Mighty Middle Kingdom

Mighty Middle Kingdom

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

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Ode to the Fragrant Harbour

Ode to the Fragrant Harbour
hk harbourjpg

When we swapped our humidifiers (bone dry Beijing) for dehumidifiers (perpetually soggy Hong Kong) I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Hong Kong was the antithesis of Beijing in every way. 

Beijing was dusty and barren, Hong Kong lush and dense and evergreen. Beijing sprawling and confusing, Hong Kong neat and contained and manageable. Beijing perplexing, Hong Kong recognisable and familiar. Beijing had spit-infested pavements, in Hong Kong spitters can be fined. In Beijing I was starved of English (or any) media, Hong Kong has book stores galore.

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Waste Warriors

Waste Warriors

A single mason jar — that’s how much trash Bea Johnson, her husband Scott and their teenage sons Max and Leo produce in a year. Dubbed ‘the priestess of waste-free living’, Bea, a French native who transplanted to California, has inspired millions around the world to adopt her zero waste lifestyle, in which she sends virtually nothing to landfill.

Recycling — a sticking plaster?
It’s no secret that our addiction to single-use plastic is wreaking havoc with our environment. Recycling is often touted as the solution to our trash woes. But given that it’s not always clear where or how an item should be recycled, it’s far from a long-term solution. As Bea points out, “Once that piece of plastic leaves your home, you’ve lost control of it.” Plus, she adds, “Recycling uses a lot of energy!”

(South Africans are not great recyclers anyway. Of the approximately 108 million tons of waste we generate annually, only about 10% is recycled. The remaining 90% ends up in our landfills — toxic garbage dumps which are fast running out of airspace).

Recycling helps, but more important is to generate less waste in the first place.

So, while the rest of us put bags of trash out on the curb every week, how does Bea whittle her annual waste down to a single jar?

By following, in strict order, the 5R’s, which have become something of a mantra for aspiring zero wasters — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (compost). For tons of tips on how to follow the 5R’s, check out Bea’s Zero Waste Home site where she spells it all out clearly and comprehensively.

Sounds daunting, right? But Bea is on a mission to blast through misconceptions that zero waste living is expensive and unattainable. “By buying bulk and eliminating packaging, you can save at least 15% of your monthly grocery bill,” she advises.

Once you start refusing what you don’t need and reducing what you do, you naturally accumulate less, she explains.

Plastic free groceries
What a plastic free grocery shop looks like, complete with reusable shopping bags. Photo credit: ZeroWasteHome.com
SAMSUNG
Bea’s super organised package-free pantry. Photo credit: ZeroWasteHome.com
Bea's bathroom essentials
Bea’s bathroom essentials. Her and her family brush their teeth with bicarbonate of soda and nothing else. Photo credit: ZeroWasteHome.com

Bea is living proof that by declaring war on waste you needn’t compromise on style. With her endlessly versatile 15-piece capsule wardrobe — check out One Dress, 22 ways and 50 ways to wear a men’s shirt — Bea exudes an enviable Parisian chic. Her clutter-free home is a gorgeous, calm, light filled space that looks like it belongs in the pages of a décor magazine.

Bea's minimalist home
Bea’s minimalist home in California. “My family buys way less than before. In the past, if we went somewhere, we bought souvenirs. If my mother-in-law visited, we went shopping. We were constantly adding to our household’s inventory. Now, we’re happy with the amount of things we have in our home and we don’t add to it,” she says. Photo credit Connie Mirbach.

Bea Johnson in South Africa
Bea toured South Africa last May, giving the country’s burgeoning zero waste movement a major boost. Inspired by the 5R’s, Colleen Black of Life Lived Simply has been living waste free since early 2015. If you’re curious about how to dispose of your contact lens containers, what to do with your EcoBricks or where to get beeswax wraps, the Zero Waste Journey in South Africa Facebook group, founded and managed by Colleen, is a trove of ideas and solutions. It’s becoming the go-to online hub for South Africans wanting to live greener and tread lighter.

Colleen with her jar
Colleen Black with her single jar of trash

Opting out of the consumer madness that characterises modern life can be liberating. But those paving the way counsel that you can’t overhaul your life in a day. It’s a journey, one that requires patience.

Jade Khoury of Low Impact Living, an organisation that run eco-awareness workshops, has been living waste-free for many years. Her advice? Take it slow, and have fun doing it. “It didn’t happen overnight. It took a few years,” she says.

Jade Khoury
“Evaluate where your packaging accumulates — say stationary, or take away food for example — and tackle one thing at a time. Our brains are wired for comfort, so it has to be attainable, otherwise you’ll find a million excuses not to do it,” says Jade.

And, something echoed by eco-warriors everywhere — don’t beat yourself up when you fail, which is inevitable. “Be compassionate with yourself. Find solutions that are fun and creative, rather than feeling guilty, or deprived,” Jade advises. “If you slip up, see it as an opportunity to side-step that issue next time.”

It sounds like it’s worth persevering. That paring down your life in this way is not just gentler on the planet, it’s transformative, spilling over into every corner of your life.

“There are so many perks to this life,” says Jade. “It’s healthier. You remove a lot of the toxins and (heavily-packaged) junk food from your life. By choosing to cut out packaging, your start shopping differently, more directly. And that brings up a lot of opportunity for conversation and human connection, a sense of community.”

“The best thing about this lifestyle is the simplicity,” enthuses Bea. “The less you have, the less you need to clean, dust, maintain and eventually repair or discard. It’s made me grateful for everything we do have, and it feeds my creativity daily, as I’m always searching for solutions. We’ve discovered a lifestyle based on experiences rather than things. A life of being rather than having. And that’s what makes life richer.”

Bea and her family
Bea with her family. “Because of the money we’ve saved from the zero waste lifestyle, we’ve been able to afford things we couldn’t do before. We’ve gone snorkelling, ice-climbing, swum with humpback whales, gone skydiving. My kids have travelled to 20 countries. It’s brought us closer as a family.” Photo Credit: Stephanie Rausser.

Need local inspo?
Check out these South African Instagrammers showing us how it’s done. Left to right:
Shannon Goodman — @journeytozero_
Alex Radlinger — @zerowastejourneycapetown
Khaya Alexander — @wastelessafrica

Also check out:
Nude Foods — Plastic Free Grocery, Cape Town.
Wild & Waste-Free Co-Op — For your zero waste starter kit. Glencairn, Cape Town.
Faithful to Nature  Online Organic Shop (you can apply a plastic-free filter).
Shop Zero — Zero Waste, Plastic Free Lifestyle Store. Woodstock, Cape Town.

*Featured image credit: Connie Mirbach

Let them drink champagne

Let them drink champagne

Cape Town has basked in a string of ‘Best City’ accolades in recent years, but we’re about to become known for something else — the first major city in the world to run out of water. Day Zero, the day the taps are turned off, has been brought forward to 12 April.

Predictably in times of heightened stress and anxiety, there’s been much finger pointing as we scramble to apportion blame. Rumours are swirling that the City was forewarned about this likelihood years ago and failed to act. There’s anger over the City’s unwillingness (inability?) to tap into other water sources (desalination and aquifers) and squabbling over what the different statistics mean (is it the worst drought in 100 years?).

At first it felt like we might be plunged into something resembling a dystopian novel, but with Day Zero looming, we’re getting proactive. Stinky loos, parched lawns and empty pools aside, Capetonians are devising novel ways to stick to the allocated 50 litres a day. Those with the resources are rigging up boreholes and going off grid (though there’s much uncertainty about the legality of this), enhancing their grey water systems, buying machines that make water out of air, and stockpiling boxes of 5l water bottles. There’s been this been-there-done-that post giving us some much needed perspective (it’s okay, we’ll survive, we’ll come out stronger).

Because of course we’re not the first city to be severely water stressed. California has been in a ‘mega-drought’ for years and Australia had its own ‘Millenial Drought’ in the early 2000’s. Droughts are becoming so frequent it’s predicted the next World War will be fought over water.

What sets us apart, as always, are the disparities. It’s a bleak prospect, queuing for water, wearing dirty clothes, being unwashed. But there’s this thing that happens in South Africa, which is that most of the time we’re ostriches, but in times of crisis we’re reminded how the majority of the population live.  When the rug is pulled out from under us, and our creature comforts are threatened, we remember just how fortunate we are. An estate dweller in my nice car, plotting how we’ll leave the city if things go belly up, I’m as guilty of sealing myself off from the realities of life in South Africa as the next person.

Let’s hope this becomes reminiscent of load shedding, where we retrofitted our homes, but then just as quickly Eskom turned the lights back on. Perhaps the soothsayers are right, and we will see flooding in March. We may just scrape through and avoid Day Zero, but our attitudes to water will have been irrevocably changed.  And absolute worst case for most of us reading this — rather than it being some vague notion out there, we will actually have to live the knowledge of what it’s like to be without water, and perhaps there are blessings in that.