088: Bea Johnson: The Priestess of Waste-Free Living (transcript)

September 19, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

Bea Johnson

This conversation is about joy, clean pure fun, deeper relationships, greater self-awareness, our highest values. It’s the opposite of what results from the treadmill of mainstream life built on comfort and convenience. When you live by your values in a world that doesn’t, you move from the mainstream. That happens to leaders. That could be lonely but it’s also forging ahead. That’s the opportunity and challenge for those of us who love a clean, pure world and care about how we affect others. Then you meet people who have been doing it longer and have reached where you haven’t. They become your role models. Bea Johnson is one example. She’s my guest today. She has avoided creating garbage for years longer than I have. She’s written a book Zero Waste Home on how to do it. Since I know you’re wondering what are the details, how do I do this, how to do that, she spells it all out, makes it easy. She did the hard work so you don’t have to. She’s done several TED talks, many instructional and inspirational videos. I’ll link to them as much as I can. Please binge on them. On a personal note, I have to say it feels great to be part of a growing community. I knew it was out there. It’s very comfortable to feel supported, to feel I’m not alone. And you will not feel alone. You’ll feel part of that growing community as well. It’s only hard to start. Once you start, it’s natural.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Bea Johnson. How are you?

Bea: Good. How are you doing?

Joshua: I’m very good. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation ever since I first saw you online and if it’s OK with you I’d like to introduce the listeners if they haven’t heard about you a little bit of how I met you and then give you a chance to share a little bit, if that’s OK.

Bea: Yeah.

Joshua: So, on my end, the listeners know that I’ve been avoiding packaged food for a while and I’ve been very happy for a while that I’ve reduced my garbage a lot and so I haven’t thrown out my household garbage in… It will be 14 months in a couple of days since I’ve thrown my garbage. And people keep saying, “Oh, that’s so good.” And the longer I go without throwing stuff away, the more I realize it’s still a lot and I’m not particularly proud to have less garbage than a typical American. It’s not a particularly high standard to hold yourself to. And that’s where you came in. I guess I was talking to people The Story of Stuff and I saw that you gave a Google talk, you’re on a panel there, and your amount of garbage, on my computer screen right now there’s a picture of a mason jar and it says, “My family’s trash for 2017” and it’s significantly less, way less than I do and that’s the standard that I really like. And so you’ve been doing it longer. You’ve been through a lot of things that haven’t and you’ve become, sorry to put this on you, you’ve become a role model for me.

Bea: Thank you.

Joshua: You’re welcome, and thank you. I think I have more to thank you for. And I’m really interested in… Partly, I don’t want to have you answer stuff, I don’t want to bore you. And there’s plenty of videos and I encourage people to binge on the videos, read the book, read your blog, she’s story and she’s got lots of stuff to share. But, first, here’s my first question if it’s OK with you is I bet that it’s a lot about the environment but I bet it’s a lot more than the environment. Is that right? What is keeping you motivated? Why you do this?

Bea: Yeah. We’ve been able to stick to a zero-waste lifestyle for more than a decade because we found that this lifestyle has a way more than positive impact on the environment to offer. We found that this lifestyle is also healthier for us and eliminating all toxic products from our lives. For example, we use white vinegar to clean on my skin. I use food items. Basically, we have discovered all the healthier lifestyle so we’ve eliminated all toxic products from our life so we are way less sick than before. The second advantage is that we are saving a huge amount of money with this. My husband calculated… He compared these bank statements between the zero-waste lifestyle and the lifestyle before zero-waste and he found that we were saving 40 percent on our overall budget. That’s from the fact that when we consume way, way, way, way, way less than before but also if we buy something, it’s only to replace what needs to be replaced and when we buy that replacement we buy secondhand which obviously costs less. But we also buy our food unpackaged. When you buy something that is packaged 15 percent of the price or more is going to cover all the costs of the packaging so when you buy unpackaged you make automatic financial saving. But we’ve also replaced anything that is disposable for a reusable alternative. So that translates into huge cumulative savings over time and that means that we’re no longer throwing our money away. If you buy something that is single-use, you’re obviously buying it, using it, throwing it out. So you’re literally throwing your money away. So we replaced all these products for reusables so this translated into those cumulative savings which have allowed us to also install solar panels on our roof and a great water system which we use the water from the shower and the washing machines to irrigate our plants. But to me the best advantage of this lifestyle is the simple life. By definition when you live simply it does not take more time. It makes time in your life for what matters most to you. And it’s really thanks to zero waste that we’ve been able to discover a life that is based on experiences instead of things. So ultimately, we’ve discovered and improved our standard of living, a life that is based on being instead of having.

Joshua: You said so much there. The first thing I got to ask. Did I hear you right? 40 percent savings?

Bea: Yes, four zero.

Joshua: So it’s almost like a double pay because I mean that’s a huge amount. You described a lot of changes. And I presume but I don’t want to assume that it didn’t all happen at once. It probably took…If some people say, “Oh, that’s too much for me to do.” Did you do that all at once? Did your husband [unintelligible] from the start or…

Bea: Yes, as I described in my book Zero Waste Home it was a gradual change. So what happened to us is in 2006 we were living in a house where that house was on a [unintelligible], in a place where we had to drive to go anywhere, to go to the grocery stores, schools, restaurants and we missed the life that we had known in the big cities we have lived in. We had lived in London, Amsterdam, Paris where we were used to walking and biking everywhere. So we decided to relocate but before finding the right house though we rented an apartment for one year and we only moved in with the necessities. We put the rest in storage. And during that year that we discovered that when you live with less then you have more time and more time to do what’s important to you.

So when we did find the right house in the town that interested us, we got everything out of storage and there we found that 80 percent of the stuff we had put in there, we hadn’t even missed a whole year. So we let go of them. And it’s thanks to the simplicity that we also found time to read books and watch documentaries on environmental issues and what we discovered made my husband and I really quite sad, thinking about the future that we as parents were creating for them, the future that we were going to leave behind. And that’s what gave us the motivation to change. So first, we watched our energy consumption and our water consumption. And then I started turning towards our trash. In trying to find solutions to reduce it I found the term zero waste which back then it was a term that was only used to describe waste management at a city level, the city of Capannori used it first, it’s in Italy and it was a tool to defend themselves against the implementation of an incinerator. But it was also a term that was used in the manufacturing world. So it was not a term that was used at all to describe something you do at home. But when I saw that term though the light bulb went on in my head and gave me a goal. Because if you don’t have the goal of yours, then what is your goal in your waste reduction? Is it medium waste, a little bit of waste, almost your waste? If you don’t have the goal, then you know you won’t go anyway. But with that goal [unintelligible] it really gave me a picture and something to aim for. But there were no books, no blogs, no guide on how to achieve zero at home. So I had to test a lot of things. I googled a lot. I picked up the phone, called my mom, my mother-in-law, my grandma and asked them how they did in the past. But ultimately, we found alternative that we could see ourselves sticking to in the long run. And that’s when zero waste became a lifestyle.

Joshua: One of the things that really annoys me about environmental movement I think a lot of people… A lot of people are trying to share guilt or they are trying to say, “Oh, it’s doom and gloom stuff.” And your message is… I don’t hear that at all. In fact, I feel like you’re sharing joy and meaning and purpose and discovery.

Bea: Yeah, exactly. I give talks all over the world and one of the places I gave when I was actually in a small village in France. It was on a rainy day. It was in a tiny little place in the middle of the week. And two hundred and fifty people came to my talk and an organization, an environmental organization came to me after and they asked me like, “How the heck did you manage to gather 250 people when we have tried to push people to adopt the more environmentally friendly kind of living? And you know here you come and you show up and you know you get all these people to actually listen to you.” And my reply to them was, “You know I don’t know if you noticed but in my talk I only mentioned the word environment twice. Everything else is about how with this lifestyle we can improve our standard of living.” If you’re doing it only for the environment, you’re not going to be… If it’s not good for you and you’re only doing it for the environment, then you won’t stick to it. Maybe it will be a challenge or a short- term kind of experiment for you but when you adopt this as a lifestyle, then you really have to embrace change that is feasible, that makes you happy and very importantly that you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life.” Zero waste becomes a lifestyle when you let it simplify your life, not complicate it.

Joshua: For me, you know my podcast is called Leadership and the Environment and I feel like almost everyone, I feel like all they hear is “blah blah blah and the environment”. Because whenever they suggest, “Hey, Josh, here’s some [unintelligible] on your podcast,” it always turn out it’s never a leader. And for me the main thing is the leadership part is that’s what gives meaning and purpose and joy and discovery and leading yourself. And I feel people miss that and that’s what I think is the most important part is to make it something that people really enjoy, something that people want to share.

Bea: You know it’s normal that when you do start paying attention to your trash you’re going to be judgmental towards the world and the trash had been created, the disposable cups that people are carrying and the straws that they are using and the plastic bags that they are carrying that you know a bag in but people will be drawn to the zero-waste lifestyle for lots of different reasons. Some of them are being simply drawn because we’ve given a face to the zero-waste lifestyle and they like that face. They’ve decided that that’s what they also wanted to do. But other people get started for health reasons. Let’s say someone in their family has cancer and then they look for other causes of cancer and they find that it’s the products that’s around us, the things that we put in our bodies. And then they’ll look for solutions and they found that zero waste brings that to them. Other people will start for financial reasons. You know they have a tight budget and then they start looking at ways to save money and they find zero waste brings the solution. But some other people you know even if let’s say you don’t have cancer, you’re pretty healthy and you do have a lot of money, then typically people that are tend to be drawn to zero waste are people that then will be looking to save time in their schedules, then that’s again what zero waste can do.

But as soon as you start paying attention to your trash then you see it everywhere. The first time I brought my own personal cup to the coffee shop I saw all the disposable cups that people carried around me and I got angry and I thought you know, “Why don’t they do like me?” But as I adopted a zero-waste lifestyle to the maximum of my capabilities and I think we’ve pretty much done so by you know our family of four produces just half a litter which is a pint of trash per year. We found that you know we’ve reached you know our maximum capabilities and in doing so we found peace with the world, we found peace with what other people are doing and we realized that after all these people carrying the disposable cups were me not so long ago. I have no right to judge them. Maybe they haven’t clicked for zero waste but one day they will. And I know that every time I live my zero-waste lifestyle in public, every time I bring my own containers to the grocery store, you know on the plane or you know at the coffee shop, then I have the power to inspire someone else to do the same.

Joshua: You know you chose to be very public about it and there are a lot of people who are off the grid and they just live a life totally independent of the world, they are not really making a big deal out of it. And for you to go in public, among other things, yes, you’re sharing this, you are opening yourself to a lot criticism, I would imagine. And was that a scary process? Was it easy for you to decide to take a leadership role? It sounds like [unintelligible] didn’t have to when you decided.

Bea: Yes. So what happened was that we were already living a zero-waste lifestyle. We had told our friends that this was a goal for us. But people around us did not know what it meant of course because no one else was doing that. So there was an acquaintance that showed up on my doorstep for dinner with a box filled with pastries individually wrapped. And I thought you know, “What is this person thinking? We’ve told her that we were doing zero-waste. What does she think we’re going to do with that stuff? Like does she think we’re going to recycle it? Or maybe she thinks that we will bury our trash and throw it in someone else’s skin.” I don’t know what she was thinking but that night I decided to start a blog. I told my husband that it was important to share at least the solutions we found and so that people understood really what zero-waste was all about but at first it was really just aimed at my friends and my family so they would stop bringing in things into my home.

But my husband was a little bit, you know he kind of was cautious about it and said, “You know what? You’re going to expose yourself to mainstream, you’re going to attract a ton of criticism.” But I kind of ignored what he said and I felt that it was important to share all the solutions that we have found with other people so people interested in the subject could do the same. But I of course never imagined that the blog eventually would get picked up by the New York Times who then called me the priestess of waste-free living and you know a lot of great fun. But at the same time, you know we received a ton of criticism of course as expected again because people do not know what zero-waste lifestyle meant. In reading the article they felt that we were telling them how to live their life and it’s never ever been our goal. We are not here to tell anyone how to live their life. We’re not here to tell everyone, “Oh, you got to adopt a zero-waste life.” No. We are only here to you know to talk about what we’ve discovered through this life, to talk about our journey. If it inspires people, great. If it doesn’t, too bad. But ultimately, I think this message has resonated in a lot of people and that’s how a movement was launched. Of course, you know we still get a lot of criticism for the fact that we meet on occasion, from the fact that we use toilet paper, from the fact that we do have a car and that we also fly, especially for my speaking engagements everywhere. But it’s you know no matter what you do, you’ll get criticized but you know it was kind of easy for us to turn off this criticism by one, learn not to read them and two, by just knowing that what we are doing is right for us and that’s all that matters.

Joshua: Yeah. I know when this blog emerged from a lot of years of me reducing and things like that. And then what really was Trump got elected and I thought, “I just [unintelligible] what he was going to do for the environment wasn’t going to be aligned with what I thought was best.” And immediately I thought, “If I start going out there, people are going to criticize me, [unintelligible] on me, I thought of the Koch brothers, they are going to smear me. But if I get to the place where the Koch brothers paying attention to me, I’m going to be pretty happy about that.” And I’m still scared because if you put yourself out there, you can get attacked. All this stuff online is a lot about zero-waste stuff and the leadership part is I’m really interested to hear about that because that’s the way I’m [unintelligible] to speak. How do people respond? I mean you work in so many different ways because you speak and you blog and there’s the book. What have you found to be effective? How did it evolve?

Bea: Well, when you do the kind of work I do people tend to come up with lots of other ideas for you. So they are like, “Well, why don’t you open your own unpackaged store? Why don’t you work with politicians? Why don’t you launch this product or this product?” And you know like I only have 24 hours in a day like everyone else and I also talk about that in the book that once you adopt a zero-waste lifestyle and you’ve done what you can in your home, then you of course you want to spread the movement as far and wide as you can. But then it’s up to you to figure out where your strengths are to grow this movement. So if you’re someone that likes to organize events, then organize talks or workshops. If you’re someone that does like politics, then yeah, become one and then become a politician and try to change policies. If you like nonprofits or like working in them, then open or start your non-profit around that.

But in my case, I found that my best tool is the speaking engagement. And that’s why I do give them all over the world. Of course, I am aware that this has an impact on my carbon footprint but when you see the amount of people that are at the talks and also the attention that I receive from the national media wherever I go, that of course has a positive impact and to me it’s well worth going to give my talks. You know I have found I’m really happy with the path that I have taken that to me using my strength to the best of my capabilities and people will feel very clearly when they come through my talks that I don’t really have a filter. So I am here to talk about whatever problem we encountered and the solutions we found and really encourage people to ask me whatever question goes to their head because I’m sure when they’re sitting there they are saying, “Oh, what about those flights? What about that [unintelligible]? What about this? What about that?” But I want them to ask those questions because of course every aspect of our lifestyle has been you know thought out, that’s what you call conscious living in a way. So it’s very important I think to share the fails, to share the successes so that people can understand that this lifestyle is not all zero-waste is not a competition. Zero-waste is a journey and of course you know there will be some falls but then you know they open successes. So it’s important to be very transparent about all goals.


Joshua: To me the self-awareness is one of the biggest things like you don’t always… Speaking for myself [unintelligible] things that you never expected. I think my recycling decreased more than my landfill. You talked about it about how it… You know reduce, reuse, recycle and you have before it’s first refuse and it’s so weird my view of recycling is… Basically recycling to me is like 90 percent the same as garbage, maybe 10 percent not and it puts me [unintelligible] with so many people. It’s like hard to explain.

Bea: Yeah and I did a whole TEDx talk on that because it’s you know if I go to a party and people find out through other people that I am the zero-waste lady and they like to come to me and they like to tell me, “Well, you know we recycle everything too.” And that actually I have to jump on that and say, “Well, actually yours is not about recycling more, it’s about recycling less by preventing waste from coming into your home in the first place.” We’ve been indeed told that recycling… I mean we’ve been fed this for a year that recycling was the answer but it really isn’t. And you know that this comes from of course recyclers [unintelligible] on this or you know basically the waste management companies. They want to put their hands on the recycled raw materials because they can of course then turn around and sell it and they charge you to pick it up.

So if you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense. Packaging is something that you as a consumer are buying, again like 15 percent of the cost of you know something you buy covers the cost of the packaging, in the case of laundry detergent is 70 percent that cover the cost of the packaging. So this is something which you know the consumer buys, then he puts in a can, actually typically in a liner which we would have also purchased to then pay for a trash pickup. So you pay the packaging, you pay for it to get picked up and then you give away the material for them to turn around and sell to recyclers. And then once it’s in their hands you have no idea what becomes to the item and that’s the power of my 5 R’s. When you follow my 5 R’s in order – one refuse, two reduce, three reuse and four recycle, so recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce and reuse. Then you are you’re taking a step, you are in control, it’s with the first three R’s that you are in control of the item. Once it leaves your household you have no idea what will come to it.

Joshua: It’s so easy. I try to share with people that it’s like putting on a seatbelt. When I was a kid people didn’t do it. And now we don’t think about it, you just do it without thinking about it. It’s that easy. Although there is a transition that to create these habits. Once you’re in it, you just want to go more and more. In my experience is that you want to go more and more and more.

Bea: Yes. It becomes addictive of course because less stuff you have, I mean especially for us, we are extreme minimalists but the less stuff I had, the better I felt but to a level where once I was done with my house I just wanted to help other people do it because it felt so good, so freeing. And you know my wardrobe today is a capsule wardrobe, 15 pieces, and people ask me all the time especially women, “But aren’t you drawn to other things from the store when you walk down the street or when you look at magazines?” And then I say, “Well, no, actually because, one, I know that living with less has allowed me to do so much more.” The fact that my wardrobe of 15 pieces fits in a carry-on means that when I have to travel I don’t have to ask myself what should I bring with me because I can bring it all. But it’s also if we want to go away for a weekend, a week or a month we can just pack up our wardrobes and go on vacation while people rent a house and pay for vacations. But it’s also I’m not drawn to buying more because when you adopt a zero-waste lifestyle you acquire a selective vision. Personally, when I enter a store I no longer see what’s available to me packaged. I only see what’s available to me unpackaged. And if I walk down the street, my eyes are no longer attracted to stuff or to new clothing or new trends or new shoes. It’s rather attracted to services, it’s attracted to unpackaged food in the windows maybe or maybe a secondhand shop, just in case.

And the fact that when you adopt a simple life you also curb your exposure, you control your exposure to advertisements. And living simply we’ve canceled magazines and catalogs, turned off TV and now we of course we do have a TV screen but it’s just connected to Netflix so we’re streaming things. But in the end, we have curbed our exposure to advertisement and in doing so of course we’ve become happier. Advertisements are only created to make you want things that you didn’t want before looking at that advertisement. This consumer society was created by manufacturers who hired powerful marketers to create this fictitious. But as soon as you adopt a zero-waste lifestyle you realize that you’ve been duped. They’ve promised time savings and financial savings but as soon as you, again, eliminate waste and consumption and all of a sudden you realize that OK, all this was fake. When you cancel or again curb your exposure to advertisement all of a sudden no longer have fictitious needs created for you. All of a sudden, you’re happy with what you are, what you do and no longer do you feel that you have to have that little yellow pillow on your couch just to make your environment or your household trendy.

Joshua: Man, we have a limited time for this conversation and it pains me to not continue. I would love to continue this conversation and I hope if you pass through New York City, I would love to have you for my famous no-packaging vegetable stews. And I just discovered you a little while ago. As I mentioned, you’ve become a role model partly for the zero waste but really for what the zero-waste brings – the joy and all these rewarding emotions that you’ve shared. And thank you very much. The last thing I really would like to ask is if there is anything I didn’t bring up or is there any message that you want to leave the listeners with?

Bea: Well, again, I’m not here to tell anyone how to live their life but my job is to shatter all the misconceptions associated with this lifestyle. And I hope that people that have never heard of the term zero-waste and actually even those that kind of have but don’t really know what it’s about, I want them to understand that zero-waste is the complete opposite of what they think it is. Zero-waste is not depriving, it’s the complete opposite. When you adopt this lifestyle you not only discover, again, health benefits but also huge financial savings but ultimately, you’ll be able to discover all that life that is based on being instead of having. And once you get started all you regret is not having started earlier. It opens your mind on the alternatives, on a life that you never thought was possible. You know zero waste is a little bit like… I’ll give that image of Matrix you know if people have seen The Matrix, maybe they’ll be able to identify with this but in The Matrix, in the movie The Matrix, Neo has the choice between a blue pill and a red pill and the blue pill is to stay in the world that he already knows. And the red pill is to go into an unknown world that is scary because you know he doesn’t know how to defend himself in it but Neo is quite a strong guy and he’s got balls. So he goes for the red pill. But in taking that red pill, then thrown into this world that is very scary, again, he doesn’t know how to fight in it and he gets hammered, he gets shot. But as he becomes more and more comfortable with this new world then he becomes stronger and stronger and stronger and then at the end of the movie he’s on top of his domain and he kind of has a smirk on his face thinking back of the life that he used to know, the world that he used to know.

The zero-waste lifestyle is a little bit like that for us. You know we decided to go for zero-waste and of course we didn’t have the solutions at first, you know it was very difficult. We didn’t know how to get our bearings. We had a lot of fails. But then as we got stronger and stronger and stronger and we became you know king of our domain and now you know we would never think of going back to the way we used to live before. So I would encourage people to have… I know the term zero waste can be daunting, it can be scary and extreme but it’s not as extreme and scary as you think it is. It’s actually a lot of what we talk about is what our grandparents used to do. They are very simple things that have been forgotten with the consumer society. And once you bring those things back into your life you will regain life. You will discover again a life that you wish you had known before.

Joshua: Wow, that was amazing. Bea, thank you very much. And now everyone should, if they’re on my page, scroll down and have all the links to your book, to your blog, to your page, to your videos. And I urge everyone to go binge on all these things and then I hope follow in your footsteps. Thank you very much.

Bea: Well, thank you so much. Joshua.


Is there any doubt how easy, fun and rewarding zero waste becomes when you get into it? Yes, starting is challenging but that passes fast. Did she sound like she was working hard? I don’t think she’s trying anymore. She’s just living that way. And as she said she’s getting addicted to it. She wants to do more and more because it’s more and more freedom, more and more relationships, more and more family. I put to you that whatever your values – cleanliness, not throwing money away, relationships, community, simplicity, family, peace and so on, I’d bet that Bea at least gives you a run for the money living by that value. If not beats you. That’s what being a role model means. So if you’re still listening, start with something. You don’t have to start with everything, you don’t have to start where she is. You develop the skills and soon you’ll arrive where she has. Now, by then she’ll have moved on to something else and you’ll catch up to her again later.

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