Bea Johnson lives waste-free with her family since 2008 and is the author of the bestseller Zero Waste Home (Zéro Déchet en francais)
"Since embarking on the Zero Waste lifestyle, our lives have changed for the better: We feel happier and lead more meaningful lives, based on experiences instead of stuff. My goal is to share its incredible health, financial and time saving benefits!"

5 things I took away from Burning Man

I am no longer a Burgin, I am now officially a Burner. 

I come back from Burning Man, a week camping on the middle of desert with 75 thousand other people, refreshed and blown away. Waste-free living there was easy (armed with bulk dehydrated food and twenty glass bottles filled with water). But I left with more than a "pat on the back" for achieving waste-free living on the Playa... Here are 5 things that I am taking away from my experience at Burning Man:

Leave No Trace.

One of Burning Man’s principles is to "leave no trace". Whatever you bring there, you need to take back with you when you leave, including gray water (unless you use a system to evaporate it). “Litter” pick up here (i.e., in the middle of the desert), goes beyond anything that I have experienced before: Removing MOOP (Material Out of Place) goes into microscopic detail. Upon taking your camp down, you are expected to fine comb (literally) your camp to remove any material that does not belong to the local ecosystem. I felt pretty good about my ecological footprint having not generated any gray water during my stay - no dishwashing, shower or teeth brushing for 5 days (I can rough it when the conditions demand it :)… but raking my area was a slap in the face. I realized that I had brought along dog hair and pine needles from previous camping trips (via my tent) and feathers from my down comforter, and I found a couple of my own hairs (the rest became cemented to my scalp overtime as oil and dust combined). I had not even considered these things in previous camp trips. Picking them up made me much more aware of my impact and connected me with nature at a deeper lever. And I love this attention to detail! Playa restoration is one of the volunteer jobs that I was dead set on doing at BM after watching this documentary. But staying away from my family and work engagements is not something I could afford to do for a month. So I consoled myself by picking up MOOP for 2.5 hours along the trash fence that borders Black Rock City (the event’s location) instead. Guess what the most common material was? TP, of all things.

Hugs, a refusal’s best friend

As I was picking up MOOP along the trash fence, people thanked me as they rode past. One man stopped to offer me a snack: a nut mix, packaged in plastic. Even if I had been hungry (maybe it’s the mouthful of dust or a head filled with emotions that curb a burner’s appetite), I would not have accepted it. I replied that I live a Zero Waste lifestyle and do not accept packaged food, “I’d gladly accept a hug though", I added. He happily accepted and we embraced. There is something therapeutic about hugging a complete stranger, I found. (FYI, the stranger had clothes on). At Burning Man, everything is free and gift giving, common practice. My first refusal was not easy in such a genuinely generous environment (refusing a commercial freebie is much easier). But hugs became my best tool as an alternative. Only at Burning Man?  I understand that hugging in lieu of accepting a freebie might not always be an option in the “real” world (I doubt that the cashier giving out a plastic bag would be thrilled if I offered a hug instead). But it’s something that is completely applicable with extended family members and friends!

Radical Inclusion

Prior to the event, I did not worry about packing (my family's camping equipment and backpacking food is always ready to go),  I did not worry about finding my way to the remote location (GoogleMaps is my companion on the road), I did not worry about setting up the Taj Mahal (our family tent's nickname) by myself for the first time, I did not worry about getting covered in dust (I did expect less of it though). What worried me most: The people! I was afraid that I would not fit in, that I would not have anything in common with the people that go to such an event. I bought only a secondhand tutu for the occasion, and worried that my minimalism would be perceived as me being a party-pooper. I had read about radical inclusion, as one of Burning Man's 10 principles. I guess I never knew what it really meant (and you too will probably be doubtful unless you participate). Yet, I came home blown away by the lack of judgement there. Young, old, gay, straight, clothed, naked - all blend in and are accepted. Never in my life have I experienced this. I came home wishing that the "default" world were this way. I came home changed by this. Radical Inclusion was for me, the most surprising element of Burning Man.

My New Best Friend

Chances are, if you've tried to reduce your waste, and therefore your plastic consumption, you've run into Beth Terry's blog: My Plastic Free Life. Beth and I have known each other for years through advocacy work but had never met in person. Last spring, we finally decided to get together for lunch (she lives across the bay from me). Ordering lunch was a rather comic scene as we asked in unison for no straws in our water, no napkins with our lunch, no toothpick in our sandwich... The server just paused and pretty much replied: Who are you guys?;) During lunch, I asked Beth about Burning Man, knowing that she had been there, and I was considering going... Little did I know that within a day or so, I'd receive an invitation to speak at Earth Guardians, Beth's camp. Beth and I hung out, shared stories and common frustrations, listened to each other's talks, argued over the definition of the term "hippie", danced to the beat of Dogon Lights (featuring AshEL Seasunz of the Plastic State of Mind), shared a few drinks ... We realized that we think and react the same. I feel as though I have found my soul sister! I am grateful to her for opening her heart and camp to me, and am always in awe at her work. Check out her site if you have not done so before!

A Night of Dancing to Trance Music

The reason Burning Man had peaked my interest in the first place was electronic music. Yes, I am a big fan of it, and I use it every Friday to clean the house in no time. Trance music makes me happy, it energizes me. I did not enjoy it at Burning Man when it shook the ground and kept me from sleeping - but nonetheless, when I was awake, it was a treat to my ears, and with the desert in the background, a whole experience in itself. At home, it's hard to justify going out to dance. I don't see myself announcing to Scott and the boys on a Friday night: "See you later, I am going to a rave, I won't be back until morning and I will be sleeping the rest of the weekend, so you can count me out of any family activities for the next two days". At Burning Man, nothing stopped me from dancing my butt off for five hours straight, through the night and until sunrise (and what a sunrise!)... and may I add: All by myself, among complete strangers! A first for me.

I came home with ears buzzing, heart beating to the rhythm of the DJ's base... and my head full of new discoveries, once again amazed at the incredible adventures that waste-free living has granted me. No Waste, More Life!

Heading off to College? What would Bea do?

No, my kids are not heading off to college just yet ;) but today I answer Suzanne's questions...

Hi Bea,

My name is Suzanne, I live in St. Louis MO, and I am 18 years old. I have been reading your blog for the past two years and absolutely loved reading your book last summer. Your philosophies and practices have set a wonderful example for all people to strive towards, and they have transformed my life. Truly, the tips and guidance your blog and book have provided me with weigh into every purchasing decision I now make. But I will be heading off to college in the Fall for the first time and I have a few questions...

What should I do when I am at a gathering and beverages are only being served in plastic cups? 

There are lots of ways to go about it. Be proactive: Bring your own; or make do: go in the kitchen and grab a glass. If you need to ask someone and are embarrassed to go into a waste related discussion, tell them you're allergic to plastics (if you think about it, all humans actually are) and beg for glass.

If none of these options is possible, pick an individual drink in a can or glass bottle (and drink directly from it), make sure your empties get recycled.

The college I am attending throws many BBQs and picnics for the student body (great for meeting new people), and food is always served on disposables. They usually offer recycling at these events, but I am unsure of how to approach these situations. How is the most environmentally and socially sustainable way to handle such events?

Again, be proactive: Bring your own; or make do: go in the kitchen and grab a plate, or a container that you can use and wash. But I find that the food served at such events often does not require the use of a plate at all (burgers, hot dogs, watermelon slices, brownies, cupcakes, chips, etc)

(If you still choose to use a disposable, pick a paper one, but make sure it gets composted - dirty paper should not be recycled).

I am concerned about how I should respond when asked about my baking soda for toothpaste in the dorm bathrooms, what do you think I should say?

If you are embarrassed to say that you are aiming for Zero Waste, just say that you no longer like the taste or the feel of toothpaste. It's the case for me anyways. Also point out that most toothpastes do contain baking soda.

But eventually, you might want to be open about your Zero Waste goals. You'll be amazed how many people will respect your choice and be inspired to follow your lead!

Especially in Week of Welcome, I am expecting lots of flyers, papers, and other items to be passed out among the students (T shirts, draw string bags, etc.) In all of these situations is refuse the best policy?

Yes! See, you already know what to do! The easiest way to Refuse in those instances, is to say: Thanks, but I don't need it. People always respect that choice.

How do I manage eating at sandwich shops when they always wrap up the food in paper and plastic to keep it from falling apart and to make it easier to take to go?

Dining is voting: Invest your money in sustainable practices! Prefer sit-down businesses that serve in reusables. Once you've tested a few food joints within your price range, and know how they serve their food, you'll pick your faves and know exactly how to handle them.

If you must buy something to go, be proactive: Bring your own plate, or cloth bag (my preference).

But often, to-go items do not even require a wrapper. I ask the person behind the counter to simply hand it out to me.

I am moving to a very small town where I am not expecting sustainable personal hygiene products to be available to me (bulk soap, etc.), so I am having my favorite brands ship to me. Is there a way to request less packaging on Amazon?

Having bulk shipped to you defeats the purpose: It puts packaging around a package-free product. Embrace the package-free items near you. Use my app, Bulk, to locate bulk locations near you. But you can find bulk soap in practically any drug store. If not, pick one in a cardboard box.

I am told that while living in dorms that I should have shower shoes/flip flops to shower in. I am trying to keep my number of shoes to a minimum and only versatile pairs, and shower shoes are certainly not versatile. Also, your Cleanliness Standards Revised article came to mind. What do you think about this?

I do not know enough about the cleanliness of your college dorm showers to make up my mind whether flip flops are truly needed: Is there an epidemic of athlete's foot? Could you time your showers right after the cleaners have come through? If you'd prefer to wear shower shoes, why can't a pair of waterproof (but stylish) flip flops be one of your pairs of shoes? (If I were going to college, they would replace my sandals for 4 years).

Since I will be living in the dorms, I will also be eating in the dining halls. The buffet style is fairly accommodating to Zero Waste, but milk is only provided in a cardboard carton. Do you think it is acceptable to simply recycle the container, or would you just not drink milk? (I am used to drinking lots of milk from glass bottles and not having to worry about this at home)

I am not here to tell you whether you can or cannot drink milk from a carton ;) It's up to everyone to adapt Zero Waste practices to their own lives and know their limitations. I would not drink milk from a carton, but I am not dependent on milk either.

Would you say plants are the best way to clean the air in a dorm room? I am concerned about the limited space and light (I will be sharing room with one small window). Do you have any suggestions?

Plants are great - but also simply opening a window is an excellent way to keep your air clean and fresh.

How would you suggest that I advocate for Zero Waste to administration/event organizers on campus? Send emails?

Don't underestimate your capabilities: you can build a Zero Waste group (there might already be one on your campus!), request a meeting, make calls, or as you suggested, send emails - but in person is generally more powerful. And please, keep us updated on your progress!

Do you have What Would Bea Do questions on a specific topic? Use the mail icon in the header above to get them to me; I'll pick my faves and post my answers!

From a blog to a movement!

Remember the doubtful and negative comments that I originally received on this blog? ... When people said that our lifestyle was too extreme and not realistic? I admit that, had I heard about a zero waste family 8 years ago, I too, would have thought to myself: "These people are nuts, I’m sure they live deep in the woods or she's a stay-at-home mom who spends her days homemaking to reduce her family's trash." That is to say, I am not surprised by the criticism that we received. After all, the term Zero Waste was, at the time, essentially understood and used by manufacturing and waste management professionals - not the mainstream.

Looking back, I'm glad I didn't listen to nay-sayers!

With time, perseverance, and the help of the media, we were able to prove that we're not ascetic hermits, but live a normal, modern, simple life, based on experiences instead of things. Our lifestyle has been profiled in magazines, newspapers, and radios throughout the world and more than 40 television crews have visited our house! Contrary to common thinking, we do not get paid to participate in these interviews - although my teenagers do request some kind of compensation from us now:). But our hard work paid off!  We shattered people's misconceptions about waste-free living and gave it a face. By showing that zero waste was possible at home (while improving one's standard of living), we galvanized thousands of people to follow our lead, and with momentum a global movement was born! It fills my eyes with tears of joy just reflecting on it; how far we've come! 

Along the way, we've inspired not only the launch of hundreds of blogs (such as this Norwegian one) and startups (such as Jean Bouteille, a business offering returnable containers and liquid products in bulk to health food stores) but also the opening of countless package-free stores (such as Unverpackt, Germany's first un-packaged store). I even had the honor of inaugurating one of them: Alice's Day by Day store in March! Each week, I receive a thank-you email from a business entrepreneur. And I recently learned that photographing our family for People magazine was one of the triggers for Gregg Segal's "7 days of Garbage" series and reading that same article empowered this restaurant owner to make his business Zero Waste

As "the Priestess of Waste-Free Living" (New York Times) and the author of Zero Waste Home , my responsibilities today include a work load that evidently interfere with my blog posts' frequency. It leaves me with a constant feeling of guilt, knowing that I am letting some of you down: But rejoice, for my radio silence here, is only a reflection of the success of the lifestyle! 

My professional work has changed overtime is now entirely dedicated to shattering the misconceptions associated with the zero waste lifestyle. It gives me little time to be a professional artist anymore. Nevertheless, raising awareness about this way of life now fulfills me more than developing my portfolio. I open my home to educational tours and am consulted by large corporations who, upon noticing the growing interest for waste-free living, are looking to adapt their businesses to the new shift. I am invited to speak at universities, non profit organisations, and conferences, all over the globe, from Australia to Norway -and in Brazil, I was asked to present my lifestyle as a way of the future! In March, I accomplished my first speaking tour with stops in Quebec, Switzerland, Belgium and France. In Roubaix (a city in the north of France), 700 people came to the event: Sadly, 200 had to be sent home for lack of room, but it proved an undeniable growing interest for zero waste. In the coming months, I will be speaking at Google and Burning Man (gasp! I need an outfit), and I will take on another international speaking tour (three-weeks long) to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled in the fall. As you can imagine, a speaking engagement sometimes requires flying, and therefore comes with a heavy carbon footprint, but I believe that if my talk has the power to inspire just one person to live simply and reduce his/her waste, then my trip was worth it: From the feedback that I receive, I can assure you that none of my trips has been a waste of fuel so far:).

It really is humbling to watch how fast zero waste is spreading! As an 18-year-old Au Pair, when I first came to the US, I could never have imagined becoming a public speaker, or writing a book that would be translated into Korean or, launching a movement that would be adopted globally! I feel blessed, honored and humbled. Better yet, I am full of hope for the future.

"If you have no critics, you'll likely have no success" - MalcomX

If you started a blog or business targeted to waste-free living. Please share your URL in the comments!


Vous souvenez-vous des commentaires que j’ai reçu au départ sur ce blog? Lorsque l’on me disait que notre mode de vie était extrême et irréaliste ?... Je reconnais que, si j’avais entendu parler d’une famille zéro déchet il y a 8 ans, j’aurais eu la même réaction, je me serais dit: “Ces gens sont fous, ils vivent probablement en pleine campagne, ou elle ne travaille pas et se préoccupe toute la journée de réduire ses poubelles » Raison pour laquelle je ne suis pas surprise des critiques que nous avons subies. Apres tout, le terme zéro déchet n’était en ce temps-là compris et pratiqué que par les fabricants et les professionnels de la gestion des déchets- pas par les ménagères.

Heureusement que je n’ai pas écouté les mauvaises langues.

Avec le temps, de la persévérance et l’aide de la presse, nous avons pu prouver que nous vivions une vie normale, moderne, et simple, basée sur les
expériences et non pas les biens matériels. Notre mode de vie a aujourd’hui été profilé dans les magazines, journaux et radios du monde entier et plus de 40 équipes de télé sont passées à la maison! Contrairement à ce que beaucoup s’imaginent, nous ne sommes pas payés pour participer à ces entrevues – quoi que mes ados me demandent maintenant une compensation:). Mais nos efforts en valaient la peine ! Nous avons cassé les aprioris liés à ce mode de vie et lui avons donné une face. En montrant que le zéro déchet était possible chez soi (et pouvait ameliorer la vie)  nous avons incité des milliers de personnes à suivre notre exemple, et dans cet élan, un mouvement global s’est créé ! Des larmes de joie me viennent rien que d’y penser: On vient de si loin!

Sur notre parcours, nous avons inspiré non seulement le lancement d’une centaine de blogs (comme celui-ci, en Norvégien) et d’initiatives (comme celle de Jean Bouteille, une entreprise qui offre des produits liquides en vrac et des contenants consignés aux épiceries), et mais aussi l’ouverture d’innombrables magasins de vrac dans le monde (comme Unverpackt, le premier magasin sans emballage en Allemagne): J’ai même eu l’honneur d’inaugurer celui d’Alice Bigorgne, Day by Day, en mars ! Chaque semaine, je reçois le message d’un entrepreneur me remerciant de lui avoir ouvert les yeux. Et puis j’ai appris que notre témoignage paru dans le magazine People avait incité le propriétaire d’un restaurant à en faire une enseigne zéro déchet, et l’artiste, Gregg Segal, chargé de nous photographier pour cet article, de créer une série intitulée « 7 jours de poubelles »

En tant que “le nouveau messie de l’écologie” (Paris match) et l’auteur du bestseller Zéro Déchet, j’ai de nouvelles responsabilités et un emploi du temps qui m’empêche de poster régulièrement sur ce blog. Je vis avec un sentiment constant de culpabilité, sachant que je déçois certains d’entre vous. Mais réjouissez-vous car mon silence ici n’est que le reflet du succès de ce mode de vie ! 

Au fil du temps mon activité professionnelle a changé : elle est aujourd’hui entièrement dédiée à casser les aprioris qui sont liés à ce monde de vie. Cela ne me laisse désormais que très peu de temps pour me consacrer à mon ancienne profession d’artiste-peintre. Néanmoins, sensibiliser le public au zéro déchet me satisfait davantage que de développer mon portfolio.

Se rendant compte de l’intérêt croissant pour le mode de vie sans déchet, de gros fabricants me consultent pour adapter leurs produits à ce nouveau tournant sociétal.
De l’Australie au Brésil, je suis aussi invitée à donner des conférences partout dans le monde, que ce soit pour un parti écolo, une université, ou une ONG. En Mars, j’ai accompli ma première tournée internationale, couvrant ainsi le Québec, la Suisse, la Belgique et mon pays natal. A Roubaix (ville située dans le nord de la France), 700 personnes sont venues m’écouter. La salle n’a malheureusement pas pu accommoder 200 d’entre elles, mais ceci a tout de même démontré l’intérêt croissant pour le zéro déchet. Il est prévu que lors ces prochains mois je donne une conférence chez Google et a Burning Man (va falloir trouver un ensemble approprié !), et que j’effectue une autre tournée internationale de 3 semaines à l’occasion de la semaine européenne de réduction des déchets et de la COP 21. Vous vous imaginez bien que ces conférences engendrent parfois un vol en avion, ce qui alourdit sérieusement mon empreinte carbone, mais j’estime que si ma présentation peut ne serait-ce qu’inspirer une seule personne, ça en valait la peine: d’après les retours que j’en ai, je peux vous assurer qu’aucun de mes déplacements jusqu’à présent n’a été un gaspillage de kérosène ;)

Cela me fait chaud au cœur de voir la vitesse à laquelle le zéro déchet se propage. La fille Au pair de 18 ans que j’étais lorsque je suis arrivée aux USA, n’aurait jamais pu s’imaginer un jour faire des discours en public, ou écrire un livre qui serait traduit en Coréen, ou lancer un mouvement qui serait adopté dans le monde entier! Ce succès est pour moi une bénédiction et un honneur. Mais ce qui me rend encore plus heureuse c’est d’avoir un espoir renouvelé dans le futur.

Si vous avez lancé un blog ou une initiative autour du zéro déchet, n’hésitez pas à partager votre site internet dans les commentaires !