Tell us your story from the beginning. Who were you before you went zero waste?
I came to the US as an au pair; I’m originally from France. I wanted to experience the American way of life I’d seen on TV: the big house, big car, big refrigerator and all the stuff that comes with all this. After seven years, though, we missed the life we’d known in the cities we’d previously lived in.
In London, Amsterdam, Paris and we were used to walking and biking everywhere. But our house in the US was in a place where we had to get into a car to go to grocery stores, schools and restaurants. We decided to move to be closer to amenities.
Before finding the right house, we rented an apartment for one year. We only moved in with the necessities. What we found out during that year is that when you live with less, all of a sudden you have more time to do what’s important to you—more time for friends, family, and picnics and hikes.
When we did find the right house, we got everything out of storage and realised we hadn’t missed 80 per cent of our belongings for a whole year. So we let go of them.
It’s thanks to the simplicity that we also found time to read books and watch documentaries on environmental issues. That’s when my husband and I started feeling really bad about the future that we, as parents, were creating for our children—the future that we were going to leave behind. That’s what gave us the motivation to change.
We watched our energy and water consumption, and then I turned towards our rubbish. In trying to find solutions to reduce it, I found the term ‘zero waste’—which, back then, was only used to describe manufacturing practices or waste management at a city level. It was not a term to describe something you do at home.
Finding that term lit a light bulb in my head. It gave me a goal. But there were no books, no blogs, no guide on how to live a zero-waste lifestyle. I had to test a lot of things. I had to test a lot of extremes. Eventually, we found a solution we could see ourselves doing for life, and that’s when zero waste became a lifestyle.
How did you go from living in excess to zero waste? What were the challenges?
To me, when I started letting go, I felt such an amazing feeling of freedom that it almost became addictive. I just didn’t want stuff anymore. The more I let go, the freer I felt, the better I felt and the lighter I felt.
I even came to the point where there was nothing else to really let go of, which is how I started helping people de-clutter their homes. After a few years of doing so, I found that every household is the same: people hang on to the same things. Then my de-cluttering consulting, in a way, became too repetitive, so I stopped.
When I started, I was a bit too wrapped up in homemaking. Homemaking was an easy way to achieve zero waste, in some respects. Or it seemed like an easy solution. At one point, I was making my own bread, my own cheese, my own butter, my own soy milk. But then I took a vacation in the south of France, at my mum’s house, and she lived a very normal life. That made me reflect on all the stuff I was doing at home. I was doing way too much in order to achieve zero waste. I realised that if we wanted to stick to zero waste for the long term, if it became a lifestyle for us, then we really had to adopt change that we could see ourselves doing forever.
Once I got home, instead of making my own cheese, I decided I’d bring my own container to the cheese store—they make cheese much better than I do. Instead of making my own bread, I decided to bring a pillow case to the bakery. Little by little, we let go of all the extremes. We found a system that became easy, normal and automatic. That’s when we let zero waste simplify our life, not complicate it.
A lot of people doing zero waste right now are associating zero waste with everything homemade, and I fight really hard against that. I think it’s scaring the crap out of the full-time working mums who don’t have time to make everything from scratch. They won’t even consider doing zero waste because of that.
You don’t have to make everything from scratch. I see recipes for homemade toothpaste and even people posting, “I’m making my own zero-waste toothpaste today.” Then they show me nine packaged ingredients. That doesn’t make any sense to me. There is nothing zero waste about that.
You have recipes to make floor cleaners, window cleaners, toilet cleaners—but in the end, these are all products that are completely unnecessary. We don’t make them. Instead of making our own toothpaste, we just use baking soda. There is no making. We just buy it and sprinkle it straight onto the wooden toothbrush. We buy it in a package, but that’s it. Instead of making all these cleaning products, we just use white vinegar and water. It’s just that simple. They are just simple things that our grandparents used to do but have been forgotten in our consumerist society.
How does an average person even start to consider going zero waste?
When people ask me where they should start, I lead them to my five rules. The first is to learn to say no. Learn to refuse what you do not need. Today, in this consumerist society, the target is many, many goods—whether it be disposable bags or disposable straws or a disposable cup, or a meal on the site, or shampoo bottles at a hotel, or business cards, or freebies. It’s a way for us to make a demand to make more. Once you bring things into your home, they’re also cluttering your space, and then eventually they become your rubbish problem.
From the moment you learn to say no, you’ll be amazed to see how much you can stop coming in to your home. But it’s not something you’ll be able to do overnight. We’re so used to reaching out when someone is trying to hand something to us, so changing that reflex will take time.
The second rule of a zero-waste lifestyle is to reduce. That means letting go of things you do not truly use or need. Make them available to your community instead. When you let go, it boosts the second-hand market, which is very important for the future of zero waste.
We all need a roof over our head, a few pieces of clothing and our furniture. But there is only so much that we need in order to be comfortable. Once you’ve reached that comfort level, anything beyond it becomes excess.
In our home, we’ve gone to a de-cluttering process. We’ve asked questions—we need a true use and need for every single item in our home, which is why we no longer have a junk drawer, for example. We’re in a world where people only use 20 per cent of their clothes and keep the other 80 per cent for the ‘what if’: What if I lose thirty pounds? What if that purple suit comes back into fashion? Not to mention that drawer filled with single socks in the hope that, one day, the matching ones will reappear.
In our case, we figured out what our 20 per cent was and we let go of the other 80 per cent. So I have a wardrobe of fifteen pieces. It doesn’t mean I have fewer options, because I have selected items that are multifunctional. That’s a big aspect of living simply: finding items that are multifunctional.
The third rule of the zero-waste lifestyle is to re-use. That means swapping disposables for reusables, swapping paper towels for rags, swapping sponges for a wooden brush, which is compostable when it’s no longer usable. Swapping tissues for handkerchiefs. There is a reusable alternative on the market for anything that is disposable.
It also means going to the grocery store with a kit of reusables. We take totes but also glass containers for anything wet, like meat, fish, dairy, cheese, peanut butter and olive oil. We bring mesh bags for produce, cloth bags for anything dry—like flour, salt, sugar, cereal, as you would find in a store like The Source Bulk Foods, for example. We buy milk in a returnable container, and we also bring a big cloth bag—the pillow case—to buy our bread.
The second aspect of re-using is to buy second-hand. All our wardrobes were purchased second-hand, and for the things that are super specific that we cannot find at a thrift store, we fall back on either the flea market, local websites or, sometimes, eBay. If we buy on eBay, we make sure to select second-hand in the left-hand column. And then we ask the shipper to send it to us only in paper or cardboard.
The fourth rule of the zero-waste lifestyle is to recycle. That means recycling only what we cannot refuse, reduce or re-use. Zero waste does not encourage you to recycle more, but less, by preventing waste from coming in to your home in the first place by using my first three Rs.
For example, what we recycle are school papers that have been printed on both sides, bottles of wine that friends bring over to our house, the cardboard roll from the toilet paper, the contact solution that my husband uses—and that’s probably the most recurring piece of plastic that we purchase, about once every three months.
The fifth and last rule is to rot, which is to compost. We basically compost what’s left. So that’s peels of fruit and veggies—but we only peel the fruit and veggies that need to be peeled. We don’t peel eggplants, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, apples, pears. And that has helped us not only reduce our compost output and save time cooking, but also take advantage of the vitamins in those peels.
We also compost floor sweepings, my husband’s hair, my kids’ hair and my fringe. I do not compost the rest of my hair, though, because I recycle my hair. I let it grow and then send it to an organisation that makes wigs for cancer patients.
These are the five rules. They should be adopted in order, because the more you refuse, the less you have to reduce. The more you reduce, the less you have to re-use, and so on. As I show in my book, it’s an upside-down pyramid.
How do you manage to be zero waste when you travel?
Once you adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, you acquire selective vision. You no longer see what’s packaged; you only see what’s available to you unpackaged. For example, water dispensers are all over Asia. You just have to have an eye for it.
How do you feel about other people’s wasteful habits? Do you get irritated?
That irritation is really a process. It’s unavoidable, adopting this lifestyle. Once you start paying attention to your waste, you’re going to see it all around you. You’re going to see it in other people’s homes and on the streets.
The first time I took my container to the coffee shop to get coffee on the go, for example, I became judgmental, and I looked at other people, and I was angry with them. I was angry with the world. And I thought, Why don’t they do like me? Why don’t they bring their own containers? I saw the disposable cups and they made me angry.
But then I decided to focus on the maximum extent of our family of four’s capabilities, and I think we achieved that by producing just half a litre of rubbish per year. All of a sudden, I found peace within myself about zero waste, and with the rest of the world.
I realised, at that point, that these people with disposable cups were me not long ago. I have no right to judge them. Maybe they haven’t clicked about zero waste, but maybe one day they will. What gives me hope is that every time I go to the coffee shop with my own container, or every time I go grocery shopping with my reusable kit, I have the power to inspire someone else to do it too.
Of course, I keep a very positive attitude about the world going zero waste, because when you are part of the solution, you can see things changing in the right direction. When we got started, we got hammered with criticism. People laughed at us. The first article written about us was in The New York Times in 2010. They said, “What you’re doing doesn’t matter,” or, “You’re just one family; you won’t change anything.”
We’ve proven them wrong. What we’ve done has launched a global movement. Now the book is translated in twenty-four languages. The attention we’ve received from the media and the talks I’ve given around the world have launched a global movement. It’s also changed the way people look at business. It’s inspired the launch of many unpackaged stores throughout the world. Some of them have decided to launch lines of cloth bags or reusables. You can see the world changing in a positive way.
When you first started, how did your immediate family react? Were they on board, or did they think you were crazy?
They thought we were crazy. I’m an artist, so before this I was a painter. I was doing commissions, and I was doing quite well. I was in seven different galleries. I was artist of the year.
My mum thought, Oh, it’s one of Bea’s ideas. She probably thought we weren’t going to stick to it, that we were maybe testing something. But once I wrote the book, she saw I was actually serious about this. Once she saw the movement take off, she didn’t question it ever again.
They’ve been inspired themselves and are taking steps. I won’t say that friends and family have adopted a zero-waste lifestyle to the maximum of their capabilities as we have, but they have eliminated paper towels, or they’ve adopted a simpler life. They’ve let go of things. And in the end, the relationships change.
The relationships we had with people who were caught up in the rat race, people who put too much emphasis on having the biggest house, the latest cars, the latest gadgets and the Gucci bags—we let those relationships fade away. We didn’t nurture them. The people with whom we share the same appreciation for the simple pleasures, and people who basically share our values—we nurture those relationships and let them grow.
How do people feel when they come to your house for dinner? Are they worried by their waste habits?
People ask us, “What should we bring?” I’m like, “Bring a bottle of wine.” We buy our wine in bulk, so it’s nice when someone wants to come over and bring a bottle. At one point, we did try to do zero recycling, but we found it was too constraining because we had to turn down the wine!
People have shown up on my doorstep with flowers wrapped in plastic, especially in the beginning. But in that case, it’s important not to be afraid to own the term ‘zero waste’ and say, “I’m sorry, but we’ve adopted a zero-waste lifestyle. And we don’t have a rubbish bin. Do you mind taking that item back with you?”
Basically, our friends respect our lifestyle, just as we respect theirs if we go into their home. If you go in a vegan household or a Muslim household, you won’t be bringing in a pork dish. People now know the rules of our house, so they don’t bring things that are packaged. They simply respect our zero-waste diet.
How old were your kids when you started this journey?
When we got started, in 2006, they were five and six. We moved into that apartment and started simplifying our lives. We really went for the zero-waste goal in 2008, and by then they were seven and eight.
What kind of challenges did you face teaching them?
Zero waste is more what you do outside the house than what you do inside the house. It’s the person who consumes from the household that has the choice to either 1) not consume, or 2) consume differently by buying unpackaged food and the necessities that need to be replaced second-hand.
Since I was the one making those decisions, zero waste actually went completely unnoticed in our household. When I took on the goal, I didn’t make an announcement. Again, it was something that was gradual. I saw the term, and then in my head I was like, “Oh, I’m going to try to reach for that.” But it’s not like we sat down at the table and said, “From now on we’re not letting rubbish in.” It was something that was gradual.
We’d had a pantry with unpackaged or bulk foods for six months when we took a field trip to the health food store. It was with my youngest son’s class. In front of the bulk bins, the teacher asked, “Why is it good to buy in bulk?” And my son sat there and didn’t say anything.
That’s when it dawned on me that I had done zero waste. It had been up to me to do it, because I’m the consumer for the household. When we got home, I opened the pantry and asked my son, “Do you notice something in our pantry compared with your friends’ pantries?” He’s like, “No.” I’m like, “We don’t have any packaging.” And he replied, “So?”
Kids have very simple needs, and as long as those needs are met, they are happy. It’s the parents who complicate those needs. As long as kids have a cereal they like in the morning, a cookie when they come home from school—as long as they can have their friends over to share that cookie, they are happy.
Of course, when we got started, we took our sons with us to the health food store. We told them to pick whatever cereal they wanted, whatever cookie they wanted. In the end, they found products they liked as much as the one I had bought before—the packaged one I had gotten them used to.
There is a transitional phase when you’re discovering new products. It’s not like we miss the old ones, because we have found alternatives that we’re happy with and can see ourselves sticking to in the long run. My kids present themselves like any teenagers. They want the V-neck skinny shirt with the skinny pants and Adidas sneakers. But all that stuff was bought second-hand. In the end, they don’t care. For them, it’s completely normal and automatic.
If you grow up with a certain diet or religion, you take it for granted. You don’t question it. You might only question it when you leave the household and have to make those decisions for yourself—becoming independent may challenge what you’ve been taught.
My older son is going to university in August. I can bet you he’s going to buy the packaged stuff again. But that’s okay. That’s normal. That’s part of growing up. He’s got to do that. But what makes me feel comfortable as a mother is to know I have given him the tools to do zero waste, if he chooses to do it.
We told the kids it was their job to say no—even though it was up to me to reduce, re-use, recycle and rot.
Kids are the targets of many commercial goods. But whether you go to the dentist, the orthodontist, a fair or a birthday party, or even to a store or restaurant, they’ll be handing out free stuff. We explained to our kids that when they accept, for example, the bag from a birthday party with a lot of freebies, those freebies are only made to last a few seconds. They’re basically disposable toys. You play with them for a few seconds, and then they break, and then you cry.
We showed them that if you don’t accept it in the first place, you won’t cry later. And you won’t have to pick it up later. So from the moment we simplified our lives, we asked them to pick their favourite toys: Playmobiles and Legos. When they were too old to play with those things, they sold them to buy themselves more age-appropriate replacements. They’ve learned that their things have a value, and from the moment we simplified our lives it was also easier for them to clean up. All of a sudden, we were no longer fighting for them to clean up after themselves. They had more time to play with the toys that mattered to them.
What are some important things to remember when adopting a zero-waste lifestyle?
In order for it to be a lifestyle, you have to adopt solutions you can see yourself doing in the long run, for life. That’s when it becomes a lifestyle.
The other way it becomes a lifestyle is when you let it simplify your life, not complicate it. I think a lot of people tend to think that this lifestyle is going to take more time, cost more and be more complicated. But it’s not. It’s just that when you first change a habit, when you first adopt recycling, you have to change a lot of other habits. We’re not talking about changing just one habit but lots of different habits. So you can’t adopt a zero-waste lifestyle overnight. When you get started, just take it slowly.
What about when appliances break—what do you do?
We apply the five rules to every aspect of our lifestyle. We say no to what we do not need. There are a lot of things people have in their homes that we do not have. For example, we don’t have CD or DVD players or alarm clocks or cameras or a kitchen mixer or a blender, the waffle maker, the ice-cream maker. We’ve said no to the things we do not need.
We also have less of the things we do need than other people. But if something breaks, our automatic reaction is to get it repaired. For example, I’ve had my stove repaired eleven times. My husband was ready to give up and said there was obviously a problem with it. But we found that it wasn’t a problem with the stove—it was the repairman.
For ten repairs, it looked like it was repaired, and then two months later it would break. Eventually I said we should try to get a different repairman. I wish we’d thought about that earlier. They’re hard to get where we live, because it’s not a job that’s common anymore. Those are the things that are getting lost. In today’s consumerist society, people would rather buy something that is cheaper than get it repaired.
But we stuck with it, and eventually we did find a repairman who was able to fix it. We haven’t needed to fix it for the past three or four years. In that case, it was a question of finding the right repairman. Repairing is definitely part of the re-using aspect, and definitely part of our lifestyle. It’s the first reaction we have when something breaks.
You only produce a jar of rubbish a year. What’s in this jar?
Some items recur year after year. For example, the silicone caulking from the back of the kitchen sink, because we always have some kind of mould that grows in there. We change that once a year.
There are also the stickers from fruit and veggies. That’s something you can eliminate if you go to the farmer’s market, but sometimes we can’t make it. If you buy it from the supermarket, it comes with stickers.
There are also clothing labels. They personally drive me nuts. They itch, so I remove them. They’re always in the jar. What’s different this year is that we have the foam from my oldest son’s headphones. They fell apart. The manufacturer sent us replacement foam pads.
There are also the bumpers from our kitchen cabinets. They were made out of plastic, but over the last twelve years, they kind of turned to glue. So we scraped them off and replaced them with new ones.
There is also a photo greeting card that someone sent us and a sheet we laminated twenty years ago. It was in our memory box, and we said we don’t need that sheet anymore, so we cut it up and put it in there. Basically, what ends up in the jar are the items we could not refuse, reduce, recycle or rot.