“All You’ll Regret Is Not Having Started Earlier” – Bea Johnson and the Zero Waste Lifestyle

In 2006, Bea and her family of four relocated closer to downtown San Francisco and discovered very quickly that nearly 80% of their belongings, that they had no room for in their new house and that were stored away, were of no use to them. Inspired by their new and simpler life, Bea and her husband started educating themselves on the issues our planet is facing and decided to change their lifestyle to leave a better planet for their children. Watching their water and energy consumption was easy, trying to reduce their waste not so much. “There was no guide on how to live a zero waste lifestyle back then so I had test a lot of things, I had to test a lot of extremes, I had to find solutions and eventually we found a system that worked for us.”

By Marianne Torm-Johnson


Bea Johnson and Zizou the dog. Photo: ZeroWasteHome.com

One margarita, no straw please

 Bea defines zero waste as “reducing one’s household trash as much as possible and if possible getting to zero. It actually translates into a life of being instead of having. What you discover is an improved standard of living that is based on experiences instead of things.” For this she uses the methodology of 5R’s as described in her book Zero Waste Home:

REFUSE what you do not need.

REDUCE what you do need.

REUSE by swapping disposables for reusables.

RECYCLE what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.

ROT (compost) the rest.

In one of her TED-talks Bea brings up a common misconception: “Now when people find out that I live a zero waste lifestyle, they love to tell me that they too recycle everything.” In the 5 R’s recycling comes next to last.

“I do feel like reducing is one of the most important steps. The 5R’s are to be adopted in order. So there’s no point in reusing a ton of things if you’re not reducing first. The 5R’s are an upside down pyramid. The more you refuse the less you have to reduce, the more you reduce the less you have to reuse etc. I saw it very quickly in my home, even though I had greatly reduced and I was living simply, things were still given to us constantly, business cards, freebies, plastic bags and samples. When people come to your home they bring stuff so it was very important to learn how to say no. And once you do that, it’s amazing how much stuff you can stop from coming into your home.”

At the Johnson’s house everything is used to it’s full potential and nothing is discarded lightheartedly. For Bea there’s a lot of beauty in living like this. Instead of buying replaceable plastic items their house is filled with good quality durable items made of what she calls “noble materials”. “They’re almost like luxury items. But it’s not like it cost more. It costs more at first but eventually it won’t because you don’t have to buy all the other stuff again.”

Bea also is a strong supporter of buying second hand, even her smart phone is second hand. “Right now there’s too much on the market, what’s the point of making more? Let’s use what we have. When you let go of (things) you make them available to others. It’s like sharing with the community. That’s the beauty of decluttering.”

Not only is zero waste lifestyle gratifying, it’s also cost-effective. “We’ve calculated that this lifestyle saves us 40% on our overall budget. Once you have that on your mind there’s no way to go back to the way you used to live cause you really see it not only as a waste of money but also a waste of time. Today our lifestyle is way more efficient than it was before.”

Bea with her family. Photo: ZeroWasteHome.com


They haven’t discovered the simple life yet

Inspired by Little House on the Prairie, Bea first got caught up in homemaking. “I was making my own bread, my own cheese, my own butter, my own soymilk. It was impossible for me to stick to a zero waste lifestyle if I had to make all these things. With two full time jobs it’s not feasible at all.” Realizing the restrictions of their everyday lives and accepting the fact that bread from the local baker was better than her own, she was able to find a balance and create a zero waste lifestyle that felt natural and wasn’t a constant struggle to maintain certain standards. “When you think of zero waste as a lifestyle then you really have to implement things that you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life.”

Bea sees a lot of people making the same mistake as her and getting caught up in the homemaking aspect of zero waste and says they “haven’t discovered the simple life yet”. “I’ve seen some recipes now where all these bloggers are making products that are completely unnecessary … Some of them are even making floor cleaners and toilet cleaner and window cleaners and this cleaner and that cleaner and I don’t even have these things. It’s all about living simply first and foremost.” One of the most extreme examples Bea recalled was a woman posting on her social media about making her own toothpaste and using several packaged ingredients to make it. “What’s zero waste about that?” she asks.


The face of a movement

A peek inside the pantry. Photo: ZeroWasteHome.com

Overcoming the prejudices against zero waste wasn’t easy. “People didn’t know what a zero waste lifestyle meant” and they thought that “you had to be a hippie living in the woods.” It wasn’t until a nine-page magazine spread with pictures of their family and their beautiful home was published that people started reaching out to them. “People saw how we lived and some of them said ‘Wow! If that’s what the zero waste lifestyle looks like, I want to do zero waste.’ We basically gave face to the zero waste lifestyle.”

Bea rejects extremes and is completely honest about her motivations. “We’ve never said we were trying to be the greatest family on earth. We’re not here to tell anybody how to live their lives, we’re only here to show what’s possible.” For example her family still consumes meat which for a lot of people may seem to conflict with the zero waste lifestyle. For Bea and her family it was a trial and error experiment where they discovered vegan life wasn’t for them. Yet again it was a question of finding a balance, finding what worked for them. “We can’t refuse animal products so then let’s just do it but do less of it.”

Bea is unwilling to sacrifice her beliefs and doesn’t want to create any misconceptions of what a zero waste life looks like. “Back when I wrote the book I was still reading magazines. I wasn’t buying magazines, I was going to the library to get them or I was getting them online or even buying them at a thrift store. Eventually I realized that those magazines, even if I look at them every once and a while, they were just made to create an urge that we didn’t have before we open that magazine. It took me a while to get away from that. Today I live my own dream, I don’t need marketers to create their idea of a dream for me.”

Staying true to herself, she has been able to inspire people and show them how attainable a zero waste lifestyle really is. Her webpage ZeroWasteHome.com has over 20 million views and the most visited section on her webpage is ‘Tips’. There is definitely an interest in living more simply and for Bea Johnson zero waste is the culmination of movements that have been recently gaining momentum such as plastic free living, the tiny life and minimalism. “To me it connects all these dots together. It takes from all these different movements that are emerging and makes it like a whole lifestyle.”

This little jar contains the trash of the whole Jonhson family in 2016 (Oct 2015 – Oct 2016). Photo: ZeroWasteHome.com


BEA JOHNSON is the creator of the Zero Waste Lifestyle movement and author of the blog and bestselling book Zero Waste Home. She is also a consultant and a public speaker and will be touring Europe this September. Visit ZeroWasteHome.com for more information.