.

3. Reconnect to the joys of ‘making’

One of the most exciting aspects of undertaking a journey toward a less wasteful life, is the fact that it offers you the opportunity to get creative! In an effort to avoid unnecessary packaging or impulse buys, making your own products becomes a sort of go-to. In Zero Waste Home, Johnson shares how she’s made everything from Dijon Mustard to her own – initially unsuccessful – mascara.

“My kitchen is a science lab. If I pull some beets out of the refrigerator, I might end up with a salad, a lip stain or a watercolour dye. The options are infinite and limited only by my creativity,” she writes.

In this day and age of convenience, we’ve somehow come to believe that everything we need can only be bought. However, when you start doing a bit of research about your favourite treats or beauty products, you may find that they’re surprisingly easy to make! There is, of course, also the added benefit of knowing EXACTLY what goes into your products when taking this approach – gone are the days of trying to decipher the names of mystery ingredients on the label. As Johnson explains:

“Beyond satisfying my curiosity, making my own food [and beauty products] also provides a sense of control and reassurance that comes along with handpicking the ingredients versus eating food made with a long list of things I can neither pronounce nor trust.”

The book is packed with recipes for edibles, cosmetics, toiletries and even cleaning products, tried and tested by Johnson herself. What makes them really great is the fact that most of the ingredients are easy to source and mostly quite affordable.

4. Composting is king

I’m sure most of us can agree that composting is probably one of the most daunting parts of going Zero Waste. This is especially true if you live in a small space and don’t have a garden of your own.

Johnson is, however, adamant that since a quarter of kitchen waste is compostable, ‘Rot’ is key to cutting down on your overall solid waste in the home.

Even when living in a small apartment, you can invest in a composting system that won’t take up much space or can be hidden away easily under your kitchen counter.

And what to do with the ‘compost tea’ if you don’t have a garden? Easy! Feed some to your houseplants and donate the rest. In Cape Town, you can take your kitchen waste or ‘compost tea’ to the Oranjezicht City Farm in Cape Town or to Future Farms SA in JHB, so they can use it to grow
more beautiful veggies!

5. There will always be critics

As with any big lifestyle change, there will always be those wonderful people who support you through thick and thin on your way to a Zero Waste home. BUT, you can also be sure to encounter those who will have something negative to say.

Some may find your newfound commitment to cutting down on unnecessary consumption too extreme, while others might tell you you’re not doing enough… or doing it wrong. While well-intended advice is always welcome, don’t let other people’s opinions ever get you down. Unsurprisingly, Johnson has encountered more than her fair share of this along the way and writes the following:

“What matters to us is not what people think but how good we feel about what we do. It is not the preconceived restrictions but the infinite possibilities that we have discovered in Zero Waste that make it a subject worth elaborating. And I am excited at the prospect of sharing what we have learned to help others better their lives.”

If you want to tap into some of Bea Johnson’s practical advice yourself, be sure to get your hands on Zero Waste Home!

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