Is a zero waste life possible?


The media success of zero waste initiatives proves that Western consumers are increasingly willing to change their behaviour. But they also need a little help from the consumer goods industry’s biggest players.


In 2012, a woman called Bea Johnson made the headlines for her radical choice of lifestyle: this French woman, who lives with her husband and children in the San Francisco area, decided a few years ago to go “zero waste.” Every year, her household produces just two pints of rubbish, thanks to her 5Rs policy: Refuse what you do not need, Reduce what you do need, Reuse what you consume, Recycle what you cannot Refuse, Reduce or Reuse, and Rot (Compost) the rest,” she explains on her blog. She published a book in 2013, Zero Waste Home, The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying your Life by Reducing Your Waste, and also gives tips and shares experiences on her blog. The reason her story got such exposure is probably a mixture of admiration (“this woman is so responsible and coherent in her choices”) and incredulity (“I could never do that!”). At a time when environmental consciousness has spread throughout almost the entire population of the Western world, we all kind of wish we were Bea Johnson – and all believe that we could not be. Is her lifestyle truly “extremist” – or, to put it differently, the lifestyle of a militant dedicated to her cause? Or are there things that each and every consumer could learn from her example?

Individual vs. mass change

Individual behaviours always seem hard to change because they are based on routines and habits so ingrained they seem to define us. Tell me how you live, I’ll tell you who you are. Yet, habits are not that hard to change, and it’s actually quite easy to pick up new ones. Bea’s 5Rs really are tips that anyone could apply to their life with a little organisation. But one does seem to be trickier than the others: “Refuse what you do not need,” in particular when it comes to essential goods such as food and hygiene, and more specifically when it comes to the packaging of these items. To get rid of packaging waste, Bea Johnson advises buying everything in bulk, which might be feasible for her, living in an environmentally-conscious part of the United States and close to a very big city, but is probably less easy to achieve elsewhere.

In Europe, initiatives to facilitate the task for willing consumers are multiplying. Since 2007, the Unpackaged shop in London sells dry foods and liquids in bulk to consumers who bring their own containers, and also provides paper bags for the newbies who don’t. “We want to be the local store. We want them to come here rather than go to a supermarket,” founder Catherine Conway told The Guardian in 2012. In Germany, Berlin-based start-up Original Unverpackt is about to launch the country’s first supermarket selling unpackaged products. In France, La Recharge has launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the first shop of this kind in Bordeaux. And chains like Naturalia and Biocoop are also adopting the “zero packaging” trend, with a growing number of stores offering dry goods in bulk.

But of course, mass change can and will occur only when the major retail outlets start proposing similar options, at affordable prices. It is the responsibility of the biggest players in the agrifood industry to, first, reduce their packaging as far as possible and, second, think of alternatives that will produce less waste while guaranteeing the safety, quality and taste of food for consumers. That is quite a challenge for the future!

Photo © Shutterstock /panco971

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