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Zero Waste Guru's 10 Tips for a Happier and Healthier Life

Health + Wellness
Zero Waste Guru's 10 Tips for a Happier and Healthier Life

Bea Johnson and her family adopted a zero waste lifestyle back in 2008 and they've never looked back. A zero waste guru, Johnson has inspired thousands of people, including Lauren Singer, author of the zero waste blog Trash is for Tossers, to adopt a zero waste lifestyle. She has been hailed by The New York Times as "the priestess of waste-free living."

Johnson has become a guru for the zero waste lifestyle. Photo credit: Bea Johnson

Johnson's book, Zero Waste Home, and her blog of the same name, share her personal story of how she simplified her life by reducing her waste. Johnson, her husband, Scott, and their two sons produce just one quart-sized jar of garbage per year and they say their overall quality of life has changed for the better.

They are doing more with less. They now have more time together, they've cut their annual spending by 40 percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been. What Johnson loves most about the lifestyle is that it simplified her life: She and her family spend less time doing chores and more time having fun. (Sign me up!)

Johnson and her family produce a quart-sized jar of waste per year. Photo credit: Bea Johnson

Johnson, a native of France, lives with her family in Mill Valley, California. In 2006, they moved downtown to be able to walk or bike everywhere. Before finding the small house they now live in, they rented an apartment for a year and moved in with only a few necessities (they stored the rest). They found they really enjoyed living with less and when they found their new home (which was half the size of the previous one), they got rid of 80 percent of their belongings.

"Voluntary simplicity was a first step towards waste-free living," says Johnson. When she and her family educated themselves even more about environmental issues, they decided to take the plunge and aim for zero waste. In the midst of the recession, her husband, Scott, quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company and Johnson tackled the house and the family's lifestyle.

She has proven that zero waste living can not only be stylish, but can also lead to significant health benefits, and time and money savings. "It's not only good for the environment, but it greatly improves one's standard of living, too," says Johnson. "It offers a richer life: one based on experiences instead of stuff ... Just imagine what it would be like if our society shifted from focusing on 'having' to focusing on 'being.'"

In the midst of the recession, her husband, Scott, quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company and Johnson tackled the house and the family's lifestyle. Photo credit: Zero Waste Home

Johnson has been invited to speak at universities, corporate events and conferences all over the world. She provides consulting services and even opens her home to educational tours and the media. For her commitment and innovation, she was awarded the grand prize at the 2011 Green Awards.

"The 'zero' in zero waste makes it sound scary and hard to achieve, but it is actually not as as hard as it seems," Johnson says. To make the process even easier for newbies, Johnson created an app, Bulk, which helps users eliminate packaging from their life by locating bulk food bins and liquid refills near them and letting them share the locations that they find with others.

To adopt a zero waste lifestyle, Johnson proposes a simple guideline, the 5 R's: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (and only in that order). That means refusing what you do not need, reducing what you do need, reusing what you consume, recycling what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse, and rot (compost) the rest.

Here are Bea Johnson's 10 easy steps to zero waste living:

Refuse

  1. Fight junk mail. It's not just a waste of resources, but also of time. Register to receive less at dmachoice.org, optoutprescreen.org and catalogchoice.org.

  1. Turn down freebies from conferences, fairs and parties. Every time you take one, you create a demand to make more. Do you really need another "free" pen?

Reduce

  1. Declutter your home, and donate to your local thrift shop. You'll lighten your load and make precious resources available to those looking to buy secondhand.

  1. Reduce your shopping trips and keep a shopping list. The less you bring home, the less waste you'll have to deal with.

Reuse

  1. Swap disposables for reusables (start using handkerchiefs, refillable bottles, shopping totes, cloth napkins, rags, etc.). You might find that you don't miss your paper towels, but rather enjoy the savings

  1. Avoid grocery shopping waste: Bring reusable totes, cloth bags (for bulk aisles), and jars (for wet items like cheese and deli foods) to the store and farmers market.

Recycle

  1. Know your city's recycling policies and locations—but think of recycling as a last resort. Have you refused, reduced or reused first? Question the need and life-cycle of your purchases. Shopping is voting.

  1. Buy primarily in bulk or secondhand, but if you must buy new, choose glass, metal or cardboard. Avoid plastic: Much of it gets shipped across the world for recycling and often ends up in the landfill (or worse yet, the ocean).

Rot

  1. Find a compost system that works for your home and get to know what it will digest (dryer lint, hair, and nails are all compostable).

  1. Turn your home kitchen trash can into one large compost receptacle. The bigger the compost receptacle, the more likely you'll be to use it freely.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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