The zero-waste mom
First she swore off the big house and gas guzzler. Then she found herself foraging moss for toilet paper. That was a bit much, but Bea Johnson, author
The first time I went to the coffee shop with my own thermos, I started noticing everyone else’s disposable cups and I got angry. I’ve definitely gotten over that. If you’re preachy, you’re going to lose your friends. It’s normal that you’re going to get through that phase of being preachy.
In the end we found that when people come over to our house we just ask them to respect our lifestyle just as we respect theirs if we go to their house. We’ve really let go of the judgment. My goal is not to tell people how to live their life, just to present my lifestyle and shatter the misconceptions that are associated with it.
What are some misconceptions?
The biggest misconception is that you have to be a hippie to live this way. We are definitely not hippies. We lead a modern life. You can be a hippie [laughs]. But we’re here to show you don’t have to be one if you don’t want to be one.
People think it’s also going to cost more. We are saving 40 percent on our overall budget thanks to this lifestyle. It’s going to save you a huge amount of money, from one: only buying what you need to buy. In the past every time we went on a trip we’d bring back souvenirs. When my mother-in-law visited we’d go shopping. We were constantly adding to our inventory. Now we only buy what needs to be replaced, and when we buy that we buy secondhand, which obviously costs less.
We buy our food unpackaged. When you buy something packaged, 15 percent of the price or more is the cost of packaging. We’ve also replaced anything disposable with a reusable alternative. The reusables have translated into huge savings, such actually that they’ve allowed us to install solar panels on our roof and a graywater system which reuses the water from the shower and the washing to irrigate our garden.
The other misconception is that this lifestyle takes a lot of time. That could not be further from the truth. By definition living simply does not complicate your life, it simplifies it. It makes room in your life for what matters most to you. It’s obvious that the less you have in your house the less you have to clean, dust, store, repair and repurchase. Living simply is actually to me the best time saver of this lifetime.
People think we’re doing this just for environmental reasons, but once you get started you realize it comes with huge advantages: the financial ones, the time ones, but also it’s a healthier lifestyle so you’re less sick, and of course that also reduces your health costs.
Do people compare you to Marie Kondo?
A lot of people say, Oh my gosh if you guys work together it would be the dream team. In my book, I propose questions to ask yourself about the stuff you have in your home to help you let go of things. Marie Kondo has a different way of doing it that’s really helped people let go, so I think that’s great. Whatever works for people. I think what’s missing in Marie Kondo’s approach is to teach people to stop things coming in in the first place. I mean, letting go is great, but if you don’t learn to stop that from coming into the home, you’re going to have to go through the whole decluttering process again in a couple of years.
I watched her show recently and I think in episode 2 the family throws away 170 bags of trash. I mean, what they call trash. They’re putting it in trash bags. They’re putting it in trash bags and they’re throwing it out. Such a shame. To me, things are in themselves valuable resources and they deserve to be shared with the community.
Your mantra is refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot—in that order.
Yes, the order is very important, because the more you refuse, the less you have to reduce. The more you reduce, the less you have to reuse, etc.
So it’s better to recycle a cardboard box, say, than compost it?
Yes, to me it is. I’ve seen some people put compost before recycling. I don’t agree with that. If I am using cardboard. For example, sometimes we buy something on ebay and we ask the shipper to only send it to us in paper or cardboard. That cardboard had to be manufactured in some way. I would much prefer that whatever cardboard is created in the world be created from recycled material than virgin resources. To be made from recycled materials there needs to be people recycling that cardboard. If you put it in the compost it’s just going to go to dirt. It’s a shame, it could have been repurposed to making new cardboard.
There are some seeming paradoxes in your book, like that having fewer clothes actually means you’re doing the laundry less. Can you explain?
When the kids had closets filled with clothes, if they lost a sock under the couch or if they dripped a bit of water on their t-shirt they would go grab a clean one. So at the end of the week I was left with a ton of laundry to do. Now that we just have the right amount of clothes, just the amount we need for a week, if the kids lose their socks they’ll be looking for it instead of grabbing a clean one. If they drip water on their shirt they’ll let it dry, because they know that if they go through their closet to grab a clean t-shirt then they won’t have enough clothes to finish the week. In the end if you have less clothes you learn to manage your wardrobe, not just changing yourself like three times a day. Like I used to.
I hear you.
Yeah, and the less you have, you tend to respect the item more. We sent my kids to Texas to visit their cousins. Of course their cousins have way more clothes than my kids do. The kids got back from that trip, they had seven pairs of socks and they came back with just two or three pairs. I contacted my sister-in-law and I’m like, where are the socks? That’s the only socks they have. For a regular household it’s like, they’re just socks, who cares, just use whatever other socks you have. But no, when you have just the right amount of clothes that you need, you pay much more attention to it. So I really have to track down those socks. I’m like, you gotta send them back to me. For us, socks are not disposable, especially because we actually buy socks with an unconditional lifetime warranty. When you invest your money in those socks, you have one set of socks for the rest of your life. If the sock falls apart we can send to the company and the company just replaces it. We don’t want to lose those socks – they’re like money.
Can you talk about grocery shopping, going in there and doing it your way?
The first time I did bring my own container they looked at me and gave me a weird look and even made fun of my container. He said, how ironic is it, you’re bringing a glass container but you drove here in a plastic car. Whatever you’re doing is not going to change anything. It’s also the way that I had presented it. I changed my request after that, so instead of telling the store I’m doing this to reduce my plastic consumption. When you say that it only makes the staff feel bad. It’s as if you’re judging their practice. Whereas if you say simply that you don’t have a trashcan, you’re not pointing the finger at something they’re doing wrong, but instead you’re asking them to do you a favor. It’s a very different way of approaching it. It’s much more powerful. They’ll be much more inclined to help you if you present it that way. If you present it in a way that you’re asking them to basically do you a favor.
Do you grow food?
Yes and no. We actually just grow herbs. Where we live we can’t have a full-on garden because we have oak trees on our land and it’s a very steep slope. But we do grow some herbs on our deck. I don’t regret not being able to grow more food because we don’t buy stuff, so the only way we can really support our local economy is by going to the farmers market and buying locally, at least our food. So I’m really happy to be supporting the local producers when we’re buying produce.
It seems like there’s a snowball effect. As you get further down the path toward zero waste it gets easier. For instance, if there’s no plastic crap in your house you can compost the contents of your vacuum cleaner.
You could do that. We don’t actually have a vacuum cleaner. We sweep. For us, having carpeting is not healthy. Carpets collect a lot of dust and leads to other health problems. All we have is one tiny mat by the front door; we have a mat by the kitchen sink made out wool and we have a sheep rug in the bathroom. Everything else we just sweep. I actually like sweeping way more. I used to have a vacuum cleaner but then I got frustrated with having to lug it all around the house, up and down the stairs, then you have pieces that break. It uses electricity, it’s very noisy, so in the end I decided it’s just as fast if not faster to just grab a broom and sweep. I find it actually much more zen.
What’s the biggest challenge to being zero waste these days?
Really the one inconvenience that we’ve discovered is that in eliminating all toxic products from our life—we just use white vinegar for example to clean the house—has made us very sensitive to scented products, toxic products that are being used outside of our house. So entering a hotel room where they clean with a product that is toxic, it starts itching your throat. Sitting next to someone that’s wearing perfume or even a scented shampoo. Basically with this lifestyle I’ve rediscovered a true sense of smell. While it can have some advantages when you’re walking in the woods, to fully enjoy the smells out there, or walking in the ocean, the inconvenience is that when you’re exposed, the toxic products go straight into my nose, it makes me nauseous and it’s kind of a shame. In the old days I was using 409 for example. In using 409, bleach or whatever, we had desensitized our nose, and now that we’ve stopped using these products we have rediscovered a true sense of smell.
Describe your compost.
We started with a pile, then we went to a worm composter, which is great when you have kids because you can really see the transformation from food scraps to this beautiful compost, and compost tea which is great for your plants. Eventually my city adopted curbside pickup. I actually went to the city council when they were debating it because I really wanted it. Because it’s industrial it’s much hotter, which means it can also digest meat and fish bones, which is not something I could do before with the worm composter. We no longer have our worm composter because I have a girlfriend who moved into an apartment building where they did not have curbside pickup so she is using my worm composter for her scraps. Right now we’re just using curbside pickup.
California is so far ahead of us.
Well we’re going to back to worm composting in September. My husband and I, we’re taking off for a year to two-year (we’ll see how we get along) road trip in an Airstream, throughout the US and Canada, so I can really give talks all over the place, because I find the US is one of the places in the world where zero waste is extremely slow at growing. So I really want to invest a lot of time in growing it bigger. So on the road of course we don’t know how we’ll have access to composting. There is always trench composting (which is digging a hole, putting your scraps deep in there and covering it) which we do when we go camping. But if we’re in a city we might not be able to do that, so that’s why we’ll be using a worm composter on our trip.
Are you coming to New York?
We’re going all over the US, so yes, of course.
Do you think being from France has given you this unique sensibility that made you question the American lifestyle?
Believe me, I wanted the American way of life. I wanted to have the big house and the big car and the big refrigerator. Ultimately, I realized that this was not adding to my life. The bigger the house, the more stuff you have to deal with, the more stuff you have to insure, the more stuff you have to clean and repair. Once I started looking for alternatives to eliminate trash at home, that’s when I started thinking about my French upbringing. My dad repairs everything including incandescent lightbulbs. Once I started looking for solutions I started picking up the phone to ask them how we did this when we were kids. How can I repair that? My mom used to sew our clothes. I think I sewed my first outfit at age 13, then I actually went to fashion school eventually. But it was really once I started looking for zero waste solutions that I picked up the phone and asked my mom how to darn, asked my mom how to can tomatoes, basically asking her all the savoir faire of all the things that we had to do when we were kids.
- Interview by Becca Tucker