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Bea Johnson has mastered the art of living completely waste-free. In a year, she and her family of four, living in California, produce no more than a pint-sized jar of rubbish. From avoiding plastic straws to making her own toothpaste, Bea has become an expert in the 5 Rs – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot – and with her blog and bestselling book, Zero Waste Home, she’s launched a worldwide movement, inspiring people to reduce their waste, save money, and live better. Here in Ireland, a Zero Waste community is forming, and as Irish attitudes to waste, consumption, and the obsession with “stuff” begin to shift, Bea’s no-nonsense way of living is being embraced by thousands of people across the country. But can this minimalist lifestyle really take off here in Ireland, or is just for California dreamers?
Packed into a lecture hall at Dublin’s Trinity College, hundreds of people have gathered to hear Bea Johnson talk about intimate details of her life – everything from how she washes her hair to how she shops for school supplies for her kids – hoping to pick up some tips from the guru herself on how to waste less, and live more.
Bea starts by taking us on a tour of her house: photos of vast, light-filled rooms and clutter-free countertops elicit gasps from the audience. The master bedroom houses nothing but a bed, and Bea’s perfect capsule wardrobe consists of only a couple of dozen items. As if this weren’t already remarkable, even her two teenagers have immaculate bedrooms: “What do teenagers today need?” Bea asks, revealing a photo of a desk with nothing on it but a laptop and a pair of headphones. The kitchen is stocked with fresh produce from the farmers’ market, and sturdy glass jars which Bea takes to the supermarket, filling them directly from the bulk refill aisles to avoid the need for packaged goods. In the bathroom, a simple bar of soap, safety razor, and stainless steel nail file are the only grooming tools the family need. Store-bought toiletries and cosmetics are replaced with Bea’s homemade versions, from baking soda anti-perspirant to cocoa powder bronzer. This ultra-minimalist, back-to-basics approach continues throughout the family home, which is so sparse of possessions that the Johnsons can rent it out while they’re away; a savvy form of income that means holidays pay for themselves. And there’s no need for decisions on what to pack: Bea, her husband, and their two sons can each fit their entire wardrobe into a single carry-on suitcase.
It might all seem too perfect to be real, a cynicism that Bea seems accustomed to dispelling as she reassures us that there is no hidden cupboard of secret junk; even their garage – known in most homes as the “sure, just lash it in there for now” room – is completely empty but for four bicycles suspended from one wall. But it hasn’t been easy for Bea and her family to get to this point; as she continues the virtual tour of her life, she lets us in on a few learning experiences that were far from glamorous, regaling us with horror stories of homemade lip-plumping techniques gone awry and husband-repelling haircare experiments. Despite her hilariously down-to-earth anecdotes of trial and error – relatable to anyone who’s ever had a Pinterest fail – Bea’s uncluttered, rubbish-free life can seem intimidatingly unachievable for the vast majority of people, with the average Irish household producing 1000kg of waste every year. But interest in this lifestyle is growing in Ireland, even beyond the crowd of self-identified “zero wasters” attending Bea’s talk, some of whom who have travelled as far as Cork for the exclusive event. A Facebook group called Zero Waste Ireland, currently boasting over 4000 members from all over the country, is a burgeoning community where like-minded people can exchange tips, offer support, and share resources. It was the determined enthusiasm of this blossoming group that brought Bea Johnson to Dublin, after members contacted her about coming to Ireland to speak. Although Bea regularly does tours around Europe – which have seen her visit zero waste communities from Amsterdam to Budapest, and even speak at the European Parliament and the United Nations – this is her first time in Ireland since adopting her Zero Waste mission. It’s a visit which she hopes will prompt the opening of an ‘unpackaged store’, where goods are sold without any packaging and customers bring their own containers to fill from bulk bins. Several of these stores have opened across Europe, inspired by Bea’s way of life: “It’s usually what happens when I go to a country and do a speech for the first time… so let’s cross our fingers!”
Bea jokes about the “crunchy granola” stereotype that is often associated with anyone trying to live a more eco-conscious life, but in her skinny jeans and slick leather jacket, she’s far from what most people expect of an environmental expert. The New York Times may have dubbed her the Priestess of Zero Waste, but Bea has no intention of telling people how to live their lives. Her mission is simple: “to shatter the misconceptions associated with this lifestyle”, she tells me in a Skype interview prior to her arrival in Dublin, “This is actually my vocation. To show that to live a Zero Waste lifestyle you don’t have to be a hippy”.
Misconception #1: Ireland doesn’t have bulk
Of course, you need not be a die-hard “zero waster” to reduce the amount of waste you produce. Even something as simple as being more mindful of packaged products on your weekly shop can help divert tonnes of non-recyclable plastic from landfill. While in Ireland we may not enjoy vast aisles of “bulk” refill stations such as the ones Bea frequents back home, it’s easier than you might think to buy loose, unpackaged items. “Bulk is everywhere,” Bea tells me, “When you’re living a zero waste lifestyle, you develop a selective vision for bulk”. She recalls how on a trip to Iceland, locals told her no bulk options were available to them, even though every petrol station had unpackaged, self-serve snacks that her children excitedly filled their cloth bags with.
Many supermarkets such as Lidl and Tesco have self-serve bins filled with bread, pastry items, even nuts and pick ‘n’ mix. Bringing a cloth bag or an old jam jar can replace the need to use those flimsy polythene bags. For things like meat, cheese, baked goods, and more, many local businesses will accommodate customers who bring their own containers (check out our list of friendly vendors at the bottom of this article). On-the-go options like coffee and donuts, even takeaways like Indian food, are another opportunity to Bring Your Own. Requesting food to be put in your own container can seem daunting at first, but is actually a great conversation starter, and helps you build up a positive relationship with your favourite eateries and shops.
Avoiding waste doesn’t mean avoiding delicious! I’m always pleased when people react positively to my reusable containers, and today one of the staff at @offbeatdonuts was all over it, and even said she’d like to start using a jar too. Yay! ?#coffeejarchronicles #zerowaste #adventuresinpackaging #plasticpollutes
Misconception #2: Unpackaged items are more expensive
As with many lifestyles revolving around wellness, there is somewhat of a stigma that living consciously is something only the well-off can afford to do; the farmers’ market generally conjures up images of yummy mummies and middle class hipsters stocking up on organic asparagus and designer quinoa. And while there may be some truth in that, opting for loose produce needn’t be an elitist or expensive experience, with even budget outlets like Lidl and Aldi offering many fruit and vegetables completely unpackaged. Paying close attention to everything you put in your shopping basket makes it easier to identify wasteful habits: do bananas really need to be put in a polythene bag? Are those plastic-wrapped tomatoes really better than the unpackaged ones, or are they just more convenient to grab off the shelf?
While it may seem baffling when a three-pack of bell peppers is cheaper than a single, loose pepper, going for what seems like the better deal may not work out cheaper in the long run. Studies have shown that special offers create the illusion of saving you money but actually lead to higher spending, and Bea says this behaviour leads to more wastage, too: “If you buy a huge container of shampoo, you’re like ‘Eh, it doesn’t matter, it wasn’t expensive, so I can put a lot on my hand, I can drop some in the shower, it doesn’t matter.’ When you pay a little more, you actually gain a respect for the item and you end up wasting way less.” And the proof is in the pudding: Bea’s family has seen a 40% decrease in their annual spending as a result of this more conscious approach to consumption.
Misconception #3: Consumers can’t make a difference, manufacturers are to blame
Eliminating waste from your life is about more than which products you buy. In fact, it’s as much about what you don’t buy: Bea’s methodology for living waste-free takes the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra even further by focusing first and foremost on refusing what you do not need. “That’s the first and most important rule, and it’s as simple as learning how to say no. Anyone, no matter where they live, can learn to say no to the things they do not need.” This includes anything you’re offered for free: the plastic straw that comes with your cocktail, the free pen at a convention, even that promotional flyer handed to you in the street. “Today in this consumerist society, we are the target of so many promotional goods,” Bea tells me, “but every time we accept them we are creating a demand to make more, so think twice about accepting anything. Learn how to say no.”
As the first country to implement a levy on plastic bags, Ireland started learning to refuse single-use items more than a decade ago. Introduced in 2002, this policy has had an astounding effect on consumer behaviour, with a decrease in plastic bag usage dropping from 328 bags per capita to just 14 bags per capita. Ireland’s success has been replicated around the world: in little under a year since the 5p levy was introduced in the UK, plastic bag consumption has plummeted by 80%, saving six billion plastic bags. This is proof that legislation can effect real change, so should governments be doing more to discourage retailers and consumers from single use packaging? Despite her fervent anti-waste advocacy, Bea distances herself from any kind of political lobbying: “I’m very careful about this when people ask me about my stance or if I work with politicians. I actually want to separate the Zero Waste lifestyle from being associated with any political party. People expect me to be part of the Green Party, but I don’t want to make any claims on that because I’m just here to say that Zero Waste belongs to everyone, no matter the political party you’re into. We’re all earth citizens and everyone should be concerned about this.”
Indeed, many earth citizens are taking things into their own hands. The #PlasticFreeProduce movement is making waves around the world to campaign against excessive and unnecessary packaging, particularly of food items. Campaigners in Ireland have already seen some success after meetings with big retailers aimed at encouraging them to do away with plastic packaging on fruit and vegetables. After a successful trial run selling unpackaged aubergines, budget retailer Lidl has agreed to continue selling them loose. It may just be one item in one store, but this tiny change amounts to a big win for the campaign; Lidl alone produces 4.5 million plastic bags every year just for their aubergines.
Misconception #4: A lot of waste is simply unavoidable
Saying no to a crappy free pen you’ll never use is one thing, but what about those everyday disposable items that everyone needs, like toiletries, or cleaning products? Here again is an opportunity to save money and cut down on waste. Almost anything you could need in your kitchen or bathroom can be replaced with a reusable version: paper towels, sponges, and tissues can all be replaced by cloths – just throw them in the wash instead of the bin. Stop throwing away plastic (and money) on disposable razors and blades and invest in a double edge safety razor that will last you years. Reusable menstrual products like a menstrual cup or washable sanitary pads can also save you hundreds of euros a year and avoid thousands of tonnes of sanitary waste going to landfill. Even though some of these items might cost a little more upfront, the savings you’ll make over time from not having to replace them is worth the investment.
The second aspect of reusing is buying second hand, which, Bea says, is available to anyone. Charity shops and flea markets are great places to find a bargain for anything from clothes to homewares to books and toys. For those turning their noses up at someone else’s discarded goods, it’s important to remember that second hand doesn’t always mean used. A quick browse on sites like eBay and Adverts.ie will often turn up brand new, still-in-box items like games consoles, musical instruments, kitchen appliances, sports equipment, DVD box sets, and more, all at a reduced price and often open to haggling. These sell-and-swap communities are also a great way to get rid of items you no longer need or use. Extreme decluttering has gained a lot of attention over the past year or so thanks to Marie Kondo’s best-selling minimalist guide The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which encourages people to let go of the items that don’t bring them value or joy. Going through a decluttering process is an important step towards a zero waste life, according to Bea: “No matter where you live, you can do this. When you let go of the things you do not really use or need, you put them back on the market, you make them available for others, so others can have access to them, and these things are, in themselves, valuable resources.”
Another way to reduce and reuse is to rent or borrow items you only need rarely, or for short periods of time. Looking for a book or DVD? Head to your local library. Doing some home improvements? Find a friend or neighbour who will lend you the tools you need. The sharing economy isn’t just for tech companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and Rent the Runway; it has existed for generations, and it’s making a comeback in the form of community-led initiatives like the “Library of Things”, where people can borrow items they need: DIY tools, vacuum cleaners, cookware, camping gear, sewing machines, sports equipment, musical instruments, even Christmas decorations, all available to rent at very low prices.
Zero Waste, minimalism, and related lifestyles all have something in common: they encourage people to adopt – or return to – a mindset where things are not seen as expendable at the first sign of wear and tear. With basic repair skills like sewing a button or rewiring a plug rapidly disappearing from common knowledge, it’s no wonder that when faced with a broken item, people tend to just buy a new one rather than fix it. But disposable culture doesn’t just mean people throwing away more than they used to – it’s literally built into the design of the products we buy; planned obsolescence of things like smartphones, home appliances, and fashion contributes to over 250,000 tonnes of textile and electronic waste generated every year in Ireland.
Thankfully, attitudes are changing, and consumers are starting to shop smarter. BuyMeOnce.com is a directory of products that are built to last, from teddy bears to toolkits, kitchen knives to knitwear. Many of the featured companies offer repair-or-replace services at little to no cost, while products that come with unconditional lifetime guarantees – warranties that cover you for more than just manufacturing defects – are even better. On stage at the Trinity auditorium, Bea shares a story: when her sons needed schoolbags, she bought two second hand Jansport backpacks on eBay. One of them turned out to be a little worse for wear than advertised, but, as Bea discovered, the company’s unconditional lifetime guarantee meant that even though she didn’t buy the item from them originally, she could send it back to be repaired or replaced at no cost.
Reduce, reuse, REPAIR! This R often gets forgotten even though it’s so important. I’ve had these Chelsea boots for 3 years and wear them almost every day, until they’re destroyed! I’ve now had them repaired twice in that time and they always feel brand new, without that painful breaking in to do. For the price of a new pair of cheap, crappy shoes, my cobbler can make these ones last another several years! #supportyourlocals #zerowaste #reduce #reuse #repair
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After her impressive presentation, Bea is joined onstage by three of the talk’s organisers – all active members of the Zero Waste Ireland group – for a Q&A. As Bea fields general questions about living waste-free, Timi, Cecilia, and Laura provide local knowledge about package-free shopping and waste reduction in Ireland, sharing their experiences on everything from using reusable containers at their local Supervalu, to the massive savings they’ve made on bin charges as a result of living a zero waste lifestyle. As the event draws to a close, there’s a buzz of enthusiasm and empowerment in the air that’s palpable. People chat amongst themselves as they make their exit, or queue up for autographs and selfies with Bea, excited and inspired by all they’ve seen and heard tonight. Armed with all this new information – gathered from such a breadth of collective knowledge, experience, and passion – the initial impossibility of living a life anything close to Bea’s is starting to transform into something surprisingly attainable. If anybody in the room arrived with misconceptions about living trash-free, Bea and the Zero Wasters have succeeded in shattering at least a few of them.
Main Image: Bea Johnson with a crowd of Irish zero wasters and organisers Timi, Cecilia & Laura from Trinity College Dublin Environmental Society and the Zero Waste Ireland Facebook group. Source.