Bea Johnson at a bulk food shop. Picture: Nikola Bruncovai.
Bea Johnson at a bulk food shop. Picture: Nikola Bruncovai.

The easiest hacks to live a plastic-free life

EVEN before she started the zero-waste movement Bea Johnson was firmly against plastic.

"I switched to glass way before I started the zero-waste lifestyle," Ms Johnson told news.com.au.

She has since developed a system for living without creating rubbish, which rejects disposable items in favour of reusable ones.

While plastic can be reusable, Ms Johnson said she chose to live plastic-free.

"Personally I've read books on plastic's impact on the environment and on its impact on people's health," she said. "Once I did that there was no way I would continue using those items."

In particular, Ms Johnson pointed to the presence of BPA (Bisphenol A), a chemical used in the lining of food and drink packaging, including the lining of canned foods, to extend their shelf life.

BPA is an endocrine disrupter that has been linked to breast and prostate cancers, genital defects in males, early onset of puberty in females, obesity and behavioural problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"It's having a really crazy impact on our society and if you are not aware of this, it's understandable if you want to continue using it," Ms Johnson said. "But once you are aware, there's no way you would continue using them."

Ms Johnson acknowledged that some people found plastic containers lighter and easier to carry

"Some zero wasters like to use them because they are lighter to carry, that's their choice," she said. "It's up to everyone to live how they wish, I just provide the alternatives that we've discovered."

Ms Johnson is also not a fan of landfill biodegradable items and points to the findings of archaeologist William L Rathje, who discovered a tub of guacamole that survived pretty much intact, for more than 20 years at the tip.

"He showed that for something to biodegrade there needs to be air and light but in a landfill none of this happens," Ms Johnson said. "Bags sold as biodegradable, that's greenwashing. It's not something that actually happens."

Instead Ms Johnson chooses to live plastic and waste free by following a system she developed called the five R's: Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.

 

1. REFUSE WHAT YOU DO NOT NEED

The first step is to refuse disposable items such as free plastic bags, straws, promotional mail, free pens from conferences or even party favours at a children's party.

"We are pounded by these 'free' items but every time we accept them, we create demand to make more," Ms Johnson said. "They add to the clutter in your home and also add to the trash problem."

Instead she has developed polite ways to react when people offer her these things.

"I say 'no thanks, that's very nice of you but I don't need it', or 'I'm a minimalist'. We've found sentences that have worked for us, to try not to be a robot in accepting things."

 

Bea Johnson. Picture: Nikola Bruncovai
Bea Johnson. Picture: Nikola Bruncovai

2. REDUCE WHAT YOU DO NEED

"We only buy what needs to be replaced, so if a sneaker has a hole in it, we buy a second-hand replacement," Ms Johnson said.

"You will not see scanners, cameras or alarm clocks in my house. We don't wear the latest Apple watch, or have CDs or DVD players.

"A lot of electronics that people tend to have, we don't, because we realised we don't need it."

Ms Johnson said she had donated the items she previously had so other people could make use of them.

"That's the beauty of letting go. You make them available to the community and it boosts the second-hand market, which is important for the future of zero waste," she said.

Since embracing the zero-waste lifestyle, her family now consumes a lot less than before.

"When we went on a trip before we used to bring back souvenirs, when my mother came to visit we would go shopping. These activities had become hobbies and we were automatically drawn to purchasing things," Ms Johnson said.

"We are now spending on activities and moments, and that's what makes our life richer. It strengthens our bonds with family and friends."

 

Bea Johnson with her family. Picture: Stephanie Rausser.
Bea Johnson with her family. Picture: Stephanie Rausser.

3. REUSE BY USING REUSABLES

Living zero waste also means not using disposable items. Ms Johnson has swapped out paper towels for rags and uses handkerchiefs instead of boxes of tissues.

"You're literally throwing your money away," she said of most people's attachment to disposable items.

Her book Zero Waste Home has many tips for how to replace disposable items such as razors, water bottles, menstrual products and plastic bags.

 

Bea Johnson gets her own containers filled with food. Picture: Igor Podgorny
Bea Johnson gets her own containers filled with food. Picture: Igor Podgorny

4. RECYCLE WHAT YOU CANNOT REFUSE, REDUCE OR REUSE

Recycling is important but Ms Johnson does not think it's the answer to being zero waste, which is why is comes after refuse, reduce and reuse.

"Firstly people have to recognise something as being recyclable and put it in the right (recycling) bin," she said. "Then it may be turned into an item that is no longer recyclable."

While metal and glass can be recycled pretty much endlessly, plastic is usually 'downcycled' into something like a park bench. Beyond that, it can't be recycled again.

"These are the reasons why I favour glass … and I chose metal, which I can recycle," she said.

When her smartphone breaks she takes it to a repair shop and if they can't fix it, she sells it to them for the parts straight away.

"If we hang on to it for 15 years, there's no demand for the parts."

 

5. ROT (COMPOST) THE REST

Food waste is something that zero wasters try to avoid, which is partly what makes the lifestyle cheaper for many. Anything that is left over, is composted so it doesn't go to landfill.

 

Bea Johnson began her tour speaking at The Source Bulk Foods on Thursday, July 12 in Sydney, and will be speaking in Melbourne on July 13, in Adelaide on July 15 and Brisbane on July 17.


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