Why I Went Zero Waste


I'm writing this because Bea Johnson's Zero Waste Home changed my life. Because I'm a narcissist, I assume it will change yours too.

Zero waste is an industrial term applied to a consumer movement towards a circular economy where, much like Amy Schumer’s comedy, material is reused and recycled infinitely. This means reimagining design, manufacturing, and recovery to divert or recapture as much as possible from the waste stream. It involves using only biodegradable or reclaimable technical nutrients that nourish, rather than harm, the environment. More importantly, it requires changing habits: buying less, choosing quality over quantity, and demanding durable, not disposable, goods. Zero waste is the way our grandparents lived, a lifestyle we rejected because we were too busy swiping left to cook anything but shrink wrapped meals.

The zero waste movement grew partly because of increased awareness of the dangers of climate change. According to a 2016 EPA report, municipal solid waste landfills were the third largest contribution of any methane source in the United States. Convenience comes at a cost, and we live with the consequences of having everything precut, prewashed, air conditioned, and delivered. Mostly, however, the movement’s increased popularity can be attributed to inspiring women like Johnson, who drew attention to the lifestyle via social media. The story of an empowered French woman forging environmental change in America resonated with me, though my background couldn’t be more different.

I grew up really far from the Gallic countryside, in an economically depressed suburb of Cleveland. My family composted, had a vegetable garden, upcycled everything from paper bags to twist ties, and owned Ferngully on VHS. We lived in a small, 200 year old farmhouse, where we climbed trees in thrift store clothing, picking apples and pears off the branches (we also played a lot by the creek out back, which was filled with sewage). My mom, despite working full time and raising us alone, sewed our clothes and cooked homemade gluten-free meals every day. Most people think I’m an only child, which should probably bother me. I’m the oldest of six.

This upbringing- at the intersection of post-Occupation Korean frugality and third-generation American conspicuous consumption- turned me into sort of a Beyonce / Sasha Fierce, ecologically speaking, minus the talent, money, and beauty. Anybody can be a good little planeteer until they hit puberty and start caring about what other people think. I went from scavenging $0.50 secondhand Comme des Garçons jeans to spending my whole allowance at Wet Seal. My curly hair, which I once wore long, like a Stevie Nicks dress, became frizzy and brittle under the eurocentric rigors of ceramic straighteners. I was trapped in a vicious cycle requiring more products, more chemicals, more time spent fighting my sister for the bathroom every morning, all so I could fit into a typically Midwestern thermos of jocks, cheerleaders, sk8r bois, and AP nerds whose names I don't remember.


They were different times, those dark days when my AIM buddy list looked like a Hollister catalog and I barely knew what a carbon sink was. I graduated high school and bought a ticket to Paris, my first trip outside the country alone, indulging in every mini disposable product and travel gadget Target had to offer. I went to Zara and spent graduation money on stuff I’d wear once, then toss as soon as photos appeared on Facebook. Back then, I pretended I didn’t derive unparalleled joy from identifying wildlife habitats listed in Janine Benyus’ field guides, or secretly extol Arne Naess’ ideas of all-encompassing natural relationships as I applied glitter lotion to my forearms every night.

Everything changed in college, when, confronted with the fact my family could never be proud of any major not requiring a semester of organic chemistry, I ditched plans to become a teacher. My mom suggested taking a sustainability course. The class opened my eyes to the absurdities of resource mismanagement, industrialized food production, and my own personal overconsumption. I suddenly understood why Morrissey preferred animals to people. The more I read, the more helpless and hypocritical I felt. I drove everywhere, drank bottled water, and ate too many Snickers. Frustrated with the disconnect between what I learned and how I lived, I asked a professor for guidance.

She sent me an article about the Johnsons, a family of four trying to live trash-free in California. Looking at pictures of their organized cabinets gave me the sensation of clean, crisp mountain air caressing my face while biting into a York Peppermint Patty. Unpackaged bulk items rested beautifully in the pantry, unencumbered by labels. Non-toxic, non-polluting bar soap surrounded by air plants lent a minimalist appeal to the bathroom. The zero waste home, in all its white, plastic-free purity, was the domestic manifestation of Tilda Swinton, better than any Nancy Meyer movie house.

Even more striking was what Bea Johnson herself represented. Here was someone living her values and inspiring others to do the same. Next semester, I tested the zero waste lifestyle for a school project. At first I tried a week, then a month. The experiment gradually slipped into a year. My allergies disappeared. Instead of buying paper towels and plastic wrap, I saved money by switching to cloth for cleaning or carrying sandwiches. I started eating vegan. I walked to class, and for the first time in my life, noticed a hint of Kardashian-like posterior tautness. Grocers quizzed me about my package-free objectives. I found this oddly gratifying, probably because I love attention. Once I saw how rewarding zero waste living was, I didn’t want to stop. It was kind of like seeing Kim and Kanye together for the first time- it just made sense.

That zero waste project showed me how basic I was. I chose to go from a simple, contented upbringing where I freely experienced culture and nature to letting others tell me it wasn’t enough- there was a ton of stuff I needed instead. The magazines I read and people I hung around influenced what I thought I should wear (fast fashion), or buy (pumpkin spice lattes), or look like (any of the original Laguna Beach cast members). As is the case for so many from my generation, I’d lost my sense of direction, becoming fully dependent on peers and marketers to shape my identity. Zero waste gave me my independence back, however dramatic that sounds.

It also helped me start a new life in another country. That year, I met a Frenchman in a speakeasy in the Marais. We married a few weeks later. I’d basically only ever lived in Cleveland, and suddenly found myself in an unfamiliar place, with a different language, and a culture surprisingly alien to me. Want a surefire conversation starter with Parisians? Tell vendors at farmer’s markets you want fresh produce or bread in your own cloth bags. Curious neighbors inquired about the glass jars and wicker shopping cart I wheeled around everyday. They learned my name, and I learned their stories. I asked about their kids, and they asked about my cats. I arrived a shy, scared foreigner, but zero waste broke the ice, making me feel at home right away.

It all went full circle, I guess, from the Cleveland girl reading about Bea Johnson’s zero waste activism stateside to the Cleveland girl composting on a little balcony in Montmartre. Critics argue, however, that zero waste isn’t practical for everybody. Can millennials, who are so obligation-averse they can barely commit to a Netflix series, go zero waste while still having enough time and money to cultivate their personal brand? I think so. I’ve seen firsthand how zero waste helps others achieve happier, healthier lives, and it’s not as difficult or extreme as one might think. That, along with my near pathological need for affirmation, is the reason I started this blog: to provide busy people a flexible means of transitioning to a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle. Not everyone lives in a city with bulk shopping, or has the spare time and resources to make everything from scratch. I wrote this for those who might not realize they have the circumstances to go zero waste yet.

To see Bea Johnson speak in Toronto for the first time, purchase tickets hereThis was supposed to be the introduction to a book I couldn't finish because, well, I'm not a good writer. I don't have the creativity required for a coherent Instagram message, let alone a blog post, let alone an entire book.  I meant to publish it as my first blog post but it was too annoying. By now you must be used to me so I figure this is as good a time as any, it's the spiritual sequel to this post. I took the photos in Amber and Dylan's beautiful Rooke's Nest.



Paris to Go

17 comments:

  1. Ariana, these last few posts you've written have been some of my favorites. You continue to reveal new layers of yourself and in the process, force me to look within myself, to see what else is inside the brand that is me. Now I understand why I identify with you. Ferngully holds a special place in my heart. I too am the oldest only of four and didn't grow up with much but that was ok, until my peers taught me that I should be ashamed of my wild curls and running around barefoot laughing at nothing. Fuckers. And I'm something like first-and-a-half generation American. I want to be just like you when I grow up and since I hear you in my head when I'm doing zero waste activities, like canning, I'd say it's just a matter of time.

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  2. Gosh, could I respect you any more ?

    Its time you self published the book. You can renegotiate a contract some where along the way ? I read the book. I love the book. I followed your exact steps. They work !

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  3. I could never ever be embarrassed by your taught posterior Ariana! Such a great read. I'm oh so proud to call you my friend ❤

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  4. I laughed out loud at the Laguna Beach cast members, wept when you started talking about Paris. Love your simple photos and writing. Thank you for the years of straightforward inspiration and laughter. Since discovering your blog ages ago I simplified my wardrobe. Changed the way I shopped. Changed the way I cleaned house. Made many other changes I never thought possible.... ditching shampoo? I never realized that was an option. Kept at least ten plastic bottles out of landfill this way. You have a way of comparing and describing things unlike any other blogger. I adore the way you see the world.

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  5. And again, you managed to be spot on! I loved every single bit of this piece, since it is so relatable.

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  6. Ariana, I can not find the right words to describe how much I love your posts!
    Also, I absolutely feel the same about getting back independence!
    Greetings from Munich,
    Sophia

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  7. Thank you for continuing to inspire me.

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  8. You are wow
    You are badass
    You are courageous
    You are witty
    You are one of THE most inspiring people I know

    And beautifull of course, inside and outside.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you
    Emma

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  9. Your humor and honesty are an endless source of inspiration. I'm so glad you're writing again.

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  10. If you ever finish writing your book, put me down for a copy.

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  11. I still don't understand how you say you aren't a good writer. You're someone whose posts I actually look forward to reading through.

    Write the book, woman.

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  12. Love your posts, they remind me it is never too late to start.

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  13. You have a future reader here, when you do write your book! Entertaining and insightful as always!

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  14. Please keep writing - you have a real gift for it. Your posts are always interesting and thought-provoking. My ridiculous collection of toiletries has been curated significantly as I now think properly about each purchase/give away unused stuff and recycle it properly. Your food and clothing choices also showed me that it is possible to look good without over consumption. Put simply, your writing is a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

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  15. All of the dang above - write the dang book woman! I have a publishing contact in the US through a friend who has been published in hard copy. You give me the sign and I forward your details onto her!

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  16. I've been trying to go more zero waste by reusing the plastic bags from the grocery store, and eventually replacing them with cloth as they fall apart. I've been getting bulk nut butters and other things not bag-able in glass jars. I was frustrated when the store in town with the best bulk section told me I was not able to bring my own glass jar because it was 'unsanitary'. Talk about missing the point of bulk! Needless to say I'm taking my glass jars elsewhere, despite it meaning a larger price tag. Continuing to find other little ways to reuse. Thanks for the inspiration and reminders.

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  17. This is one of my favorite posts by far.
    How do you rescue kids from the mob -or how do you move the mob to the right side of history? When I was a a teen, skaters got beat up by the jocks daily. Then they went mainstream and swapped the y for an i. Tickets to the X-Games (for snowboarding, skateboarding, etc... so-called alternative sports) cost a few hundred dollars. It's a small change but apparently it made a big difference.
    Thanks for writing this blog!

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