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bea johnsonKUALA LUMPUR, Dec 27 — Bea Johnson, a 43-year-old Frenchwoman who lives in California, US with her husband and two teenage sons, claimed they manage to produce just a pint of trash for a whole year.

Their secret to waste-free living? Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot — in that order, according to Johnson who has since founded a zero-waste lifestyle movement.

“Our life is based on experiences instead of things, a life based on ‘being’ instead of ‘having’,” Johnson said, sharing pointers with a 300-strong audience at Malaysia’s first zero-waste festival here on Saturday.

She said her family has saved 40 per cent of their budget since they began practising zero-waste living 10 years ago, allowing them to take many holiday trips.

“We’ve been to the swamps of Lithuania, ice climbing, snorkelling with humpback whales,” said Johnson, adding that her two sons aged 16 and 17 have already travelled to 19 countries.

Johnson, who is on her last stop in Kuala Lumpur during her Asian tour after speaking in Japan, Thailand, Taipei, Singapore and China, showed her mostly-female audience here pictures of her minimalist home and shared how she practises zero-waste living in the wardrobe, buying groceries, cleaning the self and house, grooming, and eating.

Johnson said she had discovered in 2008 the phrase “zero waste”, which was then only used in manufacturing. She and her husband were then watching their energy and water consumption and the phrase inspired her to apply zero-waste in everyday living.

After a few failed experiments — such as using baking soda and apple cider vinegar to wash hair, which ended up turning Johnson’s hair frizzy and making her smell of vinaigrette — she and her husband found more sustainable and simpler ways of reducing their garbage.

“Refuse” means declining unnecessary items like plastic bags, straws, business cards, free samples, and meals in planes.

“Reduce” is decluttering and letting go of things that one does not need. Johnson said she and her family had given away 80 per cent of their clothes; she only owns 15 items of clothing that she said can be used to create 100 looks.

“Each of our wardrobes fits in a carry-on,” Johnson said.

“Reuse” is swapping disposables for reusable alternatives, such as replacing paper towels with rags, sanitary pads with menstrual cups, tissue paper with handkerchiefs, buying groceries in bulk, and purchasing whatever needs to be replaced like worn out clothes or shoes second-hand.

“We go to the grocery store with a pillow case for bread, glass jars for anything wet, mesh for produce, cloth bags for anything dry like sugar, salt, flour, and milk in returnable bottles. Once I’m home, I transfer whatever dry into glass jars.

“We do not waste any food in the house,” said Johnson.

Johnson said her family makes stock from meat and fish bones, which are then added to compost. Dried pieces of bread are collected to make croutons, bread crumbs or bread pudding.

“Recycle” is recycling what cannot be refused, reduced or reused, such as school paper printed on both sides or wine bottles brought by friends for entertaining.

“Rot” is composting the rest. Johnson said butter is the only food that her family buys in packaging, which comes in waxed paper that can be composted.

Her family also composts the peels of any fruits and vegetables that they peel, meat and fish bones, bamboo toothbrushes, and whatever is swept from the floor like hair and fingernails. Johnson said she cuts her hair every two to three years and donates it to an organisation that makes wigs for cancer patients.

Johnson told Malay Mail that her family only eats fish and meat on weekends.

“We tried veganism for a while. It didn’t work; we became unhealthy. Now we’re [mostly] vegetarian,” she said, adding that their fish is purchased from local fishermen and they eat organic, local and grass-fed meat.

For makeup, Johnson said she uses chocolate powder for bronzer and eyebrow liner, burnt almonds for eyeliner, and beeswax mixed with vegetable oil for lip balm and highlighter. She and her family use baking soda to brush their teeth, to scrub the floor and to clean the sink.

They use bars of soap to wash their face, hair and body, and also to shave.

“We’ve been able to eliminate toxic products,” Johnson said, claiming that her husband’s sinusitis went away since they started living waste-free, further alleging that she had stopped getting conjunctivitis when she made her own mascara.

Johnson, who wrote the book “Zero Waste Home”, said zero-waste living was about simplifying life and to “make room in your life on what’s important”.

In the Saturday event, Zero Waste Malaysia also launched a Google Map overlay featuring 300 shops and organisations that sell zero-waste products throughout the country.