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Bea Johnson: Zero waste home, Recycle Less

Hi Everyone,

How much do you know about ecology, and our carbon footprint? Me, I have personally no clue. For a long time, I was more busy finding work after my studies, and living on a budget. Ecology is fine when you have time for such preoccupation. Now that I am settled, I can think about it.

Two weeks ago, Ashwin and I have assisted to a conference in Mauritius animated by Bea Johnson, a guru of a zero waste lifestyle. I don’t know if you heard about her, but if you haven’t, Bea is a French woman who arrived in the US at the age of 18 as an au pair. She quickly met her husband Scott, who had a good situation.

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Bea Johnson and her liter jar of trash for a year. Source : http://www.organixity.com

Her story…

They married, they set-up in San Francisco and she adopted the typical “dreamt” American way of life with a big 4×4, big house and hyper consumption. It lasted some years like that until she started to feel a big hole in her life, anxiety and kind of depression. The more her and her family possessed, the less happy she was. As Bea was unhappy, she convinced her husband to move some place else, and as they figured where they wanted to live, they rented an apartment during a year, while trying to find a house in MillValley.

They finally found the perfect house that was half the size of their big house in San Francisco, and decided to move in. It has to be noted that during this period, her family was hit like many Americans by the sub-primes crisis, and her husband lost his job. So they had to reduce their lifestyle too. After living a year in a small apartment, during which most of their stuffs were stocked in a warehouse, they realized that they needed much to live. In fact, they even realized that most of their stuff was superfluous. Therefore, they decided to give or sell most of their stuffs, to …

What started as a simple reflection quickly transformed into a complete change of life. As a matter of fact, when they started to be aware that most of the things and crap that polluted their home was useless and not needed, Bea started to question whether other action that we take for granted are not useless too. After some thinking, she realized that it was our entire way of consuming products, food, services that was broken. This is my opinion, but I would say that she maybe realized that we passed from an era where consumption was to support our needs in life to an era where our life is to support our needs of consumption.

What could they possibly do to reduce stuff they didn’t need? She might have looked at her clean and minimalist decorated house, and realize that the only thing that didn’t match was the ton of trash they had in their kitchen and their garden. She soon started to realize that everything we buy, use, lend, consume, is full of plastic packaging and wrapping, and for what? To produce an enormous amount of trash, not always recyclable and sometimes even toxic for our health. So with some patience and organization skills, she built a method to develop a greener lifestyle.

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The Johnson’s kitchen. Source : http://www.ecowatch.com

Her philosophy….

Her mantra is 5R: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot and only in this order.

Refuse

Refuse means don’t buy, don’t accept from others what you don’t need. It seems simple and logical, however in everyday life I find it quite difficult. Refusing to buy things I don’t need is ok, because I tried to live on a budget and make savings. Obviously when you buy useless stuff, it’s less money on your bank account. However, I don’t know how it goes for you, but for my husband and I, it is really hard to refuse the things people want to give us. Yeah because in Mauritius, people (specially old people) love their trinkets, that you would find in your country at a dollar/euro/pound… store.

And that is the problem. Over the years, we receive a lot of small goods from family, friends, colleagues, which does not fit any purpose (not even decorative). However, how could you say something when the intention is so nice and friendly. Now we found a way, if someone comes at our house and like something we give it away and we also give to people in need, who can afford to buy the trinkets if they want to.

Reduce

Reduce means when consuming, reducing your waste (buy reusable wipes, tissues, tea towels, instead of disposable cotton pads, Kleenex and a lot of other stuffs); reducing your consumption (for example by taking bath instead of shower), and prefer greener material such as paper or glass instead of plastic or metal.

Reuse

Well I think this one is self-explanatory, buy second hand or dispose of the objects you don’t need anymore by selling or giving them. You should never throw things away unless it can’t have a second life (except for broken machines or gadgets that can be repaired). It’s funny how reusing some things seems normal for baby clothes, toys, books and video games for example but not for used Tupperwares, crockery, blankets or curtains. This is very important. Bea explained during her conference, that you have no idea what people might need at a specific moment. She took the example of a guy that she knows who put on Craig’s List (website for selling and give second hand clothes or objects) a piece of metal grille for free. Well, there was another guy not far from the first one, who was constructing a poultry house and who took it. He was so grateful to the first one, because he needed just a small amount of grille and didn’t want to buy more than he needed.

Recycle

So at this stage, if we have tried enough, we shouldn’t have a lot of waste. Among our waste some are highly biodegradable (peels, human tissues such as hair or nails, poop from the dog or cat or whatever), some can be recycled like paper, cardboard, glass, fabric, plastic (but much less recyclable), metal and some are not and you should think what you should do with it (mercury bulbs, batteries, medicines). Again if you want to do things in a good way, you should try to avoid buying or using stuff from the second and third categories, and privilege the material more easily recyclable like paper or glass. If you can, keep or give your biodegradable waste for the last stage.

Rot

This is the last step of your journey, rot everything that you can to make some fertilizer , peels, hair, expired food (but this one is a pity, we should never encourage waste of food), poop. Ok, I admit this one is not the easiest. If you are in an apartment there is no way that it can happen, unless maybe if you have a big terrace. Even if you have a house, if you house is like the one I rent with no garden, bricks everywhere, and 3 plants in pot, there is no point for me to rot stuff. But if you can and if you want to, good for you.

Her conclusion…

The moral of her lifestyle is the following:

“You know it’s working when you recycle less”

Why? Because the point of all of this is not to produce a lot of waste that can be recyclable, but to stop it as its source, by avoiding producing waste. And if you have a few or no waste, well you will have very little to recycle. Bea and her family now produce the content of a 1-liter jar of waste per year.

This is the first outcome, you’re participating in constructing a better planet; but that is not all. After the first year of this experiment, Bea and Scott realized that they saved 40% of money and by possessing less they gain better quality of life. You should see their minimalist house, cleaning must take 2 hours per week maximum. With regards to savings, I suppose it is because they bought a lot of their furniture and goods second hand (including clothes and school bags). I don’t think doing the same will revolutionize your finance. However, I am confident that you can make some substantial savings. In some countries packaging amounts to 15% of the total selling price of goods and groceries. I am sure packaging has even higher costs for products such as perfume, or make up but we won’t find any perfume or make-up in bulk, will we;-). As a consequence, if you buy most of your things package free, you should save maybe 5 to 10% on your budget.

The living way to reach the same results

So, how does her family achieve this?

Well Bea has a lot of tips, but more of that it’s a real lifestyle. First of all, Bea and her family buy almost everything in bulk store and they bring their own different size tissue bags annotated bread, sugar, etc… They bring 1 litter jars and bottles and buy all their food like that, but also their cleaning products (bulk shampoo, liquid soap, etc…). It also means not purchasing processed food, and buy only from the delicatessen counter, if your Tupperware and jars are welcome (which is not a guarantee).

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A bulk store. For the time being, we don’t have any in Mauritius. Source : http://www.today.com

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I have almost no clue of how to live an ecological lifestyle to some exceptions. I don’t throw stuff in the streets or anywhere for that matter; when people leave empty bottles or plastic bags at the beach, we pick them up to throw them in a bin. I don’t like to use toxic cleaning products, and I’d rather walk than taking the car when it’s not required. As you can see, it’s not much and very basic.

I started wondering how it could work here, where the recent development of the island has conducted the country to adopt the bad habits of industrial countries. I remember that maybe 2 years ago, long before I heard about zero waste, it was lunch time and I brought my bento box. There was no dessert and I was craving for something sweet. Since there is a supermarket 2 minutes from the office, I went there to take a fruit or cookies. I opted for a tangerine. I approached the lady that weighed fruits and vegetables and I gave her the tangerine. She said to me: “No”. I asked her what did she mean by “no” and I explained to her, that I wanted to buy the tangerine. She replied to me she understood but she couldn’t weigh the tangerine. Why so? Because I didn’t put it in a plastic bag. So I politely insisted telling her it was one tangerine, only one, that she could weigh it and put the label on the tangerine. She still refused, and told me, for hygienic reasons it was the supermarket policy not to weigh fruit or vegetable outside of a plastic bag. I didn’t want to bother her while working and did what she asked.

You can now imagine how skeptical I am although I admire people like Bea or others embracing this lifestyle. Could it work here? Could we do a quarter of what she does? I truly don’t know. I think it is a fantastic project, way of living, but there is reality. There is no bulk store in Mauritius. Well, you can find some groceries in bulk but you won’t find everything in bulk, and the things we can find are not at the same place. When you work minimum 45 hours per week + lunch time + transport time and your work time can rise to 60 or more hours, when you already find difficult to manage your time to go to gym or write a post on your blog, is it really sustainable to run everywhere on the island to buy your different products in bulk? I don’t think so, and it would also be a waste of petrol. A better option would be to shop at the local market, where we can buy a lot of food and bring our bags and jars. Yet, there is a lot of traffic during weekends and we don’t have much time to spend in traffic and in the market.

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Market of Quatre Bornes, near where we live. Source : Jounayd M

As far as I dug into my reflection, I realized that I was only finding excuses and was not very proactive in my approach. I admitted that I am not Bea, a member of her family or any kind of person willing to entirely commit to this lifestyle. Nonetheless, the goal being to produce less waste, I figured that any step we can make, is good enough.

How is this affecting my family- our small contribution…

In relation to the 5Rs.

Refuse: I generally refuse to consume with no reason, and I try not to find reason to consume. Sometimes it’s not that easy for Ashwin, but we both try to improve.

Reduce: We have decided to adopted new habits, more environmental friendly. From now on, we won’t by paper towels and Kleenexes, but use napkins and tissues. Exit tampons and pads, I have a lady cup. Now that I feel concerned, I’ll try to buy my fruits and vegetables in tissue bags with no plastic around. I am going to buy very big bottles of shampoo and shower gel (of 1 litre), to throw less plastic bottles. We also have a hybrid vehicle since 6 months, so we reduce our petrol consumption.

Reuse: From time to time we buy second hand books, electronic goods, some stuff we need; but we also like new. However, I won’t give to the bin anymore stuff that may still be used. I shall sell or give away everything.

Recycle: This one is the most difficult where I live, because we only have returnable bottles and glass that are recycled. The rest: plastic, wood, etc… go all into the same waste container. This is really too bad and sad. That’s why we shall take example on Bea and avoid the best we can to produce garbage.

Rot: Nothing to say. We won’t do anything about that.

In conclusion, I feel happy we attended this conference, I want to participate in making a greener planet, but I don’t feel pressure. I don’t think because I can’t do so  much more it’s a waste of time and that it’s better to do nothing than a few efforts. Any effort, any progress that we make count, don’t you think?

If you want to read more about Bea Jonhson (you can also find videos on youtube):

http://www.zerowastehome.com/

If you are thinking to adopt a greener lifestyle or if you already are quite an expert on the subject, I’ll be very glade to exchange with you on your experience. For us, it’s just a beginning…

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