The Johnson family is labeled many things—extreme, obsessive-compulsive, privileged, entitled, out of touch, hypocritical, fanatic. Their minimalist Mill Valley home gets described as cold, void of personality, influence run amok and “as warm and welcoming as a bus station bathroom.”
So what did Bea Johnson—the public face of this family of four—do to deserve such vitriol? Did she shut down the government to keep low-income Americans from getting affordable health insurance? Did she bomb a village in Pakistan in the name of killing terrorists and maim a toddler?
Not exactly. Johnson is the author of the blog-turned-book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, the story of an eight-year journey to pare down a household’s consumption to nearly a trickle. What Bea (pronounced Bay-ah) Johnson, along with husband Scott, a sustainability consultant and middle school- aged sons Max and Leo have done is minimized the waste stream leaving their house to such an extent that their yearly trash fits perfectly inside a quart-sized Le Parfait jar. They’ve done this by employing the 5Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
The money saved—a 40 percent reduction in household expenses since 2005, according to Scott’s calculations—is what allows the family to stay in their 1921 two-level cottage in one of the Bay Area’s wealthiest enclaves, says Johnson, brushing off suggestions that her lifestyle is a sign of privilege. “It’s funny because people say, ‘You’re living minimalist because you’re wealthy.’ If we live minimally, it means we’re not buying stuff and we’re saving money.”
During a tour of her home on a drizzly September afternoon, Johnson appears unfazed by the criticism, and, if anything, more energized by the challenge to share the aesthetic, environmental and economic benefits of the zero-waste lifestyle. Today, she’s wearing an electric blue strapless dress (purchased at Goodwill) with a gold-colored necklace and black-heeled booties. It’s one piece from an entire wardrobe that can fit into a carry-on suitcase. Seven pairs of shoes, two dresses, two skirts . . .you get the picture. To keep from buying new clothes and shoes, she’s on a first-name basis with her tailor and her cobbler. “That’s how Charles Ingalls did it,” she says with a laugh.
‘We’re not telling people how to live our lives—that was never our intention,” Johnson says, who’s been critiqued for traveling by plane, driving a car (a used Prius) and depriving her children of Halloween candy and toys. “The blog started because people were asking me how to do zero waste. If I didn’t, it would be a waste of information. It’s better to share what we know.”
Inside the house, the sparse, clean space is the culmination of a journey that began in 2005 when the Johnsons stopped buying big and started living small. Stepping into the living room, the first thing visitors notice is a severe lack of furniture or decoration, with the exceptions of a space-age looking hanging chair (currently occupied by a white Chihuahua), two white sectionals, a brightly-colored set of stripes painted across the facing wall and a living-plant wall. For those accustomed to houses crammed full of family photos, books, toys, plants, rugs and assorted tchotchkes, it’s disconcerting. A deck with a view of Mount Tamalpais holds only a simple herb garden, a white patio set (bought second hand) and two Meyer lemon trees. Johnson mentions with a laugh how she encourages her sons to pee in the pot as a trick for making the soil more acidic.
The kitchen counters are bare and the drawers hold only the most necessary of utensils—not even a vegetable peeler. Under the sink, instead of a trash can, sit two bins: one for recycling and one for compost. A meticulously organized pantry contains rows of glass jars filled with the basics: flour, sugar, pasta, grains. Upstairs, the two bedrooms contain only beds, a bookstand for each boy with one library book each, and a plant in the master bedroom. A family room holds a flat screen TV, a rug, a couple of electronic devices, some well-worn board games and four labeled crates filled with used video games and musical instruments.
A native of the Provence region of France, where shopping bulk and getting wine bottles refilled isn’t looked at askance, Johnson traveled to California at age 18 to become an au pair. She met Scott soon after. They lived abroad for a while, but returned to the states where a pregnant Johnson, by her own admission, got caught up in living as a pampered soccer mom in Pleasant Hill, complete with a 3,000-square-foot home, a gas-guzzling SUV and Botox treatments.
But something didn’t feel right, and a few years later the family decided to move to a more walkable community, settling in Mill Valley. During the search for a new home, they put most of their stuff in storage and realized that it wasn’t much missed. The couple sold off most of their possessions, in the meantime educating themselves about the devastating effects of climate change on ecosystems and communities. In other words, they woke up: “It was like taking the red pill and waking to The Matrix,” Johnson says, referring to one of her favorite films. “Our whole world has been changed all around.”
“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,” writes Johnson in Zero Waste Home.
Still, Johnson says that, at first Scott wasn’t on board with the zero-waste goal, especially since it involved shopping at places as expensive as Whole Foods. Then he did the calculations. He discovered that they’d saved 40 percent in household expenses when comparing 2005 to 2010 and became as gung ho has his wife. They’ve even collaborated on an app together called Bulk—it’s free, crowd-sourced, and helps people find bulk items in their own communities.
All of this has led to a barrage of media attention. From the New York Times to The Today Show, Johnson’s rhapsodic embrace of zero waste has been featured nationwide. A 2012 Sunset magazine feature stirred up some particularly pointed responses, and if the online comments and letters to the editor were to be believed, it led to an exodus of subscribers appalled by the Johnsons’ decision to return the Netflix plastic strip along with their DVDs and “fly in” toothbrushes from Australia. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle soon after the release of the new book cast Johnson as an anti-waste stream Carrie Nation, exchanging the famous hatchet-wielding temperance advocate’s saloon raids with imaginary X-ray vision goggles that “see through the hemp shopping tote where you slipped that plastic bag of fair-trade bananas, BPA/phthalate-free container of kombucha and organic Gorilla Munch that’s packaged in a bag inside a box” (italics theirs).
But Johnson says that she’s let go of such judgment towards the unenlightened, with their single-use water bottles, cans and plastic wrap. She’s no street evangelist. “I don’t want to force anyone to go zero waste,” she explains. “I’m not here to tell anyone, ‘You shouldn’t be living the way you are living.’ All I want to do is show the way we live, and if it inspires someone, great, and if it doesn’t, well, just go on about your day. I used to be there myself.”
Johnson shops almost exclusively in the bulk section, and purchases items without any sort of packaging whenever possible. She brings cloth bags to fill with staples like flour, sugar, grains and pasta. She brings jars for cheese, meat, fish and olives. In the book, she advises to act confidently and avoid eye contact to get past suspicious counter people with the Department of Health on their minds. Milk and yogurt are always bought in returnable vessels. Johnson cans tomatoes at the end of the season, makes jam, hot sauce and vanilla essence. She forages Yerba Santa in the surrounding hills for use as a decongestant.
Because of this extra work, some accuse her of being a stay-at-home mom with too much time on her hands, an accusation that Johnson doesn’t take lightly.
“I really do work professionally full time,” she says. “I would have thought the same thing seven years ago—these people are crazy, forget about it. But how come you don’t have time to live the simple life, but you have time to live the complicated one? Living simply, by definition, saves a lot of time.”
There was a point when she did go overboard, Johnson admits. “I had foraged moss to use in lieu of toilet paper, for God’s sake!” she writes in the book’s introduction. She stopped making butter, cheese and kefir after seeing that these practices had become “socially restrictive and time-consuming, and thus unsustainable.” Now, she’s got her shopping routine down to a science, shopping strictly secondhand for clothes twice a year, in October and April, events that she anticipates with joy, and for groceries on Fridays, all according to an organizational system rivaling the Library of Congress. Yet the way she tells it, the whole endeavor is manageable once the systems are in place. When you own so little, there’s not much left to maintain, clean up or repair.
One thing is certain, and that’s the Johnsons’ chosen lifestyle opens up all sorts of political and philosophical questions. They’ve been called obsessive in their lack of material belongings, but perhaps it’s crazier that the average American uses only about 20 percent of their belongings on a regular basis.
Should we all follow the Johnsons’ lead? Or are their actions so extreme that normal people could never accomplish the same? Or, is it possible that we live in an upside-down world that has normalized a blasé attitude towards the disposal of incredible amounts of packaging and the easy replacement of the broken with the new. It’s convenient to assume that once a plastic container is thrown into the recycling bin, it’ll be turned into something equally useful. It’s even more convenient not to think about it at all.
What’s more difficult is facing the thought of the vast floating plastic debris comprising the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—twice the size of Texas, at last count. It’s even harder to think of how American consumption habits connect to climate change, droughts, food shortages and severe weather events befalling humans the world over, and mainly the poor, sick and young in poverty-stricken developing countries.
But Johnson does think about these things. Hand her a pen—one of those plastic ballpoints that banks hand out on customer appreciation days—and she doesn’t see a harmless writing instrument; she sees the global repercussions brought on by a slavish worship of objects. She sees rising oil prices and the catastrophic results of the thirst for fossil fuel. Hand Johnson a pen, or a business card, a pizza box, or just about anything made from plastic, and she’ll hand it right back to you with a firm “No thanks.”
It’s an aesthetic concern too. Johnson hopes to live by example, proving that being green isn’t just for hippies or bohemians. On her blog, she employs high-fashion poses for photos of stylized thrifted outfits, details how to throw a zero-waste dinner party and explains how to inject chic modernism into waste-conscious living.
“I find zero waste beautiful,” she says, standing in the well-stocked pantry filled with jar upon jar of canned tomatoes, jam and bottles of wine. “I find that using my cocoa powder instead of blush pulled out of a plastic tube is beautiful. I find it beautiful to get my homemade lip balm out of a little tin container. The pantry to me, it’s relaxing. It’s not some big company’s choice about what your pantry should look like. It’s only the food that’s shining itself.”