Zero-waste travel with Bea Johnson

Zero-waste travel with Bea Johnson

She’s called the mother of the Zero-waste movement, for years she’s been living with her family according to her five big R’s towards a waste free life, and has been sharing and teaching good ways and smart practices across the globe for everyone to embrace such an inspirational lifestyle. We of course want to talk about Bea Johnson, Author of Zero Waste Home with whom we had a little chat last week. We talked about travelling (it is the holiday season after all), food (when are we not talking about it ;)) and how to road-trip waste-free style across the USA in an Airstream. 

Sounds tempting right? Well, this interview will finish convincing you because it’s filled with tips on how to follow the zero-waste path without sacrificing comfort or tastiness! 


During our last interview we spoke about your 5R’s of Zero-waste : Refuse / Reduce / Reuse / Recycle / Rot.  Can you explain us how to apply them to travel, road-trip and work trip ? 

The advantage with these rules is that if you follow the first three ones, in order, you’ll have zero to little recycling and rotting to do. Speaking specifically on traveling, well there are different situations. 

  • If I have to take a plane for international flights for example, I’ll eat before. I’ll also wrap a sandwich or a croissant in a tissue bag for the flight so that I can refuse the flight meal. I think that action of refusing creates and expresses a need for an alternative, it’s a way of saying that I’m not satisfied with the company proposition: after all, and I checked, today airline companies have around 21 meal options, why not including a zero-waste one ? I’ll often follow that refusal with an email, to explain why I do that and what needs to be done here. 
  • Other things I carry with me are a Peshtemal, which I use as a blanket, a scarf, a sarong, picnic blanket, a bath towel etc., my own headphones, a thermos, which I’ll fill after security check at public fountains, or in the bathroom if the water is potable. You can also ask at cafés to refill it. If there is no potable water available then I’ll ask for hot water. 

Once arrived at destination, if we’re staying in a hotel, of course we don’t use any of the little shampoo bottles. We always carry our own soap bar which serve for skin, hair and shaving, we’ll take it on our road-trip too ! 

When we’re staying at friends or at families, it’s important to respect their lifestyle, the same way I expect them to respect ours when they come to our place. So if there are chips on the table, trust me I won’t be judging, I’ll even gladly take a bite! 

When we’re renting a house, we’ll do our shopping with the in-house containers. I created a Bulk Finder app that allows the zero-waste community to share and find bulk shopping addresses, it covers more than 160 countries now! And if there are none around well a producers market is a tasty second option! The same applies to restaurants. Buying is voting. So of course we’ll go for places that use real cutlery and produce small amount of waste. 


You are currently planning a yearlong Airstream road trip with your husband across the US & Canada. How are you going to apply your zero-waste lifestyle on the road ? What are your essentials? 

In my airstream there will of course be Le Parfait jars ! I’m currently trying to calculate the number of jars we’ll need on the road. We’ll use them to carry food staples, like we do at home, except this time we’ll only be two and in a smaller, moving place ! So I have to measure the Airstream cupboards and adapt them to hold the jars still. I’ll try to create wood racks to prevent shocks. 

We’ll use 2L for the big staples such as flour and sugar. At our home, we always have one or two cookie jars, sweet snacks, dry fruits etc. These we’re definitely taking with us too. We’ll also have jars for salty snacks like peanuts, salty dried plantains, etc. And we’re definitely taking our chocolate chips jar for Sunday morning pancakes! 

Other things we carry are infusion, green tea, coffee. A jar of cereal as well. One for salt, one for baking powder and baking soda. At home we use a jar to store pasta but I just learned how to make fresh pasta myself and it is so good so I’ll certainly go for that option. So this is basically what you’ll find in our pantry.

In the fridge, mustard for sure, I found a Dijon Mustard producer that was selling in Bulk near my home and now I always have a 1L Le Parfait french jar filled with it!  We store jam as well,  and of course leftover food, and cheese, olives, meat and fish that we’ll buy along the way! 


What’s your MO for grocery shopping on the road ? 

We’ll rely on our bulk app to find the right shops, and if this is not a possibility we’ll go for producers markets. And for the 10% food we can’t find there, we’ll go for Organic markets as they often propose some bulk alternatives! 

Sometimes you have to dig to find the right places, but that way you discover new experiences, new products, new people. I met this goat milk producer once and I would get my milk straight from the farm to my glass container, such a joy! I also have a wonderful memory of a trip on the Canal Du Midi (south of France) where we could buy our wine in bulk!!!


So you mentioned chocolate chip pancakes for Sunday breakfast, what are the other meals you’re going to cook on that road-trip? 

We’re not going to change our habits as it is really important for us to only cook with seasonal products as we do at home. So we’ll work with what’s in season and package-free. We’ll stop at farms on the road etc. to meet small producers. Last year for example, we did a trip in Vermont and discovered that people who had chicken would set a box of eggs in front of their homes with a sign stating the price per eggs, and you could just take as much as you need and leave the money in the box! 

What is not changing is me cooking every evening, and cooking real simple things. Before going zero-waste I would pick complicated recipes with an endless list of ingredients often coming from far away. Not anymore. Now I work with whole produce, grown locally and often organic. This might be a bit challenging on the road but we have to work with our values. We know that things will be different from what we could find at home but that newness is source of creativity. 

I was an artist before, and I found that a zero-waste lifestyle was as fulfilling – creatively speaking – as that. It challenges you, makes you find new ways to do. For example, I was invited to speak at an event, and they had recycling cup for drinks. I did not want to use them – first rule of the five R’s in order ;)- so I refused them, managed to find a jar that was used for flowers, switched the flowers in a used cup and took the jar for my wine glass! I’m not so much for recycling cups and cutlery, so this is my way of saying so and showing that there’s always an alternative! That’s the big advantage of refusing. It reinforces new practices.


You’ll be in Europe for the European Week for Waste Reduction, and you’ll be coming to France. Are you happy to reunite with its gastronomy ? 

I have to say that I’m quite lucky because in France conferences are a bit different! With its tradition of gastronomy, most meetings are organized around a drink and some regional and delicious products to splurge on. Which is a good way to discover a region if you ask me! 

I think every French expat will agree with me on that ; French gastronomy is what we miss the most. I adore calf's ruffle, pig’s ears. Giblets, lamb’s brain. Things that are sometimes hard to find in the US! 


And here’s a little recap, in 4 steps : 

1) Refuse incoming waste

2) Plan ahead and only bring what you need

3) Use glass jars

4) Explore new food and be creative!