Book Review: Zero waste home by Bea Johnson

zero waste home

As I journey along the path of minimalism, related ideas have caught my attention. In recent months I have become frustrated by the amount of rubbish we throw away. Our main source of waste is seemingly food and nappies. While I have reduced the total partly by savvy shopping, having a wild card night on the menu plan and taking compostables to a friends allotment, I have not made nearly the dent I would like.

It was in this frustrated and disheartened state that I read Bea Johnson’s Zero waste home. Her family doesn’t actually produce zero waste, but last year they were down to a pint. Yes, you read that correctly, a pint. Her book is a straight forward guide to reducing waste by following the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. She applies these golden rules religiously and in that order. (Decluttering fits within reduce).

The 5Rs have an intuitive appeal and she explores each of them in detail before applying them to:

  • Kitchen & Grocery Shopping
  • Bathroom, Toiletries, and wellness
  • Housekeeping & maintenance
  • Work space and junk mail.
  • Kids & school
  • Holidays & gifts
  • Out and about

Application can be somewhat harder. Refusing, for example, is not always straightforward. Recently I purchased some hair accessories and the shop had a buy 3, get 3 free offer. I only needed 4 and it caused the cashier no end of confusion when she repeatedly told me that I could have 2 more free… “They’re free!” “I only need these”, “But they’re free”, “and I have all that I need” and so on. In the end I told her I was a minimalist and I really did understand that they were “free” however I still wouldn’t be getting any more. Under normal circumstances I have found that a cheery “No thank you” will suffice, but some people are tenacious with the desire to give you things.

Johnson’s book is thought provoking and I have already implemented some straightforward, easy swaps, like making my own liquid castille soap and using a compostable bamboo toothbrush.  I also hadn’t realised/thought about the variety of personal hygiene products that can be composted including hair from a brush and silk floss .I’ll never need to experiment with her homemade make up (I choose the zero waste option of not wearing any), but she includes handy recipes along the way from refillable oil votive, water colour dyes, pancakes and cleaning products.

However the phrase I found most annoying throughout the book was “available in bulk”. Well not where I am! I assume stores with bulk aisles are more readily available in the US and she does have a BULK app that indicates Glasgow and Edinburgh are hot spots in the UK . The phrase popped up with such regularity I nearly stopped reading. I stuck with it and in the penultimate chapter, Johnson encourages you to “get involved” and even offers an A to Z of possible ways.

I also struggle with extremes (of anything). Zero waste is an ideal. It needs to be taken in balance with other choices. The book is selling Zero waste, and Johnson’s typical grocery run involves her visiting both a farmer’s market and a health food store in the car (in addition to other errands that day). She aims for optimum fuel efficiency by maximising right turns (in the UK it would be left turns) AND she is still using a car. Similarly her recipe for dryer lint putty would not even hit our radar as we don’t have a tumble dryer. Perfectionism doesn’t help anyone and can result in crippling indecision: is it better to buy the fairtrade bananas in packaging or the non-fairtrade ones without packaging?


While there are many great ideas, Zero waste home is going back to the library tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll revisit it at some point, however if you’d like a taste for zero waste I’d recommend starting with Janie Baran’s post over at Simple not plain.If you work well with motivation from others or a target, the 5th -9th September 2016 is Zero Waste Week and this year it is focusing on food waste. I’m in. Are you?