During a family move a little more than a decade ago, Bea Johnson had an epiphany.

“We quickly realized that everything we needed we already had,” she recalls.

And so rather than unpack, the Johnsons gave away more than two-thirds of their belongings. They have lived an almost waste-free existence ever since. And they’ve saved a lot of money along the way.

In 2013, the French native transplanted her family to California and wrote a book about their lifestyle, Zero Waste Home. She now travels the world – from Martinique to Malaysia and beyond – promoting the back-to-basics lifestyle.

"People think that because we live in California things must be easy for us, but far from it," Johnson says. "When I travel to speak about zero-waste living, people say, 'It’s easy for you – you live in the U.S.' And then people in the U.S. say, 'It’s easy for you – you live in California.' And Californians say, 'It’s easy for you – you live in San Francisco.' And San Franciscans say, 'It’s easy for you – you’re French!' There’s no end to the pretexts that people use to say they can’t do it."

Going zero waste can help you save money and time

There’s no doubt that waste reduction is good for the planet. But environmental reasons might not be your only motivation. There can be a financial payoff as well: Johnson says her family spends about 40% less than before they embraced zero waste.

Most important, living a zero-waste life gives Johnson that rarest of modern commodities: time.

With less clothing comes less time needed to browse online or in stores. You can spend less time in the drugstore aisles, too. Time-saving multi-purpose products include things like solid soap, which lets you use one product for shampoo, shaving cream, facial cleanser and body wash. Grocery shopping is quicker and less of a hassle, as well. That’s because you’re only shopping the supermarket’s edges for produce and other fresh foods, and mostly avoiding the packaged-goods aisles.

Zero-waste living is about more than recycling

Thanks to urban recycling programs in place for more than 30 years, many Canadians may assume these lessons don’t apply to them.

But much of what we put in our blue bins ends up in the landfill. Plastics and glass that can’t be recycled, stuck-on food and things like diapers and medical waste can turn entire truckloads of glass, plastic and paper into unrecyclable garbage. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic (think of 8.3 billion elephants) the world has produced so far, a mere 9% has been recycled. That’s according to a study published in the journal Science Advances. That’s according to a study published in the journal Science Advances. And 79% of it has ended up in landfills or in the environment. The remaining 12% has been burned.

Despite the blue boxes, Canadians throw away 2.3 kg of garbage per person, every day. That makes Canada one of the biggest polluters among developed countries, according to the World Bank. The cycle of produce > consume > discard is built into our culture.

But isn’t zero waste a bit extreme? The good news is most of the solutions for adopting a zero-waste lifestyle already exist. And they’re easier to adopt than you might imagine.

It all begins with a firm resolve to stop bringing new things into your home.

"We learned to say, 'No,'" Johnson says. "Because there's always someone trying to get you to take something."

What are the 5 Rs of the zero-waste movement?

You’re probably familiar with the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. The zero-waste movement has five Rs:

  1. Refuse. As noted, if you bring less into your home, you spend less and have less to get rid of.
  2. Reduce. First declutter, then reduce what you have, in small steps.
  3. Reuse. This is the heart of the zero-waste lifestyle. It takes a shift in habits and behaviour to switch disposable items for reusable ones. For example:
    • Cloth napkins and rags rather than paper napkins and towels
    • Handkerchiefs, not tissues
    • Containers that you take to the grocery store to refill rather than the typical one-use-and-toss ones
    • Buying clothes, shoes and furnishings second-hand rather than new
    • Handing down gently worn but outgrown clothing to your younger children or your friends’ children. Again, a huge money-saving move.
  4. Recycle. This is step four for a reason: Recycle only what you cannot first refuse, reduce or reuse.
  5. Rot. This is food waste. Compost it so it doesn’t go into landfill. Or prevent most of it, by planning your meals, shopping with a grocery list and buying just what you plan to eat within the next week.

You will likely need a bit of time and planning to put all five of these suggestions into action. Think about taking simple first steps, such as reusable grocery bags and reusable sandwich containers. From there, you can build on your zero-waste efforts.

"Zero waste makes room in your life for what matters most to you," Johnson says. "Thanks to this lifestyle, we’ve been able to discover a life based on experiences instead of things. A life based on being, instead of having.

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