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!"

Zero Waste’s #1 rule

REFUSE, REFUSE, REFUSE: Zero Waste’s #1 rule. We have all been programmed to accept and take whatever is given to us. Every bit we accept and take, creates demand. Zero Waste starts by chasing and changing those habits, one by one. Here are seven ideas to get you started:
- Refuse that plastic bag!: Even if the item, that you have not yet paid for, is already bagged. You know that the bag is probably going to end up in the can but you can let that one go: You’ll feel horrible seeing it go to waste (it will help you remember next time) and refusing helps cashiers change their compulsive bagging habits. De-bagging being a time waster, only our incessant reminding will get them deprogrammed.
- Refuse that bottle of water that you get handed for no reason, my husband went to a sports bar last month, the next day I found a bottle of water in his car (!!!) (#&%@%$#!)... He explained to me that although he barely drank, the bartender gave it to him, and that he felt bad saying no… come on! Show some strength, Love! Did he twist your arm to take his bottle of water? Were they out of tap water at the bar? …
- Refuse freebies from parties, events, festivals, etc. (including green parties, green events and green festivals): I can hear you: “oh, but it’s free!”… well not really, nothing in life is free. Stop the demand for swag bags (and whatever crap it contains).
- Refuse excessive packaging or toxic ingredients and write a letter to those that you wish would change (I try to write a letter of feedback every other day): I believe that consumers can change the world if they let manufacturers know what they want. Remember, you vote every time you buy…
- Refuse the food/drinks served in disposables: Tough, I know, but if you had brought your own, you’d be drinking and eating… you won’t make that mistake more that a couple of times.
- Refuse to let junk mail go from your mailbox straight to your recycling can: you need to cancel those pesky mailings one by one (see “Junk Mail War”)
- Refuse the extra school papers that come home: talk to your kids teachers and request less paper. I used to get a copy of the Community Center Activities Catalog from both my boy’s classes. What a waste, when the catalog is already sent out to all residents and can also be viewed online… at the beginning of the year, I opted-out with the kids teachers and they have been most cooperative.


  1. Actually I did have a couple drinks at the bar - but the real reason that I took the bottle of water is that after 40+ years of being ingrained to accept "freebies", I did not even think about refusing it. I know that I violated the first R, so I guess I am still learning.

    I have hope for the future generations though. The next day, when my son saw the bottle of water in the car, he said, "Did 'maman' see that? You are going to be in big trouble!".

    I decided to leave the bottle of water in my car as an example to your readers...

  2. Scott: I don't think this is the right place for marital spats.

  3. To distract from the month-old spat: how do you fly? I have brought my own lunch on the plane with reusable containers, but cannot avoid consuming my drinks poured from their plastic bottles and aluminum cans!

  4. Hi Marie-France (my mom shares the same first name!): Last time I flew, I realized that I had cocooned my zero waste bubble for too long... I got a reality shock at the airport when I witnessed the amount of disposables that people use when traveling... It made me nauseous, just like the middle aisles of grocery stores do. When I travel, I make sure to bring my own stainless bottle which I refill at water fountains after security, and I use my collapsible stainless cup in lieu of the plastic cup on the plane (picture on the Pros and Cons of Zero Waste Life article). It works great for those flights where the flight attendants fill plastic cups from liter size bottles instead of passing out cans (those, I refuse refuse refuse, rule number 1).

  5. Anonymous2/19/2010

    unfortunately, pushing plastic bags at the store is probably not the checker's idea or habit, they are obeying management orders, because plastic bags are cheaper than old-fashioned paper bags!

    when plastic bags first started coming in (see how OLD I am, 8-), the checker would ask "paper or plastic"; they don't do that anymore! they just automatically start dumping stuff in the plastic, unless you remember quickly "no bag, no bag, I have my own" or "I'll just take it with the receipt". we usually remember to bring in our cloth bag(s) or the baskets, and most stores here on the Left Coast will give you a "bag credit" of a few cents for each bag!

    we have ca 25yo canvas bags, some handles have been replaced but the basic bags are probably good for another 25 years! The new recycled plastic shopping bags that many groceries off these days are STILL PLASTIC, and guaranteed for only 2-3 years, according to label-reading I've done.

  6. What a coincidence..actually, when the Bourguignon first went and told his friends he had met this girl named Marie-France, they were worried he was starting to get into cougars and sugar mamas. French people are always surprised I'm not 70...Quebec people are non-plussed.

    Today was Chinese New Year in NYC, and as I saw the tons of paper and plastic confetti and sparkles rain down on the streets, I thought of you and how good that you weren't here to see this! :)

    Here's a question: how do you deal with people who question whether what you do has any effect? I deal with it all the time, with people saying "you changing 6 lightbulbs isn't going to save global warming", or "you're buying from the greenmarket, but how do you think the food got here?"

  7. Hi again Marie-France: I give those who question my efforts a simple answer: I believe that consumers have the power to change the world (one vote at a time: everytime we buy, we vote) and I choose to live by: “Be the change that you want the world to be” (Gandhi).

  8. I always tell people, if everybody made just a little bit of effort, it WOULD save the world. And nobody will do it if somebody doesn't start it.

    Bea, I just found your blog. I've been trying to live with minimal waste for years and many of your tips are things I'd never even thought of!

    Keep up the good fight!

  9. People who say things like "you changing 6 lightbulbs isn't going to save global warming" are only trying to deal with the guilt they are feeling over their resistance to doing what they know is right. Maybe another appropriate response is, "You know, being kind to animals won't end animal cruelty, either, but most of us are kind to animals anyway."

  10. I just found your blog and I LOVE IT!! I was at the dentist and saw the article in the Sunset magazine. We live on Maui and thought I would mention that on 1-11-11 they are outlawing plastic bags in all grocery stores and retail stores. It is wonderful! We are very excited and for Christmas presents this year, I made reusable fabric bags for everyone! It kills us that the mainland is so wasteful and to see all of the tourists come to our island and waste so much and then leave. It is sad that people are such consumers of stuff...

    Cant wait to catch up on your blog! Keep posting!

  11. Hello just looking at your blog for the 1st time I didn't know it was this good.

  12. Wow, Max! Thank you!! This is the nicest compliment I have ever received, and my favorite comment ever. I am so glad you visited. Feel free to add to the blog, readers have asked for your input. They want to know what you and Leo think about our lifestyle. Or perhaps would you like to write your own article? I love you. Mama.

  13. That comment from Max and your response are so sweet. I would love to read a post by Max and Leo.

  14. Lindsay2/07/2011

    I think we would all love to have a post from Max, Leo and the entire family!

  15. I saw your video on yahoo videos and I immediately started researching a zero waste lifestyle. I have always felt to overwhelmed with "stuff" and have been making little changes to move to a more zero free lifestyle so thank you for this blog. Question: I know that you have dogs. What do you do with or how do you pick up the poop? I have a cat and I have been using the plastic bags from grocery stores for the poop. What else can I use? HELP! I love in an apartment and I don’t know how feasible it is to compost.

  16. Crunchy and Happy: please refer to Zero Waste dog article. Thanks.

  17. Anonymous5/28/2011

    Marie-France. About your comment asking what you would respond to people who say changing six lightbulbs won't help. In elementary school my teacher told a story about how a boy saw a beach filled with dying starfish and started throwing them into the ocean. Someone told him, "You know you won't be able to save all of them" The boy replied, "I know, but I can save this one."
    By changing six lightbulbs you are limiting the electricity consumption. Every bit of reduction helps even if it is just a small bit. Also, I think that if you are doing something good, no matter how small it is better than nothing. Don't be discouraged. You are making a positive difference.

  18. Anonymous5/28/2011

    About negative comments I found a quote by Mother Teresa. She says, "Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
    For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."

    I don't know if you are a spiritual person but I find this quote encouraging. If other people are not pleased with your efforts it doesn't even matter because it was never up to them to judge you.

  19. Susan d8/07/2011

    Hi B
    I just love the quote by Mother
    Teresa. As long as you are doing what you are doing with a pure intention then it is right.
    Our dejunking process is going great. So far we have sold two bikes, a ceramic tile cutter, three computers, a pet kennel, and four sheets of drywall. We haver given away numerous toys, donated a tun of stuff and unfortunately a bunch of stuff was unlit fit for the dump. My house is actually starting to feel lighter.

  20. Paula from Seattle9/22/2011

    This line had me laughing...

    " husband went to a sports bar last month, the next day I found a bottle of water in his car (!!!) (#&%@%$#!)..."

    Love your passionate response to this seemingly innocent incident! It reminds me of the movies where the wife finds something incriminating, like a lipstick in the husband's car. I'm pretty sure not even those guys got in as much trouble as yours! (Aw, but his was your first comment on this thread! Forgiveness?)

    Also love your son's sweet comment. Such a nice family you have!

  21. Anonymous9/26/2011

    You guys are so inspirational.

    We have been learning from and have contibuted ideas to this forum for ways to save money, use less stuff and share productive techniques: another part of less stuff, not one ad at the site:

    Overcoming Consumerism

  22. Susan d10/09/2011

    We have managed to sell even more stuff - a satellite radio, my husbands record collection and another computer. Even though none of the stuff we have sold fetches a lot of money it is nice to have a little extra cash and to put the stuff into the hands of people who actually have a use for it.
    I am also finding that rule #1 is the most powerful. It is hard to believe just how many opportunities there are to refuse. Once you start to live consciously these opportunities stick out like a sore thumb.

  23. Anonymous12/20/2011

    In a trip to Europe, my husband and I went to a drug store in Berlin to purchase some hygiene items (luggage lost by airline). I asked the clerk to put them in a bag and they charged me 3 Euros for the bag. Wow, I looked around and everyone else had reusable bags. Unfortunately, we did not know. It will be great if our stores implement this kind of action in the US.