Talk by international author Bea Johnson on Zero Waste Lifestyle

Chennai: A tiny glass jar containing a retainer, bristles from a bamboo toothbrush, laminated trip itineraries, kitchen cabinet bumpers, bits of photo paper and a few other things – this is all the waste that is produced at the house of California-based Bea Johnson. It amounts to a ‘mere pint of trash per year’ (roughly 473 grams). Johnson and her family adopted the Zero Waste lifestyle a decade ago.


From buying loaves of bread in pillow cases to using glass containers for cheese, there’s much to learn about waste-free living from Johnson, who will be speaking about her journey in the city today. Organised by Quantum Leap Academy, her talk on Zero Waste lifestyle, will highlight how individuals and communities here can go waste-free.

“This lifestyle is not only better for the environment but also for your health. It saves time and money and declutters your house,” says Johnson, who has saved 40% on her annual family budget.

Photo credit: Jacqui J. Sze

A French native living in Mill Valley, Johnson’s drive to eliminate unnecessary trash from her home began when they moved houses in 2008. They realized that they didn’t miss most of the stuff they’d left behind. She first read about the zero waste lifestyle only in the industrial context. Determined to implement it at the domestic level, she researched extensively and arrived at a sustainable system. The 5Rs – standing for Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (when followed only in that order) – are the most effective ways to eliminate waste, she explains.

“The items you don’t need could be useful for someone else when they’re put back in the market,” says Johnson, whose book, ‘Zero Waste Home’, details practical steps to follow, like second-hand purchases, among others.

A major chunk of the problem lies in our consumption patterns, she explains. “In many countries including India, the issue has two aspects. There’s one section that lives an extravagant lifestyle – consuming more to emphasise their status and the other, which consumes less owing to their economic background.”

While the former increases the waste produced, the latter needs better waste collection and management methods. According to Johnson, packaging is a significant contributor to the issue. Her family, therefore, buys only unpackaged products and replaces disposables with reusables. This means, using mesh bags for groceries, cloth bags for items like flour and salt and glass jars for wet products.

Until a few years ago, similar practices were followed in households in India. Areca nut or Banana leaves were used as plates, cloth bags for shopping and terracotta or glass for tumblers. “It is true that traditional methods have answers to many of our problems today. I’ve often called up my mother and grandmother to find out how things were done in their time,” says Johnson, stressing that parents have a responsibility to pass on this knowledge to their children.

The government and educational institutions also have a crucial role to play to carry out the 5Rs. “They can make it easy to go waste-free by banning plastic bags and straws, supporting the sale of unpackaged and reusable items, offering accessible recycling facilities and setting up composting bins for the community,” says Johnson.

At first, Johnson’s lifestyle appears difficult to follow but with a little effort it is possible. “Zero Waste works when you let it simplify your life and not complicate it. Over time, you acquire a kind of selective vision and find that what you need is available,” she says.

Quantum Leap Academy co-founder D. Srikanthan and his wife S. Srividhya chanced upon Johnson’s work a year ago and were truly inspired. “We felt that her experiences can serve as an eye-opener for all of us as the concept of Zero Waste is just picking up here,” says S. Srividhya.

Johnson will be speaking at the Hablis Hotel at 7pm today.

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