Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review by MCR Eve C. - Zero Waste Home

Image source:
Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson. Scribner: New York, 2013. Review by Eve C., MCR-in-training.

When you’re ready to take your waste reduction efforts to the next level, Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson’s guide to no-waste living, will provide hundreds of pages of ideas.

As newbie MCRs-in-training, we began the program with a variety of levels of proficiency about minimizing the garbage that leaves our homes. Through the program, we learned the ins and outs of recycling, composting, waste collection, and reusing in Edmonton. We are now reaching out to friends, family, and neighbours to spread the word.

Although we are prepared to provide helpful information to those just starting on their waste  reduction journey, what about those who have mastered the basics? If you or someone you meet through your MCR volunteering wants to make a major shift in their life in order to eliminate waste, the approach taken by Bea Johnson may provide inspiration.

Johnson’s approach calls for a fundamental rethinking of how we view waste in our lives. Instead of the well-known Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra, Johnson helpfully urges much more proactivity with these 5 Rs:

Refuse what you do not need.
Reduce what you do need.
Reuse by using reusables.
Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
Rot (compost) the rest.

Her emphasis on Refuse struck me as a powerful technique for cutting down on the waste entering my home. I am planning to start rejecting swag at conferences, stores, and events; I always get home and wondered why I accepted a bag full of junk that I now have to get rid of.

I also distilled several tips that seem practical and relevant to my life:

       Using coloured pencils instead of highlighters (the pencil shavings will break down).

       Using French glass canning jars for storing leftovers in your fridge (the jars are quite affordable and attractive, and they display what is in your fridge so that you are less likely to forget about it).

       Put stickers on your waste containers (garbage, recycling, reuse, compost) to make it easy for you and guests to put things in the right places.

       Write the tare (weight) on your reusable containers when taking them to the store for bulk refills. Although Johnson uses glass jars for all her groceries, which is beyond what I would ever be interested in doing, I would like to try Bulk Barn’s program which allows you to bring your own jars.

       Downsize things you do not use as much, such as sporting goods and tools. Instead, consider using the Edmonton Tool Library, rentals, or sharing purchases among a group of friends, etc.

The Edmonton Tool Library
The Edmonton tool library opened this year to provide Edmontonians affordable access to tools. They are also always looking for donations.

Although I enjoyed this book, I would caution that it is best viewed as a collection of tips, from which each reader will inevitably find a few really good ideas to incorporate into their own life, rather than a cohesive vision of a new way to live for all but the most inspired. Johnson’s privileged standard of living, and her California location, may not necessarily translate to the average person.

The book also made me reflect on the Changing Waste Behaviours section of our MCR training, particularly the Benefits and Barriers section. She focuses a lot on cooking from scratch, with fresh local ingredients, using food products for bathing and makeup rather than conventional toiletry items, and removing items with certain chemicals from her home. This book seems likely to appeal to someone with a passion for DIY and an interest in avoiding chemicals in their daily life. The book seems very well-positioned to appeal to that demographic. It would be a helpful resource if your audience was motivated by these concerns.

The converse is that this book would not be well received by anyone who is approaching waste reduction from a more pragmatic and skeptical perspective. Many of her suggestions are not accurate, such as claiming that aluminum cookware will harm your health and should be replaced.[1]

Some of Johnson’s other tips seem unsafe - including making DIY eyeliner, using glass bottles in the shower, and using cheese as earplugs. Ideas like making all your soap from scratch, making your own paper, and growing your own loofahs seem to require an investment of time (and raw materials) that exceed the potential environmental benefits. Finally, tips such as refusing gifts from friends if they come in packaging, and trying to give out unpackaged Halloween candy, are more likely to alienate those around you than to motivate people to follow your example.

Nonetheless, even if Johnson’s trial and error attempts to arrive at zero waste are sometimes unsuccessful, her approach and passion for the topic is commendable. If you stick with the book, you will come away with some helpful ideas and a new eye for examining the waste you produce.

Postscript: Smart Waste Home in Edmonton

Most of us will likely never aim for or achieve a Zero Waste Home. However, the MCR program has set us up to create and help others with a Smart Waste Home –where all waste is correctly diverted into the most efficient and least environmentally harmful stream.

The Wastewise App is my favourite tool for being smart about waste. It reminds me about our collection day every week, and helps me be certain when someone asks me a question about sorting waste. It also takes away the decision fatigue of constantly making judgment calls about what goes where, which may lead some to give up entirely.

Overall, the practical and locally-targeted resources from the MCR program are an excellent foundation for recognizing that - for most of us - some waste is here to stay. We can use simple techniques to deal with it as effectively as possible. 

Borrow Zero Waste Home from the Edmonton Public Library.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book over this summer as well, and completely agree with your review! I started saving pickle jars for reuse (not for canning). I also loved the pencil crayon idea.