5 Rs for Creating a Zero-Waste Home the Bea Johnson Way

Just how big a container would you need to hold all the non-recyclable, non-compostable waste your family accumulates in a year?

Zero waste devotee, blogger and author Bea Johnson can fit the waste from her family of four (count ‘em) from 2017 in...

a one-quart glass jar.

Yep – one quart. And it even looks as if there’s a little room to spare!

At a Zero Waste Chicago event co-hosted by the sustainability-focused Shedd Aquarium on April 15, Johnson took the sold-out, largely millennial crowd through a power-point-facilitated tour of her home in Mill Valley, California as she outlined the 5 Rs anyone can use to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills…or worse. The brainchild of the event was Bailey Warren, one of three cofounders of Zero Waste Chicago, who is also Chicago Market Owner #820 and a member of the Co-op’s Zero Waste Committee. The event also boasted an “action expo” of local organizations and businesses that cater to the zero waste movement and a panel discussion that included our very own Dana McKinney, Owner #872 and Chicago Market Board member.

Dana says she was struck by the alignment between Johnson’s values and those of Chicago Market. “As Bea said several times in her presentation, how consumers spend – or don’t spend – our dollars sends a message to retailers and manufacturers about how we feel about the myriad waste in the food and lifestyle products supply chain. At Chicago Market, not only will we make sure that we control the amount we add to the waste stream, we are committed to implementing a number of zero-waste best practices in our store. Things like having a robust bulk foods section, ‘shedding’ the straw as Shedd Aquarium has done, sourcing products from vendors who share our sustainability goals and, of course, embracing recycling.”

The event’s featured speaker, Bea Johnson, began her odyssey toward a zero-waste home in 2006. She believes her “5 Rs” – honed by several years of experimentation and research – can help everyone not just waste less, but totally improve the quality of life as well. So…just what are the 5 Rs?

Refuse. The first “R” – refuse – is the foundation of Bea’s zero-waste philosophy. It refers to “refusing” to buy, purchase or otherwise consume things that are nonessential. Among them are single-use plastics (including those convenient toss-away bottles of water), promotional freebies and other swag, junk mail, meals on planes (bring your own) – even business cards. After all, she says, what we refuse will not end up in our personal waste stream.

Reduce. Bea makes Marie Kondo seem like a hoarder. To Bea, anything beyond what is necessary or required for comfort is excess. She recommends a wholesale decluttering, including eliminating duplicates of every kind, as well as paring back on home accessories, cleaning products and cutting your wardrobe by up to 80%. (She swears her entire wardrobe – 15 pieces – fits in a carryon.) Along the way, she advises selling, donating or bartering away what you’ve reduced. Check this out! Chicago Market will deliver the perfect opportunity to do just that at our Stuff Swap on May 5!

Reuse. A huge proponent of the secondhand market, Bea buys her family’s clothes and household goods at thrift stores, flea markets and other secondhand outlets like eBay (specifying to sellers to only use recyclable paper and cardboard as packing material). Another critical “reuse” practice is swapping out disposable products for reusable alternatives. For example, toss your plastic containers, foil and other like items and use reusable glass jars instead. Cloth baby diapers make outstanding rags (on sale from our Owner friends at Meliora Cleaning Products this week!) and extra pillowcases can be transformed (with some sewing expertise) into drawstring bags for toting bakery products and bulk foods home from the Co-op!

Recycle. Everyone knows about recycling, right? In truth, Chicago's recycling rate is less than 10%. Not to mention, she says, there’s no guarantee that your “recycling” won’t end up in a landfill instead. That’s why she advises to go hard on the first three Rs. As she notes, the best way to reduce the amount you need to recycle is to refuse, reduce and reuse as much as you possibly can.

Rot. “R” #5 refers to composting everything that’s compostable. Sadly, the city of Chicago doesn’t have a compost pick-up as part of its trash removal services. So if you don’t want to compost and use it in your or a community garden, you can take advantage of a number of Chicago-based compost pick-up services like Collective Resource and others (which we’ve collected for you here) to pick up your compost on a regular schedule.

Ready to learn more? Check out Bea’s 100 tips for actions you can take to reduce waste in your home starting today. You can also find detailed information about Johnson’s philosophy, 5R practices and other ideas for reducing your family’s environmental impact in her book, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste.

Don’t waste a second before you start!

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