COVID-19 challenges zero waste lifestyle, expert Bea Johnson says don't give up!

ByDion Lim and Jennifer Olney KGO logo
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
COVID-19 challenges the Zero Waste Lifestyle
Zero Waste expert Bea Johnson is marooned in the desert by COVID-19, but she is still reducing trash and says you can too, even in a pandemic.

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (KGO) -- Zero Waste expert Bea Johnson is marooned in the desert by COVID-19, but she is still reducing trash and says you can too, even in a pandemic.

Since 2008, Johnson's family of four has produced only one small jar of trash a year. Compare that to the average American who, according the Environmental Protection Agency, produces four and a half pounds of trash per day.

Some call Johnson the "Mother of the Zero Waste Lifestyle" which she says is about more than just cutting trash. "It does translate into a simpler life, a life that is based on experiences instead of things."

Johnson is the author of the best-selling book "Zero Waste Home." Her book, social media and appearances all over the world helped launch a global movement, and she is not giving up because of COVID-19.

Johnson is urging people sheltering at home to take time to consider living with less stuff and less waste. It's good for the planet and for you.

"The great advantage of zero waste or the zero waste lifestyle is that it makes you highly self-sufficient and highly adaptable" she said.

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Johnson lives in Mill Valley, but when the pandemic hit she was in Louisiana as she and her husband traveled the country on a one year speaking tour. They were living in an Airstream Travel Trailer and have moved from campground to campground as cities and states shutdown their parks. Johnson talked with ABC7 News from a campground in the Arizona desert.

"Forty of my events have been canceled this spring, but we can't really go back home. We can't go back to the Bay Area, given that our home is rented out. So this is the situation we are in, but we make the best of it" she told us.

Even in the desert, with spotty internet connection, Johnson was eager to talk about what she calls the "five R's of zero waste," which she says are applicable anywhere in the world "no matter what situation you are in, including a pandemic!"

The first "R" is to "refuse" things you do not need. For example, Johnson says as you shelter in place, you have time to start refusing junk mail. Contact all the people who are sending you junk mail and tell them to stop.

The second "R" is to "reduce" what you do actually need. While you are stuck at home "consider your past consumption and let go of all the things you do not really need or use in your home. When you let go you will be able to make those things, which are in themselves valuable resources, available to your community" Johnson said.

The third "R" is to "reuse." Look for items in your home that are disposable that you can replace with items that can be reused again and again. Reusing things instead of buying new ones is good for the planet and often saves you money.

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During the pandemic many stores have banned reusable bags, but don't forget about other easily reusable products. Consider replacing paper napkins with cloth ones, rip up old t-shirts and sheets and make rags instead of using paper towels, or use extra fabric to make masks.

We tested out vegan wax wrap, a reusable alternative to plastic wrap. It clings like plastic and works well for wrapping cold items, but can not be used in the oven.

The fifth "R" is for rot, which means composting. According to the EPA, food waste makes up more than 20 percent of the material dumped in landfills, so composting food scraps instead of putting them in the trash can make a big difference.

Another 30 percent of American waste is created by packaging and containers. That is why a staple of Zero Waste living is buying un-packaged products from bulk bins and taking them home in your own reusable containers.

Many stores are temporarily banning that practice because of COVID-19, but some still sell in bulk. One of those is Good Earth in Mill Valley where bulk products are available, but the staff will now scoop them for you into paper bags.

Johnson's website has a "bulk finder" feature to help you find other locations that are still selling bulk goods. If you have one close to you, Johnson urges you to shop there to support the business during the pandemic.

Even if your store does not have bulk bins, Johnson suggests you can still look at packaging when you buy and choose the ones that are more earth friendly. That means "sticking away from plastics" according to Johnson. Paper packaging can be recycled or composted much more easily than plastic.

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Many stores still offer milk in returnable glass bottles and some sell other products in glass jars that can also be returned for reuse and a money back deposit.

So what about those coffee shops that will no longer allow you to bring your own cup? "This is a question I personally don't understand. Why are you even going out to a restaurant to get your mug refilled? Stay at home and make your own coffee!" Johnson said.

To learn more about Bea Johnson and zero waste living, check out her website here.

For reusable items including wax wrap, take a look at No Trace Shop here.