Zero Waste Guru delivers inspirational talk to crowded hall in Dublin

Published by Eric Maher on

14th March 2017

Bea Johnson, zero waste guru, blogger and author of the acclaimed, Zero Waste Home, gave a presentation on her environmentally-friendly ethos and lifestyle at Trinity College Dublin last night.

There was standing room only in a packed Robert Emmet theatre, with individuals from a variety of backgrounds squeezing themselves in to hear Bea Johnson’s pearls of zero waste wisdom.

The event was organised and promoted by the ever-growing Zero Waste Ireland group, in conjunction with Trinity College’s Environmental Society.

Introducing Ms. Johnson and speaking on behalf of Zero Waste Ireland, group member, Laura Cahill, commented that, “not only is she living the zero waste lifestyle but also changing the way people think about waste” and made reference to the importance of the Zero Waste Ireland group of 4,000 people for “giving ideas and encouragement” in promoting and maintaining waste reducing practices.

“I must apologise,” began Ms. Johnson with a French accent that bared no traces of dilution from her time abroad, “I have forgotten my accent filter.” Her opening drew laughter from the crowded lecture hall and left all at ease. This would be a talk free of judgement and pontification. Indeed, throughout the evening, she insisted she was, “only here to talk, not to judge.” Members of the audience secretly drinking from their single use plastic bottles could sit more comfortably.

Every Zero Waste Hero needs an origin story.

Ms.Johnson’s family trash for 2016

A move North from San Francisco prior to that led to her change in lifestyle. Moving into a new home for one year with only the essentials, her family noticed that they had not missed 80% of the items they had left in storage.

It sparked a journey of reflection and education for Bea and her husband, leaving them somewhat saddened by the future their kids would inherit. Zero Waste at this time, Ms. Johnson insists, was not a term for domestic use. It might be policy in companies or community groups but not for the individual.

This sparked a Eureka moment and the energy-saver light bulb went off. Her family would strive for a zero waste lifestyle. Why Zero? “Because it pushes you to go further”

It was a case of trial and vinegar soaked error at the start. Buying tomatoes in bulk and canning them once a year in glass jars was a roaring success. Washing one’s hair in baking soda and apple vinegar and using moss instead of toilet paper…..? Not so successful with Ms. Johnson informing an intrigued crowd about how moss hardens into something like sandpaper over time. It is a process of understanding what they could live without and being sensible with what has to remain as part of your lifestyle.

Following the 5 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (strictly in that order)

Her 5 r’s guideline is how she manages to use such little waste. She guides the audience through her home to demonstrate this lifetstyle.

Refuse is the most important one. Saying no to excess packaging or to freebies at hotels is a hard habit to get into, but is the most important step to take towards zero waste.

Reduce what you need comes next. For example she explains that people on average only use 20% of their wardrobe, the other 80% being kept for ‘what if’. What if there’s a wedding, what if I lose/gain weight and so on. Her family needs so little that each of their wardrobes fits into a carry on case!

Reuse all those containers, arm yourself with cloth bags for shopping, buy second hand.

Recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse. You can hear more about her recycling policy here.

And finally, rot (compost). Floor sweepings, hair, veg skins and the packaging from butter (which is the only food they cannot find in bulk) all gets composted. Their compost also allows them to compost meat and fish bones, after they have been boiled for stock of course.

Zero Waste Benefits. “Being instead of Having”

The environmental benefits are obvious but Ms. Johnson is keen to stress what other positives come out of their lifestyle.

Their reduced consumption rate has been financially beneficial. Much, she jokes, “to her husband’s delight.” They are buying better products and from smaller stores. They might be more expensive but, fiscally,  less is more. Buying in bulk creates a saving of 15% and buying reusable goods means their items have a longevity alien to disposable goods. They are saving 40% annually. The saved money has been pumped into creating a irrigation system, reusing their waste water and solar panels for electricity.

The health benefits are quite tangible too. No longer does Bea suffer from conjunctivitis. She feels healthier and more energetic. Her husband’s lifelong sinus problems have also cleared up. She puts this down not using plastic or other manufactured chemicals in their lives, as ‘plastics are not only toxic to our health when they’re manufactured, but to our health when we use them.’ She insists she can now taste the plastic on food that has been packaged in it.

The big thing for her is that life now less complicated and their is more time to experience the world around it with her family and friends. Their priorities have changed and they are in a state of being as opposed to having. “When you live with less you have more time to live.” It has for her family “translated into absolute happiness.”

Bea, Laura, Timi and Cecilia in front of an eager audience. Image courtesy of Bea Johnson.

Audience Reaction

With the floor being opened up to the audience, Ms. Johnson answered questions along with members of the Zero Waste Ireland Group, Laura Cahill, Timi Konya and Cecilia Ramonetta. When it came to gift-giving, Ms. Johnson gives people vouchers or experiences as opposed to products. She mentioned that most people close to her support her initiatives.

When people spoke of their discomfort when asking a butcher or shop assistant to put their product in a glass container, she tells them be direct and don’t look them in they eye. If people refuse to do it she tells the audience to be brave and “speak up if you want change.”

She addressed the challenge of getting over what she called ‘heirloom guilt’ when faced with all those trinkets passed down through generations.

She assures the audience that she is not someone with unlimited time on her hands who spends her whole day mending clothes and making jam, as she thought zero wasters would have to be. Her lifestyle has always fit in with her full time job.

The Zero Waste group were very open about their experiences and journey while also giving advice on where to go if people want to buy sustainably friendly items.

The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive with Ms. Johnson staying to chat at the end. She was “funny and informative,” Mies Stam, a botanist from Clare complimented while Molly Aylesbury, an environmental blogger in her own right, noted how “very real and pragmatic she was and in no way condescending”

Commenting on the event’s success, Rachel Dempsey of the Zero Waste Ireland group commented, “we hope it informs and inspires more people to get involved…. We hope the movement keeps growing, using platforms online and offline and together we can help change our throwaway society into one the uses the earth’s precious resources wisely”


The Event was kindly sponsored by Etherson’s Butchers, H2G, Nuts in Bulk, Sinead Finegan, Green Door, Green Earth Organics,, Sweadish Seamstress, Rosa Corr, Little Green Shop, Two Little Cs, Rustic Amber, Majackal Creations, Bump to Beyond, Ecotots,, Mummy Hubs, Cecilia Ramonetta of EC potty training and Laura Cahill.

Article by Catherine O’ Toole and Eric Maher

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Eric Maher

Eric Maher is a contributor to the Green News. He has a Masters in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from UCD.