An Interview with the Zero Waste Chef, Anne-Marie Bonneau
Cookbook writer, blogger, fermenter and sourdougher Anne-Marie Bonneau has lived plastic-free since 2011. She shows others how reducing their trash not only benefits the planet but also satisfies their taste buds, improves their well-being and boosts their bank accounts. A Canadian transplant, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has two daughters and a sourdough starter, Eleanor.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
What does advocacy mean to you? How would you define it for yourself?
Anne-Marie: I just throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks! I feel as though I’m always trying different things to encourage people to take action. Constant doom and gloom can be paralyzing. So, what I try to do is provide solutions. I’ll post things like: “Here are some ideas to waste less food.”
I don’t think people realize that we waste as much food as we do — I sure didn’t. It’s really insane. The climate crisis is so complex, but people can take action by doing something as simple as eating all the food they buy. That’s not to say that’s all they should do: from there, I encourage people to get involved and join a climate organization, like 350. I put that in every single blog post.
Image by @ZeroWasteChef
How has your perspective on advocacy changed over time, if at all?
Anne-Marie: I do think my Catholic upbringing has a lot to do with it. I think being raised in a religious household, it may make you more intentional because you have to think, “Oh, is this a sin?” I’m not a practicing Catholic now, but this is part of how I was raised.
While I wasn’t raised in a “zero waste” household, my father was the most frugal person I’ve ever met. When I was a teenager, I helped him build a solar thermal panel for our pool one summer, and it worked beautifully. It was super simple. It was just a wooden case, out on the lawn, with glass atop it. My job was to paint some giant rocks black, to help act as a filter. It worked really well, and the experience had a big effect on me. I became concerned about the environment, while not really knowing what on earth to do from there.
What awoke you to the ideas behind zero waste living, and what was it like for you when you first began to make the transition to consciously choosing a plastic-free life?
Anne-Marie: In 2011, I read about plastic in the ocean and I was so horrified. I thought, like a lot of people do, if you put the stuff in the recycling bin, it goes away and then it magically becomes something else. Then I read about how animals were ingesting plastic, and feeding it to their young, and becoming entangled in it. I was so upset after seeing images of a dead albatross with a stomach filled with plastic. I was just so horrified, and I began to cut out plastic.
I live in Northern California, where we have year-round farmer’s markets. We’ve got good bulk bins, meaning those changes were easy for me to make.
I’ve always cooked, and now I cook a lot more from scratch. I used to bake bread with commercial yeast, and then when I cut the plastic I wanted to figure out how to make bread without it. So then I started making sourdough!
Image by @ZeroWasteChef
Do you consider yourself to be an advocate? What change do you want to see? Who is your core audience?
Anne-Marie: We Canadians, we don’t like to promote ourselves! I post and blog about the things that I’m doing, and I hope that people will maybe be inspired and want to do similar things. And if they don’t, well, that’s fine.
My “core audience”, if I look at my blog, includes readers from English speaking countries: the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. On Instagram, my followers are all a lot younger than me. My biggest audience is ages 25 to 34, the next biggest is ages 35 to 44. When I’m writing, I don’t really have a specific “audience” in mind. My degree is in English with a concentration in creative writing, and I’m pretty sure I was taught you don’t think about your audience - you just write. I think if I worry too much about who my audience is, that causes me to censor myself, and then I can’t write. For example: I learned not to post about bathroom tissue, because people outside of North America freak out. “Why are you taking down trees? You need to get a bidet! You’re evil!”
Why is food and cooking at the core of how you deliver your message?
Anne-Marie: We all have to eat. We can stop buying all kinds of things, but we still have to eat. Also, food is so closely tied to the climate: our crazy food system is a disaster. People are motivated to change their diet for different reasons: maybe they are horrified by industrial agriculture, or they have a restricted diet, or they want to cut their waste. Ultimately, we all kind of arrive at the same place. We need to eat more whole foods. Our government has to stop subsidizing all of the crops that are bad for us and start supplying the good stuff.
I’ve always loved to make things and be creative. For example, I had all of these lemons so I made preserved lemons with them. And then I had leftover lemon peels. So I made limoncello with those. Then, I used the limoncello to make biscotti! People really seem to like seeing something used and reused like that. Holy cow, people went crazy over it!
Image by @ZeroWasteChef
What systemic or structural challenges do you see impacting food waste?
Anne-Marie: For plastic waste, it’s oil subsidies and oil companies. They know that cars are going electric, and we will get off of fossil fuels eventually. They still want to sell their products. So over the next four years, they’re spending $400 billion to build new plastic production plants, because plastic comes from petrochemicals, from fossil fuel. So if we got rid of subsidies for the oil industry, that would help with our waste problem. Then maybe producing plastic wouldn’t be so profitable. So we need regulation, and polluters need to pay to clean up the mess and not put the onus onto cash-strapped municipalities and consumers. For example, in France, they have implemented laws that force retailers to donate instead of dump their excess food.
If we had a living wage and people weren’t struggling so much, that would help reduce waste. One of the things that leads to food waste on the individual level is just a lack of kitchen efficiency, lack of skills, and lack of time. If you’re working two jobs just to feed your family, you don’t have time to plan ahead. And so you’re going through the drive-through and bringing home dinner with tons of packaging and filled with unhealthy food made from subsidized crops.
Many people find they don’t know their way around the kitchen because we decided a long time ago that the most important thing in our culture is to work all the time to earn money, to buy more stuff, and food and cooking haven’t received the respect they deserve. But, I think this is turning around. People are starting to be much more aware of the food waste issue, and it’s systemic connection to the climate crisis.
Your new book, the Zero Waste Chef Cookbook, includes lots of ideas to reduce waste as well as your favorite recipes. What’s your go-to recipe for a busy weeknight?
Anne-Marie: The kimchi fried rice, because I almost always have kimchi already made. When I cook rice, I like to cook extra — and fried rice turns out best when the rice is kind of dried out, so that’s a quick dinner!
Image by @ZeroWasteChef
There is a quote of yours that has become widely-shared online, which states: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” The quote arose from a longer form piece you published about navigating “environmental guilt syndrome” and pushing through the “I give up” feeling of hopelessness when confronted with the scale of the climate crisis. What has the emotional side of being an advocate been like for you?
Anne-Marie: I think that doing this helps me retain my sanity. If I didn’t do anything, I think I would just feel despair. There’s so much bad news. It makes me feel so much better. I can’t fix it alone, but at least I can say I’m trying to do something.
One day when I was trying to come up with a topic to write about, I asked my daughter, “what would be helpful to you?” And she said, “well, I just feel so guilty, like everything I do is bad for the environment. It feels like the only way to be zero waste is to be dead.”
I think it connects with people because the problem is so overwhelming. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, and you don’t want to live your life thinking, “Oh, I’m the cause of all of this unless I stop doing everything”. I believe you can’t be truly perfect in any area of your life. For some reason, people feel terrible anxiety over not living a “perfectly” eco life. Immediately after I wrote the post about “doing zero waste imperfectly” someone turned the quote into a meme, and it’s been shared by people every day since then.
What do you see as the role of the individual in responding to food waste and climate change?
Anne-Marie: I believe individuals do play a role. They can try to waste less food.
The problem is that this cannot be the only solution to the climate crisis.
This is what the fossil fuel industry have tried to tell people, that the whole problem comes from the consumer — we just need to change our lifestyle and then everything will be fine. I believe we need individual change and we need systems change.
It can’t just be down to individuals, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also make changes in our own lives. And there are benefits to doing so: I feel better for taking action and I save money. There is zero downside to eating all of the food you buy. So I think we need them both, it’s not an either/or thing.
The other thing we know, as climate scientist Michael Mann talks about, is that the fossil fuel industry likes to drive wedges into the climate advocacy community, and encourage people to point fingers at each other and say, “no, you’re doing it wrong” or “individual choices don’t matter.” We all have to be nice to each other in order to move past this and make change.
Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?
Anne Marie: I love Michael Pollan. He’s my icon. He’s such a fantastic writer. I met him a few years ago at a talk and my knees were shaking!