Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste by Bea Johnson should be mandatory reading for every single person on Earth. This is a book about values that forces us to examine our own. The focus is on our consumption habits and the role they play in the destruction of this planet we all share. “Statistics and hard data are not my expertise,“ Johnson warns, “this is a practical guide based on my experience.”
Despite her disclaimer, Johnson cites enough studies that show the facts: the Earth is in trouble—too much garbage and pollution—and we are all to blame. The primary culprit is single-use disposable plastics: utensils, plates, plastic bags. Our lives are inundated with them. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
“Not so long ago,” Johnson writes, “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.” Since 2008, she and her family—husband Scott, sons Max and Léo—only produce a quart-size container of garbage a year. The goal of Zero Waste is to produce nothing. While Johnson admits that’s presently impossible, Zero Waste is “an idealistic goal, a carrot to get as close as possible.” To her detractors who say that her lifestyle is impossible, Johnson asks, “How is it unrealistic if I am living it?”
Johnson efficiently dispenses with introductions. We get enough of a sense of her “previous” life to see how drastically her values have changed. A French native, she grew up in a “cookie cutter house” near Provence and moved to the U.S. at eighteen to work as an au pair. She fell in love with Scott—“not the surfer type whom young French girls fantasize about, but he was a compassionate person who provided me with much-needed emotional stability.” Their marriage provides financial stability as well. They travel the world and move back to the States when Johnson is pregnant for the first time, driven by “[m]y yearnings to try the American soccer-mom lifestyle (as seen on TV).”
Scott climbs the corporate ladder. They buy a huge house and buy things that “had served no real purpose except to fill rooms.” They consume more and more, yet “we felt good about our environmental footprint because we recycled.”
Around the age of thirty, Johnson, having it all, starts to wonder, Is that all there is? Living outside San Francisco, they drive everywhere. They miss the walking life in lively foreign capitals. They decide to downsize, and while looking for a new house, put everything in storage and live in a small apartment. Freed of their possessions, they feel alive for the first time in years. They begin to question their relationship with things, along with their environmental impact. The more they learn, the more upset they get. This is the world their children are destined to inherit? “How did we get so disconnected from the impact of our actions?” Johnson asks. “Or were we ever connected?”
Once settled in a new, smaller home, Scott quits his job to open a green consulting firm, Johnson tackles “greening” the house. Inspired by The Little House on the Prairie books she loved as a child, Johnson tries her hand as a homesteader. Successes and failures follow. Hair that smelled like “vinaigrette” from rinsing with apple cider vinegar, the soap made from bacon fat (“The lather was not great…and once I ran out of lye, I did not see the point in buying a plastic container of it if I could simply buy loose soap, already made!”). “[W]hile anything is worth trying, not everything is worth adapting,” she notes. The successes are the ones she outlines here for adopting. “I enjoyed coming up with my own substitutes,” she boasts.” I feel as though I am ‘cheating the system.’”
On the way to visit her mother in France for the summer, Johnson gets a reality check. “Seeing all the trash at the airport and on the flight quickly brought me back to reality. I’d been living in a bubble. The world was as wasteful as ever.”
“We added ‘refuse’ to the sustainability mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, rot,” she writes. And it is this principle of “refusing” that feels so revelatory here. If the revolution starts with a word, it’s this one.
Like other books that grow out of blogs and other habits of daily writing, Johnson assumes a direct address. She is all about economy. Often she is very funny; some of the humor no doubt comes from her being a fish out of water. I wonder if someone born inside this (American) culture would see things the same way she does—the appeal of the American dream, and the trappings. When asked to provide Valentines for her young son’s classmates, she has no idea what those are and is horrified to realize that “I (a grown woman) would write love cards to twelve toddlers I barely knew.” She doesn’t object to the tradition, but to its waste—“the plastic bag filled with wrappers, half-eaten candies, and crumpled cards. When asked about his favorite card, my son bluntly replied, ‘I don’t know…I just want the candy.’ The whole lot lay in the trash can by day’s end.”
The book is organized in sections: “Housekeeping and Maintenance,” “Kids and School,” “Out and About,” etc. with prescriptive suggestions and examples of challenges Johnson faced. She is not a hippy-dippy granola-crunching earth mama. She is a fashionable person who is surprised by the changes she’s adopted herself. “In my previous life, had I heard about Zero Waste, I would have pictured a community of practitioners with dreadlocks, weathered skin, and unadorned faces.”
I don’t get the feeling that Johnson is ever trying to be funny, she just is funny—direct and a little zany. But the problem we face is pervasive and serious, and every chapter reminds us of this as well:
“Although we did not use these disposables until recent times, today most of us expect a mixed drink to be served with a plastic stirrer and cocktail napkin, a pizza box with a stacker, a sub sandwich served with a flag toothpick, an ice cream cone with a wrapper, a cafeteria tray with an advertisement liner, a shellfish plate with a disposable hand wipe, a sandwich to-go with a swaddle of napkins and condiment packets. Do these extras enhance your dining experience? The thought of their impact on the environment brings sadness to mine.”
I think about two books that have hit a nerve with our culture these last few years: Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. Like these books, Johnson proposes asking yourself questions about each thing you possess. “[C]onsider whether or not you are holding onto a product out of guilt…Reassure yourself knowing that recycling it is unavoidable; if you don’t discard it, someone else after you certainly will.”
I’m saddened this book hasn’t made the same waves culturally. The problem it addresses affects everyone. I don’t have children and I’m always shocked when people who do don’t care more about the environment. Maybe they think, “You have no idea,” or “I’m busy enough as it is.” “I just want to keep it simple,” they say, reaching for a stack of plastic plates.
Right after I read this book, I went to a wake and helped set up the repast at a huge newly-renovated house on the Jersey Shore. The dining room was full of china cabinets displaying dishes and the kitchen boasted the latest appliances. The food to set out came packaged in plastic trays and bags and clamshell containers. The buffet was stocked with plastic plates and plastic flatware wrapped in paper napkins tied with plastic curling ribbon—all of it destined for the landfill.
Johnson is advocating for serious longterm gains on the simplicity front by making sacrifices of convenience. Johnson presents a lucid argument for minimizing our consumption. The only counterargument is convenience. But at such a high cost!
I recognized myself in Johnson’s story, but didn’t feel I was being preached to—nor consoled. We all are responsible for the quality of the environment. It’s not just up to all of us, but to each of us. Johnson acts as guide and provides a map. She knows the work is slow-going and that changes happen one at a time, and marks the journey with these milestones: “Obliviousness, Awareness, Action, Isolation, Confidence, Involvement.” Although I feel isolated right now, spreading the word about this book is one way to get involved.
Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, Bea Johnson, Scribner, 2013, Softcover, 292 pp.