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Johnson advocates for zero waste living

“What does it mean to live in a ‘Zero Waste Home’?” asked Bea Johnson, grand prize winner of the Green Awards, at a Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering lecture this past Thursday. Johnson held up a small mason jar filled with scraps to the audience. “This is all the waste my family produced in 2015,” she said. Immediately, the audience was shocked, but as Johnson began explaining her finely adapted lifestyle, the concept of her sustainability ceased to be a surprise.

Bea Johnson is the author of the bestselling book Zero Waste Home, an incredibly detailed guide to maintaining a sustainable, earth-friendly lifestyle. She has two younger sons, and lives with her husband and their chihuahua. Their family has been living with the idea of zero waste since 2008.

Johnson admits that zero waste was not their original goal. Their sustainable lifestyle began with them watching documentaries like Slow Death by Rubber Duck, which led to Johnson and her husband’s “environmental awakening.” Their motivation, Johnson said, came from seeing the “future they would leave their kids,” which pushed her and her spouse to adopt a “voluntary simplicity” mindset. The initial steps were tricky. Johnson’s husband, Scott, created a sustainability company, while Johnson learned to can tomatoes each summer. Johnson then tried to find alternatives for her common household products. For example, she had heard that stinging nettle could substitute for lip plumper, which unfortunately resulted in some hilariously painful results. She also considered moss as a substitute for toilet paper, but did not realize that dried moss would be completely ineffective. Eventually, she uncovered a new strategy to her minimalist lifestyle.

Johnson now advocates for The Five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (specifically in that order). The first step to achieving a less wasteful lifestyle is refusing what you do not need. Johnson has found that refusing to take business cards, promotional items, and even free pens at conferences significantly cuts down the clutter in their home. Her family refuses to partake in non-green practices and has even found a way to fully eliminate junk mail (really).

The second “R” is reducing what we do need. Most Americans have a habit of buying excess and then throwing away what they do not use. Johnson has opted instead for a minimalist lifestyle, only consuming what she absolutely needs. She gave the example of her kitchen utensils, where she used to own ten wooden spoons. Eventually she realized “I’m only stirring with one hand at a time.” She then sold back nine spoons to the market and has not regretted the decision since. Johnson claims that “the beauty of decluttering allows for goods to be put back on the market and gives access to others.” Johnson’s family has also eliminated all their toxic cleaning products and can clean the entirety of their home using white vinegar and castile soap. Minimalism has infiltrated every aspect of their lifestyle. Johnson herself only owns five to six skirts and shirts, all versatile enough to be both casual and formal. Sticking to only leather shoes, she can easily get them repaired at a shoe shop, while her sons donate their used tennis shoes to a recycling program. She no longer buys manufactured cosmetic items, and instead creates them using natural ingredients from around her house.

By swapping disposable items for a reusable alternative, the third “R,” Johnson has drastically extended the lifetime of every product she owns. She uses a wooden brush instead of a sponge to clean her dishes, which lasts for 2­-3 years. By substituting handkerchiefs for tissues, cloth for plastic wrap, and glass for disposables, nothing is ever thrown away. In fact, her family only buys secondhand items, even furniture, to give everything a new life. What you cannot end up refusing, reducing, or reusing, Johnson said, you must recycle.

The fourth “R” is the one we are most familiar with. Recycling bottles of wine and school papers is elementary when considering that Johnson’s family only purchases metal, glass, wood or cardboard goods so it is guaranteed that those items can be recycled. “The problem with plastics,” Johnson states, “is that they are often recycled into un-recyclable items — like a park bench.” Thus, her family avoids purchasing plastic at all costs.

Finally, anything that the first four “Rs” can not take care of, must composted. Living in California has its perks, as Johnson can simply take biodegradable items to a curbside composting bin. Nearly everything, from hair to floor sweepings to dryer lint, is compostable if you think about it.

At the end of the day, Johnson seems like a green energy superwoman. She is living and succeeding in a lifestyle many of us could hardly consider. However, there are stigmas surrounding her lifestyle, she claimed. Many people assume she does not work a full -time job, though she does, and that she hand crafts everything, though she only hand crafts her makeup. In fact, the zero waste lifestyle has allowed her family to save 40 percent of their budget. A minimalist lifestyle plus an increase in savings has allowed the family to focus on experiences and not things. By renting out their home during vacations, the Johnsons are able to go on some incredible bond-building journeys which have kept them happy and healthy. When asked if Johnson regrets anything about her lifestyle shift, her only response was “not starting sooner.”