esther peñarrubia, residuo cero, residuo cero en casa, bea johnson

Zero Waste: living without producing waste – Interview to Esther Peñarrubia

Esther Peñarrubia (Barcelona, December 10, 1980), known for being the translator of the book Zero Waste Home into Catalan and Spanish, by Bea Johnson, and ambassador of the Zero Waste philosophy in Catalonia and Spain, is a PhD in Agronomy Engineering from the University of Lleida (Catalonia), besides being fond of historic gardens and bicycle touring.


Esther, thank you very much for accepting this interview to share with us and our readers your experience with the non-generation of waste. Being an agronomist, why did you translate the book Zero Waste Home?

Looking for a recipe in Google to make homemade toothpaste, I saw a video of Bea Johnson, the author of the book. Many of the examples she mentioned to reduce waste were already made at home, but we didn’t call it Zero Waste. Nevertheless, there were still some tips that we weren’t applying. I saw the book was not available neither in Catalan nor in Spanish, so I was encouraged to contact her to translate it.

zero waste home, bea johnson, residuo cero, esther peñarrubia
The book Zero Waste Home was translated into Catalan and Spanish by Esther Peñarrubia (Picture: Zero Waste Home).

I see you were practising the zero waste without knowing the concept itself. What did it lead you to live without generating waste?

It has been a passion since adolescence and now it has become a philosophy of life.

What changes did you make in your life?

We learned to reduce many things, we lost the shame at the time of asking for objects or tools that we need punctually to friends, we adopted the bicycle as a daily means of family transport, we try to share a vehicle on long trips…

The Zero Waste is a current issue. Is it really possible to live without generating any waste?

Of course not, we do not live isolated inside a cave! Absolute zero is almost impossible, we will always need a drug, for example, that goes in a container. But it is very easy to live without generating too much waste… For years we have tried and it is not difficult, you just have to want to change habits.

I imagine that at the beginning it is a bit complicated and that you have to be always alert and vigilant. Is it like that?

In a certain way yes, above all you have to learn to reject, like the small objects that you want to filter in your life and that should not go beyond the threshold of the entrance: advertising gifts or samples of new products…

Few weeks ago, the European Union approved the banning of several single-use plastic items in 2020. What do you think of this measure?

It’s perfect, I would like they had set it up from tomorrow! If people need to be prohibited from certain aspects of their lives to have to change their habits when these are not beneficial for them or for the environment, such as smoking in public places a few years ago or the current indiscriminate use of disposable plastics, law must be those that mark the guidelines.

Imagine for a moment that you have the power to make decisions of a political nature. What measures would you promote to avoid the generation of garbage?

I would encourage companies to invest in R & D, taking into account aspects of sustainability and the circular economy. I would also try to promote responsible and second-hand trade in various fields and the exchange of goods between people and groups, such as repair shops, tool libraries, free books…

Surely when you explain that you live without almost generating waste, people give you all kinds of excuses to avoiding start. It has happened to me.

One of the most recurrent is the lack of time and another the lack of legislation to prevent the generation of waste. They often tell me: “Until governments and big companies don’t act, I cannot do anything”. It’s not true! It is clear that as consumers we have a power that we sometimes forget, and buying equals voting, so individually we can do a lot! We all have the same time, what is needed is to learn to prioritise, although it is not an easy task and, above all, to value if our free time can be invested in interesting things that fill us and make us happy or we simply dedicate it to non-meaningful actions.

One of the excuses that I have found is that this way of living is more expensive. What does your own experience say?

It is true that there are products related to the Zero Waste that compared with the conventional ones from a common supermarket are more expensive, such as some that may come from Fair Trade, organic farming or available in bulk. But, on the whole, if we consume less, we share more, we buy in bulk, second hand and local and seasonal products we can save money, without taking into account other collateral benefits.

Now let’s go to the practical part. Someone who might consider living according to Zero Waste in a big city will find it easier to buy in stores that sell all kinds of bulk products. However, in smaller populations, how can it be carried out?

Searching and buying local producers, which there are for sure. Buying in a cooperative way, together with other families (forming part or not of a consumer cooperative) and taking advantage of trips for different reasons to other populations where they do have these products that you don’t find near your home. There are no excuses! Now we are in the information era and luckily webs and apps start coming out that can help us a lot to make our lives easier and more sustainable.

armario residuo cero, residuo cero, compra a granel, esther peñarrubia
A Zero Residue cabinet is made up of glass jars with all products bought in bulk (Picture: Esther Peñarrubia).

Buying food in bulk is easy if we think about it. Now, how do we do it with personal and household cleaning products?

To clean our house, we only need sodium bicarbonate, bought in bulk, and concentrated white vinegar, which can sometimes be found in bulk. In the book there is a chapter that talks about “The magic of vinegar”, with basic recipes to perform various cleaning tasks and other personal hygiene. At home we prefer to buy personal care products in bulk from local producers, such as deodorant, tonic, shampoo, toothpaste and body cream.

I try myself to reduce the waste that I generate by carrying out small actions, but this summer I went to Indonesia on holidays and it was really complicated for me. What can we do when we are travelling?

We can do many things! For example, in terms of personal hygiene, we can take our soaps, toothpastes, shampoos, etc. in small glass or metal jars, thus avoiding having to take the ones available in the hotels, which often are in a plastic container. You can also carry cloth bags, which weigh almost nothing, to buy everything we can in bulk and even carry bottles that can be refilled. On the other hand, we can use the glass jars that we have bought, like a jam, as a container to carry food, so that we don’t need to carry a lunch box from home.

materiales residuo cero, residuo cero, esther peñarrubia
There are many products that allow us to avoid the generation of waste and, some of them, can be useful while we travel (Photo: Esther Peñarrubia).

Any other advice for our readers?

They shouldn’t be afraid to reject what they don’t need, as long as they do it in an educated way. Also they can always carry a cloth bag with them.

Perhaps at a domestic level it is relatively easier to achieve the Zero Waste. But, at companies’ level, public administrations… what would you advise them to do?

Well, I would advise them to follow the same steps that we have taken at home: analyse what waste is generated and look for alternatives that generate less.

In the case of private companies, I would advise them to appoint a Zero Residue delegate, that is essential to be motivated, to manage any doubts that may arise in this regard and, above all, to encourage people to change their waste generating habits. As for public administrations, an entire department could be created in this respect, it is a sufficiently important subject to invest part of the budgets.

And with all this effort that you and your family do, have you found an improvement in your life?

On a personal level we are very satisfied with the alternatives that we have found to the products or ways of doing, although sometimes they have required some time. Another improvement is  that it allows us to enjoy more time to practise our passions.

Thinking a bit about the dates of consumerism that are approaching, such as Christmas, what gifts would you advise people to lead a Zero Waste life?

As a physical gift, a good bottle of water made of stainless steel or glass. Other gifts are the experiences, like a movie or theatre ticket, without printing it.

Any other advice for these Christmas days?

Think a little before consuming or buying. Giving local products and staples (a batch of local foods and bought in bulk is just as acceptable as the best jewel); give experiences; buy second-hand (without fear of saying it); wrap the gifts with a piece of cloth, following the steps of the Furoshiki technique, and without using paper or tape …

Esther, thank you very much for sharing your experience with us. I am sure that you have given more light on this path to the Zero Waste to many people who haven’t dared to take the first step so far.

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