About the Author
A French-born artist with a hugely popular blog on zero waste living, Bea Johnson has appeared on The Today Show, NBC and CBS news, and been featured in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, People and Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore) and online publications, including Huffington Post and USA Today.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Zero Waste Home Introduction
Not so long ago, things were different: I owned a three-thousand-square-foot home, two cars, four tables, and twenty-six chairs. I filled a sixty-four-gallon can of trash weekly.
Today, the less I own, the richer I feel. And I don’t have to take out the trash!
It all changed a few years ago. The big house did not burn down, nor did I become a Buddhist monk.
Here is my story.
I grew up in the Provence region of France, in a cookie-cutter home on a cul-de-sac: a far cry from my father’s childhood on a small farm, or my mother’s upbringing on a French military base in Germany. But my dad was dedicated to making the most of his suburban tract of land. In the warm months, he would spend all his free time working the garden, true to his farming roots, laboring over growing veggies and quenching the soil with his sweat. In the winter, his attention would move to the garage, where drawers full of screws, bolts, and parts lined the walls. Deconstructing, repairing, and reusing were his hobbies. He was (and still is) the kind of person who does not hesitate to stop on the side of the road after spotting a discarded vacuum cleaner, radio, television, or washing machine. If the item looks repairable to him, he throws it in the back of his car, brings it home, takes it apart, puts it back together, and somehow makes it work. He can even repair burned-out lightbulbs! My dad is talented, but his abilities are not unusual for the region. People in the French countryside possess a certain kind of craftiness that allows them to extend the life of their belongings. When I was a child, my dad took the drum out of an old washing machine and turned it into a snail trap, for example, and I remember using the washer’s empty shell as a (rather tiny and hot) playhouse.
Through my young eyes, my home was a modern version of Little House on the Prairie, a TV series I watched religiously in reruns as a kid. Though we lived in the suburbs, and my two brothers and I were not as helpful as the Ingalls brood (my older brother even had a phobia of the dish sponge), my dad was the handy type and my mom the accomplished homemaker on a tight budget. She prepared three-course meals for lunch and dinner. Just like Laura Ingalls’s mom, my mom’s week was organized around church, cooking, baking, cleaning, ironing, sewing, knitting, and seasonal canning. On Thursdays, she scouted the farmer’s market for deals on fabric and yarn. After school, I would help her mark sewing patterns and watch her turn cloth into elaborate garments. In my bedroom, I emulated her ways and created clothes for my two Barbie dolls out of old nylons and gauze (the latter came from my parents’ visits to the blood bank.) At twelve, I sewed my first outfit, and at thirteen, knitted my first sweater.
Apart from the occasional fraternal fights, we had what seemed a happy family life. But what my brothers and I hadn’t perceived were the deep rifts between my parents that would ultimately turn their marriage into a sad divorce battle. At eighteen, ready to take a break from psychological and financial hardship, I set off to California for a yearlong au pair contract. Little did I know then that during that year I would fall in love with the man of my dreams, the man I would later marry, Scott. He was not the surfer type whom young French girls fantasize about, but he was a compassionate person who provided me with much-needed emotional stability. We traveled the world together and lived abroad, but when I became pregnant, my yearnings to try the American soccer-mom lifestyle (as seen on TV) brought us back to the United States.
MY AMERICAN DREAM: PLEASANT HILL
Our sons, Max and, soon after, Léo, were born into the trappings of my American dream: a three-thousand-square-foot contemporary home, on a cul-de-sac, complete with high ceilings, family and living rooms, walk-in closets, a three-car garage, and a koi fishpond in Pleasant Hill, a remote suburb of San Francisco. We owned an SUV, a huge television, and a dog. We stocked two large refrigerators and filled an industrial-size washing machine and dryer several times a week. That’s not to say that clutter ever crammed our house or that I bought everything new. The thriftiness that I inherited from my parents led me to shop thrift stores for clothes, toys, and furnishings. Nevertheless, on the side of the house, an oversize garbage can collected leftover house paint and mountains of weekly refuse. And yet we felt good about our environmental footprint because we recycled.
Over the course of seven years, Scott climbed the corporate ladder, making a very comfortable living that covered semiannual international vacations, lavish parties, a rich diet of expensive meats, membership to a private pool, weekly shopping trips at Target, and shelves of things you use only once and then throw away. We had no financial worries, as life rolled by effortlessly and afforded my Barbie-like platinum-blond hair, artificial tan, injected lips, and Botoxed forehead. I’d even experimented with hair extensions, acrylic nails, and “European wraps” (rolls of Saran wrap tightly wound around my body while I rode a stationary bike). We were healthy and had great friends. We seemed to have it all.
Yet things were not quite right. I was thirty-two, and deep down I was terrified at the thought that my life had settled and set. Our life had become sedentary. In our bedroom community, with large avenues and strip malls, we spent too much time in the car and not enough on foot. Scott and I missed the active life and roaming the streets of the capitals we had lived in abroad. We missed walking to cafés and bakeries.
A MOVE TOWARD SIMPLICITY
We decided to relocate across the bay to Mill Valley, a village boasting an active European-style downtown; we sold our house, moved into a temporary apartment with just the necessities, and stored the rest, with the mind-set that we would eventually find a home to accommodate my Moorish decorating style and a whole lot of matching furnishings.
What we found during this transitional period is that with less stuff, we had time to do things we enjoyed doing. Since we no longer spent every weekend mowing our lawn and caring for our huge house and its contents, we now spent our time together as a family, biking, hiking, picnicking, and discovering our new coastal region. It was liberating. Scott finally understood the truth behind his father’s words: “I wish that I didn’t spend so much time caring for my lawn.” As I reflected on the numerous dining sets I had acquired to furnish the kitchen nook, the dining room, and the two backyard patios in our old home, I also recalled a remark made by my good friend Eric: “How many sitting areas does one home need?”
I came to realize that most of the things in storage were not missed, that we had spent innumerable hours and untold resources outfitting a house with the unnecessary. Shopping for the previous home had become a (worthless) pastime, a pretext to go out and be busy in our bedroom community. It became clear to me that much of what we now stored had served no real purpose, except to fill large rooms. We had placed too much importance on “stuff,” and we recognized that moving toward simplicity would provide us with a fuller and more meaningful life.
It took a year and 250 open houses to finally find the right home: a 1,475-square-foot cottage built in 1921, with no lawn, a stone’s throw away from the downtown that we were originally told had no listings in our price range. Home prices were twice as much per square foot in Mill Valley as in Pleasant Hill, and the sale of our previous home afforded us half the house. But it was our dream to live within walking distance of hiking trails, libraries, schools, and cafés, and we were ready to downsize.
When we first moved in, our garage and basement were packed with furniture from our old life, but we slowly sold off what would not fit into the new small house. What we did not truly use, need, and love had to go. This would become our motto for decluttering. Did we really use, need, and love the bike trailer, kayak, Rollerblades, snowboards, tae kwon do gear, boxing and sparring gloves, bike racks, Razor scooters, basketball hoop, bocce balls, tennis rackets, snorkels, camping gear, skateboards, baseball bat and mitt, soccer net, badminton set, golf clubs, and fishing poles? Scott had some initial trouble letting go. He loved sporting activities, and he had worked hard to acquire all that equipment. But, ultimately, he realized that it was better to make decisions about what he truly enjoyed and focus on fewer activities rather than let golf clubs gather dust. And so, within a couple of years, we parted with 80 percent of our belongings.
FROM SIMPLICITY TO TRASH REDUCTION
As we simplified, I found guidance in Elaine St. James’s books on simplicity and revisited Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House collection. These books inspired us to further evaluate our daily activities. We disconnected the television and canceled catalog and magazine subscriptions. Without TV and shopping taking up so much of our time, we now had time to educate ourselves on the environmental issues that had been on our periphery. We read books such as Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle, and In Defense of Food, and through Netflix we watched documentaries such as Earth and Home that depicted homeless polar bears and confused fish. We learned about the far-reaching implications of unhealthy diets and irresponsible consumption. We started to understand for the first time not only how profoundly endangered our planet is but also how our careless everyday decisions were making matters worse for our world and the world we’d leave behind for our kids.
We were using the car extensively, packing lunches in disposable plastic bags, drinking bottled water, dispensing paper towels and tissues (liberally), and using countless toxic products to clean the house and care for our bodies. The numerous trash cans I had filled with grocery bags in Pleasant Hill and the frozen dinners I had nuked in plastic also came back to mind. I realized that as we enjoyed all the trappings of the American dream, what thoughtless citizens and consumers we had become. How did we get so disconnected from the impact of our actions? Or were we ever connected? What were we teaching our boys, Max and Léo? On the one hand, what we learned brought tears to our eyes and made us angry for having been in the dark so long. On the other hand, it gave us the strength and resolve to drastically change our consumption habits and lifestyle, for the sake of our kids’ future.
Scott felt strongly about putting his theories into practice, and although the economy was in recession, he quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company. We took the kids out of the private school we could no longer afford, and I tackled the greening of our home.
With the newfound knowledge that recycling was not the answer to our environmental crisis and that plastics were devastating our oceans, we switched from disposable to reusable water bottles and shopping bags. All it took was remembering to bring them along when needed. Easy. I then started shopping at health food stores and realized that the selection of local and organic produce was worth the extra dollar and that wasteful packaging could be avoided altogether by shopping the bulk section. So I adopted laundry mesh bags for produce and sewed cloth bags out of an old sheet to transport bulk. I designed them in a way that would eliminate the need for disposable ties. As I accrued a collection of empty bottles and storage jars, I slowly reduced our consumption of packaged goods, and soon had a pantry stocked with bulk. You might even say that I became addicted to shopping in bulk, driving far distances within the Bay Area, searching for suppliers. I sewed a dozen kitchen towels from the same old sheet and with the purchase of microfiber cloths broke our paper towel habit. Scott started a compost pile in the backyard, and I enrolled in botany classes to learn about uses for the wild plants we spotted on our local hikes.
As I had come to obsess about our kitchen’s trash, I had overlooked the bathroom but soon proceeded to try waste-free alternatives there, too. For six months, I washed my hair with baking soda and rinsed with apple cider vinegar but when Scott could no longer stand the “smell of vinaigrette” in bed, I resorted to refilling glass bottles with bulk shampoo and conditioner instead. The high I used to get shopping in Pleasant Hill was replaced by the high of learning new ways to green our home and save money to survive the belt-tightening due to Scott’s new start-up.
Max and Léo were doing their parts, too, riding their bikes to school, competing for shorter showers, and turning off light fixtures. But one day, as I chaperoned Léo’s class on a school field trip to the local health food store, which included a stop in the bulk food aisle, I watched him stumble on his teacher’s question “Why is it green to buy in bulk?” At that moment, it dawned on me: we had not yet informed the kids of our waste-reducing efforts. Provided daily with a homemade cookie, they hadn’t noticed the lack of processed ones. That night, I pointed out the whys and hows of our atypical pantry and talked to them about other changes that they had already unconsciously adopted. With the kids now aware, and the whole family actively on board, we could aim at “Zero Waste.”
When searching for alternatives, I had run into the term in reference to industrial practices. I did not look up the definition and ignored what it entailed for industries, but somehow, the idea clicked for me. It gave me a quantitative way to think about my efforts. We did not know whether we could eliminate every piece of trash, but striving for zero would provide a target to get as close to it as possible, to scrutinize our waste stream and address even the smallest items. We had reached a turning point.
TESTING THE EXTREMES OF ZERO WASTE
I examined what was left in our trash and recycling cans as a directive for our next steps. In the waste bin, I found packaging of meat, fish, cheese, bread, butter, ice cream, and toilet paper. In the recycling, I found papers, tomato cans, empty wine bottles, mustard jars, and soy milk cartons. I set out to eliminate them all.
I started presenting mason jars at the store’s meat counter, generating looks, questions, and remarks from onlookers and employees. Explaining to the person behind the counter “I don’t have a trash can” became my standby tactic. The pillowcase I brought to the bakery to collect my weekly order of bread drew remarks at first but was quickly accepted as the usual routine. With a new farmer’s market opening, I tried my hand at canning, turning fresh tomatoes into a winter stash of canned goods. I found a winery that would refill our bottles with table red, I learned how to make paper from the handouts my kids brought home from school, and I tackled every bit of junk mail landing in our mailbox. There weren’t books at the library on waste reduction, so I opened myself to suggestions and googled my way to substitutes for the items for which I couldn’t find package-free solutions. I learned how to knead bread, blend mustard, incubate yogurt, craft cheese, strain soy milk, churn butter, and melt lip balm.
One day a well-meaning guest showed up on my doorstep with a prepackaged dessert. It was then that I realized we would never achieve our Zero Waste goal without the help of our friends and family. I un...
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