interview | bea johnson | zero waste home

Ever since I started composting at my last address in Toronto, I have been fascinated (maybe slightly obsessed) with the amount of trash I toss out. After seeing how little there was left, once plastics and paper had been sorted, I was properly dedicated to recycling and composting. Truth be told, I am still trying to get a handle on plastics, and green bin pick-up is not really happening in Prague so I am currently figuring out a home-based option (link to infographic below). It was after a trip to New Zealand, and witnessing some disgraceful dumping at multiple airports, fearing that the 3 Rs had completely gone out the window, that I came across a woman who has put my OCD to shame… I mean this in a good way. French-born, San Francisco-based Bea Johnson is not only recycling her way to a revolution, but works to build on her vision of a world sans packaging. Of course I had a million questions for our phone interview, but decided to focus on how we can create less waste when traveling abroad. Like me, Bea agrees that travellers seem to loathe making the effort to be green when they leave home.

You must pack light, right? Any tips for the frequent flyer? My wardrobe fits in a carry-on so I never have to spend much time thinking about what I am going to wear. I play around with layers and accessories. In my purse, I carry a small cloth bag, an insulated canteen and a handkerchief. My toiletry bag contains a compostable bamboo toothbrush and a soap that I can use from head to toe. For toothpaste and deodorant, I refill a glass spice dispenser with bulk baking soda; for conditioner, a small glass bottle with bulk-bought conditioner. To ‘travel light’ you have to find products that are multi-functional.

Ok, wait, back up. A wardrobe that fits in a carry-on… How is that even possible? Studies have shown that the average household only uses 20% of its wardrobes… clothes that are good quality, fit them best and suite their style…. The other 80% are items that don’t fit or are only worn on rare occasions. If you figure out what those 20% are for your wardrobe, you can be sure you don’t really need the rest and can let go of it. For a special event/wedding, you can reach for that versatile little black dress and accessorize it. I buy second hand exclusively: every six months, I refresh my wardrobe by donating some pieces and picking out a new gently-used set.

Do you have a “uniform”? My collection is made up of basic colours and shapes that I can stick to for six months. In my book, Zero Waste Home, I provide tips on how to build a minimalist, versatile, capsule wardrobe. For my husband, it is trickier since his lifestyle and work require casual, business and smart casual attires. But he has adopted convertible pieces that work well for him, such as dress shirts with sleeves that button up or hybrid shorts that can be worn into town or for swimming. For very specific items – sizing and functionality – we use eBay. We make sure to check the “preowned” box option before we run a search.

Do you make a conscious effort to book “green” hotels? What are your favourites? [When it comes to hotels] the traveler has to decide what is green versus green-washed. In Costa Rica, we stayed in a basic hut that included meals . The owners did not advertise their services as “green” but the reclaimed materials used for the huts and the homemade meals made with homegrown ingredients are just as ecological, if not more, than those offered in a self-proclaimed “Eco Lodge”. Many hotels are simply choosing green options because they make financial sense. For example, instead of disposable bottles for shampoo and soap, Ibis refills wall-mounted containers. I was also please to notice that the Sheraton provides recycling bins in its rooms, which is rare to find. But it is also up to the consumer to embrace these programs!

I am definitely seeing that bathroom bottle trend in more hotels (Soho House, Hotel Hermitage Elba and Hotel Ilio).  That’s because many hotels are realizing that it makes financial sense for them to do so.

So my current dilemma is what to do in an airport when I have compostable items, but no compost? I have only seen these sorts of green bins at Heathrow so far. Depending on the length of your flight, you can either hold onto your compostable item or find a live plant to bury it in. Compost receptacles are rare in airports, but larger ones are starting to offer them, such as San Francisco’s domestic terminal. Many now also offer water bottle refill stations.

Feel airports’ international terminals would be a great way to teach people/introduce them to the concept of composting. I really think it is a huge missed opportunity.
In an airport, for composting to be successful, meaning the compost receptacles get filled with actual compostable materials – not just trash or recycling – its city first needs to implement programs and needs to accurately label bins! But yes, in general, composting is a great way to ease into zero waste living…to greatly, and instantly, reduce your waste.

You have two kids who probably want new stuff all the time, right? How do you use travel to tip the scale in your favour? We live a life which is based on experiences, not stuff, and travel is a big part of it. When we go away we use sites like Airbnb to rent out our house, which then pays for our vacation. We do a lot of camping and backpacking locally, and occasionally we travel abroad. Last Christmas, we spent two weeks in Costa Rica. It was great for the kids to see the jungle and animals they had never seen before. Instead of toys, the grandparents give the kids gifts of experiences such as parasailing lessons, zip lining and karting. And for Costa Rica, they gave us a snorkelling trip and a night jungle tour. Such experiences bring our family closer and create memories of a lifetime.

You grew up in France, and your book is doing very well there. Does your French DNA influence your low waste lifestyle? Europeans are more receptive for sure. I believe the book is doing amazingly well in France because people are not afraid of the simple life there; they are already aware of the joys of cooking, nature and social gatherings. Sadly, every time I return to Europe, I find that it becomes more and more Americanized in terms of fast food, big cars, and packaging. My book is a call to return to basics; to simplify your life so you can focus on what truly matters.

Are you seeing people adopting this lifestyle in the US?
People are not only adopting this lifestyle in Europe and the US, but all over the globe! Our story has been featured in magazines, as well as on televisions in the four corners of the world, and it has inspired countless people to do the same. I am so humbled by this following. Once you understand that this lifestyle improves life, that it saves time and money, that it makes you healthier and happier, you are hooked!

I think you are doing an amazing thing. Your app is great… Is that available only in the US. It’s now international. People are using it throughout the world from the US to Egypt!

I hope I can get it on my Windows Phone soon!
We are currently working with one of my followers, a developer, to upgrade the app. The Green Award that I won in 2011 gave me the funds to build the basic app, but I had no idea that it would need to be constantly upgraded to keep up with technology. Apple comes up with a new operating system every six months!

The best way to use the app?
I built the app to help people find bulk, package free-locations near them: at home and while travelling. We use it when we travel, especially to find stores that will refill our containers. Regardless, my favourite on-the-go zero waste snacks at the airports and on the road are fruits, roasted chestnuts and ice cream on city streets.

So dear reader, don’t dump the 3 Rs thinking ‘someone else will take care of it’. I highly recommend Bea’s book Zero Waste Home. You can read a surprisingly lengthy excerpt here.

Originally from the South of France, Bea Johnson left for the US at age 18. There she fell in love with the country and a man, but his work took them back to Europe (London, Amsterdam and Paris) for four years. Bea got pregnant and wanted to head back across the pond to experience the “American Dream” – having a big house, a big car, and all of the stuff that goes along with it. After seven years, she realized that they were in a house that was furnished with things they did not need, and were driving an SUV to every activity. They really wanted to move back to an area where they could walk to things. 
After packing only the necessities and moving into a house that was half the size, they quickly found that living with less allowed them to focus more on experiences. Et voila…A lifestyle of voluntary simplicity was adopted!
Follow Bea on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram @zerowastehome and see how she sets a stellar example for generations to come.

More fresh presse…
Infographic | Composting at Home 
Fresh Food | Support a Sustainable System