'Zero Waste' guru visits Phoenix to spread the word on waste reduction

Cities across the country are working to reduce the amount of waste that is piling up at landfills, including Phoenix. Under their "Reimagine Phoenix" initiative, the city is working towards diverting nearly 40% of its waste from its landfills by this year, and they have a goal of being ‘zero waste’ by 2050.

To achieve that goal, Phoenix is turning to the foremost expert in the ‘zero waste’ movement, Bea Johnson. She and her family pride themselves on only producing one jar of waste each year. And during her most recent visit to the Valley, we caught up with her to find out just how sustainable this lifestyle really is.

It’s a life based on being instead of having. It’s what makes life richer, and for Johnson and her family, that means living with zero to no waste.

Her journey began more than a decade ago, with a simple idea to simplify their lives by dramatically reducing the amount of trash she and her family produce every year. Just enough to fill a single jar.

“For zero waste to become a lifestyle, you have to let it simplify your life, not complicate it. If it’s complicated, you’re not going to stick to it,” said Johnson.

She says they had to start slow, by identifying the types of wasteful products they were bringing into their home on a daily basis.

“Next time someone tries to give you something, take half a second and ask yourself, ‘do I really need this,’ and you’ll find 99% of the cases, you actually don’t.”

Whether it be plastic bags, straws, junk mail, business cards, a free pen from a conference, a free toothbrush from the dentist, but every time we accept those things, we are creating a demand to make more.

Johnson says some stores even allow you to buy in bulk, meaning there is no need to buy a bag of bread or container of cheese. You can bring your own containers and re-use them each time you go to the store.

As for the most common, everyday items, like paper towels and napkins, Johnson says you can use similar, non-disposable items that are already lying around the house.

“Instead of paper towels, we use rags. That means we don’t have to go to the store to buy paper towels, we don’t have to store them. To clean the whole house, we just use white vinegar and water instead of all the different products we had before.”

The lifestyle has turned into a crusade for Johnson. She’s authored a best-selling book, has a massive social media following and has traveled the world, preaching the benefits of zero waste — a formula that she believes anyone can follow. She calls it her “Five R’s.”

“One: Refuse what we do not need. Two: Reduce what we do actually need. Three: Reuse by swapping disposables with reusables and by secondhand if you need to buy something. Four: Recycle only what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse - and finally it’s Rot, which is composting the rest.”

And composting is a key component of the "Reimagine Phoenix" program. It would provide residents more of an opportunity to recycle not only papers, plastics, glass and metal, but create separate bins for organic materials that are biodegradable.

“It doesn’t make any sense to send it to the landfill, those organic items should be collected in order to make compost. There should be a compost bin, so that if you're eating an apple core on the go, you actually have a place to put it in,” said Johnson.

So for now, she will continue to spread the word about how she and her family reduced their waste consumption and all the benefits that come from it.

“If zero waste has been able to transform our lives to being instead of having, I can only imagine what it would be like if we had the society based on being instead of having , I think it would solve a lot of problems.”

One of the questions you may be asking: how does Johnson and her family get around using toilet paper? They don’t. She says they tried alternatives, like moss, but as you can imagine, that didn’t go over so well. She says they buy their toilet paper rolls from restaurant supply stores, which come wrapped in biodegradable paper.

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