IT’S close to past midday on a Saturday afternoon at the Slate @ The Row on Jalan Doraisamy, KL. Humidity is stifling me — and many others here — with its crushing embrace at the inaugural Malaysia Zero Waste Festival.
But this doesn’t seem to deter the crowd of “zero wasters” — people who have converted to living a zero waste lifestyle as introduced by Bea Johnson, the guru of waste free living — from thronging the minute space. The event is in full swing and features about 15 vendors plying more than 100 zero waste products.
But my attention is drawn to the centre of the sidewalk just in front of the event space where a petite lady with blonde hair is holding court, surrounded by people clamouring for her attention.
“Could you please sign my book, Bea,” a young girl queries, eagerly.
“Sure!” The jovial lady obliges, in what sounds like a slight French accent. Hailed by New York Times as the Priestess of Waste Free Living, Bea Johnson is here upon the invitation of Zero Waste Malaysia to engage with fellow Malaysian Zero Wasters in a one-day-only talk that’s due to commence in just under an hour’s time.
The name Bea Johnson is not alien to those who practise her 5R methodology of “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot”. This French native who’s now made the United States her home isn’t only a household name but also an accomplished author of her blog zerowastehome.com and the bestselling book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste.
The book has been translated into 20 different languages and is said to be important for anyone seeking to begin living a zero waste lifestyle.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
“I’m sorry, I don’t take name cards,” says Johnson, politely declining my offer of a business card. Instead she takes a picture of my name card with her mobile phone and renames it to help her remember where we met. With the aid of Aurora Tin, founder of Zero Waste Malaysia, we’re able to pull Johnson away from her fans for a quick chat in a quiet little cafe next to the event space.
The 43-year-old is decked in a light blue off-shoulder top (which she reveals is fashioned from a man’s shirt) over a pair of navy blue pants. Her whole attire, she confides, was purchased from a second-hand shop near her home in Mill Valley, California. “Over the years I’ve learnt to live with less and my wardrobe is no different. I can tie this man’s shirt into 50 different styles and it’s never boring,” shares Johnson.
Hailing from Avignon, France, this fashionable lady is far from the scruffy flower-child-tree-hugger image that many might associate with practitioners of zero waste living. “People always think you have to be a hippie or go back to the dark ages to live like I do.
But it doesn’t have to be that way!” says Johnson before adding: “It’s not just a lifestyle to save the environment, but also yourself. It’s a lifestyle that will allow you to discover more experiences. It’s a life based on ‘being’ instead of ‘having’, and that’s what makes your life richer.”
THE BIG SWITCH
Prior to switching to a zero waste lifestyle in 2008 with her husband, two teenage boys and a chihuahua, Johnson admits that her life was far from minimalistic.
“I wanted to live the typical American dream that you see on TV. I wanted to be a soccer mum,” recalls Johnson, chuckling. However, she admits that she never got to become a soccer mum in the end, but she did enjoy the pleasures of living in a big house, driving an SUV and owning many luxurious things.
Her journey to the US began when she was only 18. After graduating from high school, she decided to become an au pair (nanny) for a family living in Napa, California. “I had really bad grades in English during high school. I thought perhaps becoming an au pair in the US would help me in my learning of the language,” recounts Johnson.
During her one-year stint, she met her husband, Scott Johnson. “When my visa expired and I had to return to France, my husband, whom I was only dating then, flew all the way to meet me and persuaded me to go back (to the US),” shares Johnson.
They tied the knot in their early twenties and her husband’s job took them back to Europe where they lived in many cities such as London, Paris and Amsterdam. During their stay in these cities, they got to cycle often and enjoyed walks to nearby amenities. This leisurely lifestyle inspired them to move into an apartment in the city after seven years of living in a large house on the outskirts of San Francisco.
“We miss the life where we could easily walk to restaurants for dinner. I also wanted the kids to be independent and be able to cycle to school,” confides Johnson, adding: “When the recession hit and my husband quit his job to start a sustainable company with his partners, we decided to just downsize and go for the ideal that we had in mind.”
LIVING WITH LESS
They packed up their things, let go of the unnecessary and only brought what they needed into their new home. “That’s when I discovered that there are many advantages to living with less,” reveals Johnson. With fewer things to occupy her, she was able to spend the time with her family. They had more time to read and watch movies and documentaries together. This in turn led them to becoming more aware of their habits and consumption, which they eventually realised were truly detrimental to the environment.
“We were shocked at how much waste we were producing!” confides Johnson, before sharing that one day she decided to turn to her trash and start to slowly eliminate them from her bin. “The change didn’t happen overnight. It took time and lots of experiments because nobody knew about the term ‘zero waste’ then, except for manufacturers and corporations that employ them in their production processes,” she explains.
Some of her experimentations were extremely ambitious and borderline harmful, recalls Johnson, like the time when she washed her tresses with baking soda for six months. That exercise completely destroyed her hair. She also substituted stinging nettle for a store-bought lip plumper. Needless to say, the results were not pretty! She even went as far as to make her own bread, cheese, butter, soya milk and deodorant.
“But over time I realised that those kind of extremes were not necessary because this lifestyle change cannot be a short-term decision. Whatever we do, we need it to be sustainable and we should be able to adopt it into our lives without causing too many disruptions,” says Johnson.
TRIAL AND ERROR
Every trial and error is recorded in her blog. It wasn’t long before the media got wind of her “radical” take on life and Johnson was propelled into the limelight. Some questioned her methods while others put her on a pedestal. Either way, she has been through many ups and downs before arriving to where she is today.
When New York Times christened her the “Priestess of Waste Free Living’, Johnson admits that she felt a huge sense of responsibility on her shoulders. “All of a sudden, people were calling me and my blog became very popular,” she recalls, before adding with awe: “Then a movement started emerging. But it also came with a lot of criticisms because many didn’t know what zero waste lifestyle entailed.”
Some of the more vile comments, says Johnson, only served to push her forward. “I’ve been told that my practice wouldn’t matter because we’re just one family. They said that I wouldn’t be able to change anything in the world and I’m just one household.” Today she’s proud to show her dissenters just how wrong they are.
In 2013, Johnson decided to compile all her tips on zero waste living into a book and publish it. She was driven by the hope that in doing so, her message could be spread farther and wider. Since then, she has been invited to numerous talks and events around the world. “My job is to shatter any misconceptions that people might have of living a zero waste lifestyle,” says Johnson, adding: “I believe that if the whole world adopts it, many problems can be solved. Unfortunately, it’s only a dream for now.”
Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by Tin notifying Johnson that her talk is about to commence. Sheepishly, Johnson excuses herself but not before concluding with: “Living a zero waste life isn’t as hard as it sounds. We all live a fairly normal life especially after you’ve stopped waste from coming into your home. The only difference you’ll ever experience is the way you purchase items for your consumption. That’s essentially what true zero waste living is all about.”