Some people’s instinct on hearing yet another news report about increasing evidence of global warming or plastic trash filling the ocean is to plunge into eco-despair. Why not just buy a Ferrari and gorge on endangered sea bass, since our planet is being destroyed, no matter what?
Béa Johnson goes to the other extreme. The Mill Valley artist and mother of two preteen boys is certain that individual resolve can work wonders when it comes to saving the environment. Her hopeful message has been echoing all over the Internet – on her own blog, The Zero Waste Home (zerowastehome.blogspot.com); the Huffington Post; Environmom.com and others. She’s been touted in such big-ticket media as the New York Times (which called her “The Waste-Free Priestess”), ABC-TV and Sunset Magazine. Last year, Johnson also began working as an hourly consultant, helping people overwhelmed by their possessions to clean out their closets and learn to live more simply.
Johnson, 36, speaks with a high-speed accent that hails from her native Avignon, France; she first came to the United States at age 18 as a nanny. Today, she does all her own childcare, gardening and housekeeping, at which she seems a master of efficiency. She says it takes just two hours to clean her minimally furnished, 1,400 square-foot home.
She goes to the grocery store only once a week, eschewing even reusable shopping bags for big glass jars, in which she stows not only grains but cheese and meat. She avows that she never, ever stoops to take-out, instead planning thrifty, home-cooked meals around her bulk-bought staples. She recycles her children’s homework sheets into notepads, uses microfiber rags instead of paper towels, makes lipstick from beet juice and alcohol, and has her sons urinate on her lemon tree to fertilize it. As for entertainment, the family rents movies from Netflix – a minor concession since Johnson is annoyed by the little, disposable plastic strip the company uses to close its envelopes. (She always sends it back with the DVD.)
It hit me just how far Johnson is willing to go with her Zero-Waste notions when I visited her Marin County home and saw the room shared by her two sons, ages 9 and 10. It seemed, frankly, like something from the Twilight Zone – an episode on adolescents from some super-evolved other planet: perfectly-made white twin beds surrounded by white walls with nothing posted or scratched or drawn on them, and absolutely zero clutter.
Same for the kitchen. There is nothing on the granite counters: no Cuisinart, coffee grinder, crumpled paper towels, salt-shakers, rubber bands or expired coupons for $3 off on pizza delivery. I half expected to see her open a closet by mistake and have all sorts of everyday suburban debris tumble out.
All through the house, both walls and floors are painted a pristine white. Even the pet Chihuahua, Zizou, is pure white. (As Johnson notes on her blog, he gets washed with castile soap (bulk) once a month, and eats garlic powder for flea control. His nail clippings go into the compost heap, and his poop gets flushed down the toilet.)
Johnson’s determined eco-virtue has struck a guilty nerve for many readers, evoking both awed admiration and angry charges of elitist sanctimony. The Sunset Magazine article drew nearly 300 comments. People, it seems, are either challenged or threatened by Johnson’s example. I know that I’d rather not have her see my kitchen.
Q: I’m just as interested in your parenting technique as your environmental accomplishments. How did you convince your kids not to harangue you for Xboxes and other gizmos that all their friends are getting? And, would you be my Super-Eco Nanny?
A: They haven’t complained at all. For Christmas, we asked them, what are you going to ask Santa to bring you? We didn’t even ask them to limit it to one choice, but they did. The older one wanted a chess game, which I found used on eBay. The little one wanted a football. I couldn’t find a used one, so we had to get that on Amazon. I was actually happy with the packaging for the football.
Q: Is it really true that they don’t watch TV?
A: On Friday nights, we’ll watch a movie together. There are shows they’ll watch at friends’ houses. I can’t do anything about that; I’m not going to be psycho about it. But, they don’t seem to mind not having TV. They say the commercials are such a waste of time. Netflix gives them a bigger choice.
Q: I hear that you often give them activities instead of material gifts.
A: They really appreciate that. We started a year ago. We also asked the grandparents to give an activity. We pointed out that when they get an activity, it lasts much longer. Their grandmother gave them a gift certificate from an ice cream shop, and it took six months to use up.
Q: What’s your answer to dental floss?
A: We don’t use it. We use those little rubber picks instead.
Q: Your husband goes along with this, too?
A: Not at first. He works as a sustainability consultant for big corporations, and at the beginning he told me, what you do, Béa, really doesn’t matter. Only the big companies will make a difference. I told him I really didn’t think so. Manufacturers make products for consumers and everyone who buys something is voting. Another objection my husband had is he thought it would be too expensive, and we couldn’t afford it. But, I showed him that by shopping as I was, we could save about one-third of our normal grocery bill.
Q: You cook every night?
A: Yes. I try to keep things simple. Each night is based on a different staple. Monday night is grains, Tuesday is pasta. Wednesday we have pizza or quiche. I can make a quiche in 20 minutes. We have meat once a week and fish once a week. At first, we tried skipping meat entirely, but my husband dropped to 150 pounds, and he’s six feet tall, so something wasn’t working for him.
Q: When and why did waste become so important to you?
A: A few years ago, we rented an apartment for a year, and didn’t have room for a lot of stuff, which we kept in storage while waiting to find a house. During that time, we realized we really didn’t miss all those possessions, and were happy to live with what we had. There was less maintenance. We had more time with the kids and for more outdoor activities. All that stuff was wearing us down, so we let it go.
Q: When, if at all, have you fallen off the eco-wagon?
A: I use Oil of Olay eye cream. I’ve tried green alternatives, and even tried to make my own, but they only made my wrinkles deeper. I decided Zero Waste stops at my face. I didn’t want to look in the mirror one day and regret my choices. I did contact the company and railed at them about their packaging. I even told them I wasn’t going to buy it anymore. But, I still do.
Q. Have you been surprised by some of the nasty comments people leave on the Internet articles about you?
A: When I was first starting to reduce my waste, I thought everyone was doing the same. Then, I realized we’d gone a lot further than anyone else. I think this topic hits home with everyone, and some people take our example as a criticism. I promised myself not to look at the comments, but then I did, and I got a terrible stomachache. Then I thought, I can’t be mad at them for not understanding. So, I just let them talk while I keep going.
Katherine Ellison is a mom of two and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Her recent book is Buzz, A Year of Paying Attention (Voice, 2010). She lives with her family in Marin County and has a website, katherineellison.com.
Eco-Role Model or Eco-Extreme?
What do you think of Béa Johnson’s lifestyle? You can read her blog at zerowastehome.blogspot.com.
Béa’s Tips on Zero-Waste Grocery Shopping
- Shop only once a week: if you run all your errands on the same day and with a list (written on single-side printed paper or receipts), it saves on gas and impulse shopping.
- Always have a few shopping totes in your trunk. I use 3 large ones (one for the farmer’s market, two for the grocery store) for our family of four.
- Use 2 sizes of cloth bags (10 of each should do) to transport grains and small items available in bulk (flour, sugar, beans, cereal, cookies, spices, etc.). I made ours from an old sheet.
- Bring jars for wet items, such as meat, fish, deli, cheese (counter items), and for bulk items, such as honey, peanut butter and pickles.
- Bring a large bread bag to the bakery for a bread order. I use a pillowcase.
- Refill glass bottles with bulk castile soap, shampoo, conditioner, soy, vinegar, maple syrup, etc.
- Buy milk and yogurt that come in glass jars and can be returned to the store for a deposit.
- Bring your jar or cloth bag to a specialty store for a refill, such as ice cream or candy.
- Shop at the farmer’s market for the egg stand that reuses empty egg cartons and sticker-free local produce.
- Refill your clean, empty wine bottles at a local winery bottling event.
For more detailed ideas, check out zerowastehome.blogspot.com.
Help for Bypassing the Landfill
Wanting to go green and knowing how to accomplish this goal are two very different things. Luckily for residents of the Bay Area, there are many businesses and resources to get you on the road to a more waste-free lifestyle:
TerraCycle: Collects hard-to-recycle items and then “upcycles” them into a wide range of affordable green products and materials, many of which are sold at WalMart, Home Depot and Target. CapriSun drink packs, for example, are collected from area schools and recreated into stylish backpacks. 866-967-6766. terracycle.net.
Greenopolis: Recycling kiosks (currently at Whole Foods in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Cupertino) give people an opportunity to earn points that can be redeemed for entertainment, dining, travel, personal services and more. Plus, the lively online community includes resources, ideas and bloggers. greenopolis.com.
EarthBaby: For $29.99 a month, this Sunnyvale-based diaper service will pick up and deliver diapers, and then professionally processes them into compost, which can be used by farms, golf courses and nurseries. 650-641-0975. earth-baby.com.
Green Zebra: Offers hundreds of online savings for local green businesses. Plus, its Environmental Action Center in San Francisco offers workshops that cover a variety of topics, such as zero-waste lunches, farmers’ market cooking demonstrations and more. 415-346-2361. thegreenzebra.org.
Alameda County Waste Management Authority: Attend a series of workshops in Oakland on Bay-friendly gardening or train to become a master composter. 510-891-500. stopwaste.org.
Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority: Offers a variety of composting classes across the county. wastediversion.org.
Garden for the Environment: Learn about composting, as well as organic gardening, native plants, rainwater harvesting and more through this San Francisco organization. 415-731-5627. gardenfortheenvironment.org.
Recycling & Waste Reduction Commission: Offers two-hour basic Bay-friendly classes, as well as a master composter program at locations across Santa Clara County. sccgov.org/portal/site/iwm.
San Mateo RecycleWorks: Offers classes on backyard composting, worm composting and grasscycling throughout San Mateo County. recycleworks.org.
– Millicent Skiles