Home » Bea Johnson: Two Adults, Two Kids, Zero Waste at TEDxFoggyBottom (Transcript)

Bea Johnson: Two Adults, Two Kids, Zero Waste at TEDxFoggyBottom (Transcript)

Bea Johnson

Here is the full transcript of author Bea Johnson’s TEDx Talk: Two Adults, Two Kids, Zero Waste at TEDxFoggyBotto conference. This event took place on April 23, 2016 at Washington.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Two adults, two kids, zero waste by Bea Johnson at TEDxFoggyBottom


Bea Johnson – Guru of the Zero Waste Movement

The average American generates one ton of waste annually. My family: one jar of waste per year since 2008.

Our journey started back in 2006; we read some books, watched some documentaries. And what my husband and I found really made us sad thinking about the future we were going to leave behind for our kids. So it gave us the will to change our ways.

I got super motivated in trying to find waste-free alternatives. I tried lots of things like canning and those — some things were good ideas; others, not so much.

Canning was a good idea, but I do not recommend using stinging nettle on your lips in lieu of lip plumper. It really hurts, believe me. I do not recommend using moss in lieu of toilet paper either. You see, moss dries, so the next day you end up with — you know those scouring pads? Yes, not very pleasant. I don’t recommend that.

I also tried using “no poo,” which is a way of washing your hair without shampoo. You’re supposed to wet your scalp, massage some baking soda in, and then rinse it with apple cider vinegar. But after six months, let’s just say that the oil of my hair migrated down to here, and I ended up with frizzy ends. Not quite the hairstyle I was looking for.

But I think I hit rock bottom, when one night I went to lay down next to my husband, and he looked over, rolled his eyes, and said, “I am so tired of you smelling like pickled herring, Bea. It’s really not sexy”. So that’s when I realized that maybe I had gone too far, and maybe I should find another alternative to shampoo.

After all this trial and error, we found balance. We found that for Zero Waste to be sustainable in our household in the long run, all we had to do was follow five rules in order. Now, don’t you guys even dare think that we bury our waste in our backyard, or we throw it in other people’s cans, or in the public bins.

The first rule is to refuse what we do not need. We’ve simply learned to say “no”. We say no to junk mail, we say no to single-use plastics, we say no to freebies. For today, in this consumerist society, we’re the targets of many consumer goods. But every time we accept them, we create a demand to make more. Every time we take a free plastic pen from a conference, it’s a way for us to say, “Please, drill more oil from the ground to create a replacement, and the replacement will be created”.

The second rule of the Zero Waste lifestyle is to reduce what we do need. So in our home, we’ve gone through a decluttering process. The beauty of decluttering is that it lets you share the things that you do not really use or need with other people. It boosts the second-hand market, which is extremely important for the future of Zero Waste.

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In my kitchen in the old days, I used to have a jar filled with utensils. I had about ten wooden spoons, until I realized that I only have two hands. And when I stir, I only need one hand. What’s the point of having ten wooden spoons? One is enough.

This is a picture of underneath my sink. This is a space that used to be filled with cleaning products because I was listening to what the marketers tell us. They tell us that for each application, we need a different product. To clean the windows, we need a product. To clean the floors, a different product; to clean the bathroom, a different product; and we end up with a cabinet filled with toxic products that we don’t actually need. We found that we can clean our whole house just with white vinegar and castile soap.

This is our bathroom, and our medicine cabinet. So this represents all the products that we need in our bathroom. For example, to brush our teeth, we simply sprinkle baking soda on a wet toothbrush. On my eyes, I use burnt almonds; on my skin, I use cooking oil; and on my cheeks, I use cacao powder. The only problem with using cacao powder on your cheeks is that you have a chance of getting attacked by dogs when you walk down the street, but it hasn’t happened yet.

This is the master bedroom. And this, the closet that I share with my husband. Now, in a normal closet, people only use 20% of their clothes. They keep the other 80% for the “what if”. “What if?” What if we have a job interview? What if we have a wedding to go to? What if we are going to lose weight? What if we’re going to gain weight? What if, what if, what if?

What we’ve done in our home is figure out what our 20% is, and we’ve let go of the other 80%. So in my case, I have one pair of shorts, two skirts, two dresses, two pairs of pants, seven tops, and one sweater. Having less does not mean that you have less options. As a matter of fact, these 15 pieces allow me to create more than 50 looks.

My kids are minimalists too. This is my youngest son’s bedroom. And as you can see, all of his wardrobe can fit in a carry-on. As a matter of fact, each of our wardrobes can fit in a carry-on. You know what the beauty of that is? If we want to go away for the weekend, a week, a month; all we have to do is pull out our carry-ons, we throw our wardrobes in it, we zip it, we’re out the door, then a cleaning service comes in, cleans the house, and then we have people that come, rent the house out, and end up paying for our vacations.

Now don’t go thinking that we’re trying to, or we hide things in other closets. This is our linen closet, and this is our garage.

Now the third rule of the Zero Waste lifestyle is to reuse. And in our home, reusing means swapping anything that’s disposable for a reusable alternative. So this glass jar filled with handkerchief is what has replaced the tissue box. No need for disposable sponges, or paper towels. We simply use rags, a wooden scrubby, and a metal scrubby.

No need for disposable food storage items. We’ve replaced them all with glass jars. And we also have been able to eliminate food packaging simply by going to the store with a kit made of reusables. So we shop the bulk aisles of the grocery store. And then once I’m home, I transfer the dry goods into glass containers so this is what our pantry looks like. And this is what our refrigerator looks like. We even buy our wine in bulk; we just get our bottles refilled at a winery.

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Now the second rule of reusing is to buy second hand. All our wardrobes are purchased second hand. Yes, even my shoes. Five bucks. Thank you, thank you. I know I scored on these, I’m aware of that; I definitely scored.

Now, for the items that we cannot find in a thrift store, then we fall back on places like the flea market. That’s where I bought these chairs. Or sometimes eBay for the really specific items that we need.

The fourth rule of the Zero Waste lifestyle is to recycle only what we cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse. So the Zero Waste lifestyle does not mean recycling more, it actually means recycling less, thanks to waste prevention in the first place. With this lifestyle, we’ve learned that we should avoid plastics at all costs, because not only are they toxic to our health when they are being manufactured, they’re also toxic to our health when we are actually using them. A lot of the food packaging actually leaches into our food.

We’ve also learned that very few plastics have the chance of being recycled, and the ones that do have a chance of being recycled are turning into an item that’s no longer recyclable. So we consider plastics as a material that is meant for the landfill. So we try to avoid it at all costs. And instead we pick glass, metal, cardboard, paper, and sometimes wood, like the toothbrush you saw earlier, because we can compost them.

Rot is the last rule to the Zero Waste lifestyle. Today we not only rot — compost fruit and veggie scraps but we also compost our butter wrappers. Butter is the only food that we buy in packaging. Now we buy it in a waxed paper packaging because we can compost it. But we also compost floor sweepings, dryer lint, even our hair. Actually, it’s more my boys’ hair. I don’t compost my hair, I recycle my hair. I let it grow down to here, and then I get it cut, and then I send it to an organization that makes wigs for cancer patients.

Not so long ago, had I heard about a Zero Waste family, I would have thought to myself, “Oh boy, these people must be total granola. I’m sure they live in the boondocks, and I’m sure she doesn’t shave.” Well, I wore a skirt today for you guys so you can check for yourselves. I don’t have hair on my legs.

I would maybe also have thought, “Well, she must be a stay-at-home mom with way too much time on her hands; she probably worries about her waste all day, or makes a bunch of things from scratch. That’s not the case. I’m a full-time professional, and the only things I make are my cosmetics, and very few of them.

Now we found that the Zero Waste lifestyle is not just good for the environment but it’s also been great for our health, because we’ve been able to eliminate all toxins from our lives, and we’re way less sick than we used to be before.

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We also found that this Zero Waste lifestyle saves a ton of money — 40% on our overall budget. This is due to the fact that, one, we consume way, way, way less than before. But when we buy something, it’s only to replace something that needs to be replaced — a shoe that has a hole in it, or a T-shirt that’s too small. And when we buy that replacement, well, we buy it second hand, which by definition, costs less.

But we also buy our food in bulk. Did you know that when you buy an item in a package, 15% of the price covers the cost of the packaging? So when you buy in bulk, you make an automatic 15% savings.

But finally, we’ve replaced anything that’s disposable in our home for a reusable alternative. So that means that our money is no longer invested in throwaways, in a landfill. We no longer throw our money away. We’ve instead, invested in reusables. And they’ve translated into cumulative savings over time. They’ve even allowed us to install solar on our roof which allows us to save even more.

But to me, the best aspect of this lifestyle is voluntary simplicity. Because it’s made time in our life for what matters most: a life based on experiences instead of things; a life based on being instead of having.

As a family, thanks to this lifestyle, we’ve been able to do things we would have never thought possible before. We’ve been able to snorkel between two continents. We’ve been able to ride our bikes between San Francisco and Los Angeles. We’ve been able to go ice-climbing on a glacier.

But my favorite picture is probably this one. I believe it represents the Zero Waste lifestyle to a T, because it’s translated into a lifestyle filled with absolute happiness. And if you have a teenager, you know how hard it is to put a smile on their faces.

After all, you know, Gandhi said, “Happiness is when you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”. The Zero Waste lifestyle has done exactly that for me. Now, the little French au pair who came to the US at the age of 18 would have never thought that one day she’d be launching a global movement.

Because today, thousands and thousands of people throughout the world have embarked on this lifestyle. My book and my blog have even inspired people to open Zero Waste stores everywhere. Like Marie, who opened the first Zero Waste store in Germany. And there is Gerard, who, after reading my book, realized that there was a need to bring back on the market products sold in returnable containers.

And then there is Anne, I mean, look at that store. How cute is this mobile, little Zero Waste store?

And you know what we all have in common? Simply the regret of not having started earlier. So I would encourage you guys to think about this. What do you have to lose by embarking on the Zero Waste lifestyle? Who knows what you might discover about yourselves? Maybe absolute happiness?

Thank you.