It wasn’t the moss that she foraged to use as lavatory paper or the lip plumper made from stinging nettles that persuaded Bea Johnson that she had taken her pioneering pursuit of a “zero waste” lifestyle too far in the wrong direction. It was her husband, Scott, and the six months that she spent washing her hair with cider vinegar and baking soda. Her hair looked awful, she says, speaking in a thick French accent and frowning at the memory of her “frizzy ends”. But it smelt worse.
“I think I hit rock bottom when I went to lie down next to Scott and he looks at me and he’s like: ‘I’m so tired of you smelling like vinaigrette. It’s really not sexy.’ So to save my sex life, I needed to forget about that and find another solution. This is where I thought, ‘I’ve gone too far. This is not for me. It’s making me feel like a hippy. I’m not a hippy.’ ”
If she were a hippy, and if she didn’t laugh at herself so freely, Johnson’s activism would be much easier to dismiss. And believe me, as a typical hoarder of possessions nursing a vague sense of unease about the state of the planet, I would love to dismiss it. Instead what ultimately makes her message so compelling is that her stripped-back life looks fun as well as worthy. She stresses how much “happier” the family is now.
Not so long ago Johnson, 41, was a pampered corporate housewife with “Barbie-like platinum-blond hair, artificial tan, injected lips and Botoxed forehead” who judged new female acquaintances by the size of their engagement rings. She is now something else entirely — the aspirational, slightly vampish torchbearer for a greener, cleaner lifestyle, or what The New York Times called “the priestess of waste-free living”.
Her book Zero Waste Home, her blog and a frenetic round of television appearances and speaking engagements around the world have spawned a global following. People from Australia, Japan, Britain, mainland Europe and Johnson’s adopted home of California wonder every day, “What would Bea do?” Next month she’s making a presentation to Google in Tokyo and says that well-known manufacturers, which she will not name, consult her for ideas on products “because they see that this movement is growing like crazy”.
Very quickly after entering the Johnsons’ home in Mill Valley, an affluent neighbourhood across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco, you get a sense of how radical are the choices they have made. The family’s lifestyle is extreme by most people’s standards. Last year Johnson was able to fit their entire household non-recyclable rubbish output for 12 months into a single jam jar. She, Scott and their two teenage boys live almost entirely in second-hand clothes (some, but not all, of the underwear is bought new).
She wears cocoa powder instead of blusher, makes her own eyeliner with burnt almonds and sprays her hair with a mixture made from vodka, water and peel from lemons grown on two bounteous bushes on their patio, fertilised by her husband and the two boys urinating on them. They have no photos because everything has been uploaded to the cloud and no DVDs, no CDs, no newspapers or magazines because they use libraries and the internet for entertainment. They own only one book — a copy of Zero Waste Home in the downstairs bathroom for the Airbnb tenants.
However, there’s also a feeling that their aggressively decluttered regimen, which they have followed for seven years, makes modern life simpler and more fulfilling. Cleaning the house from top to bottom takes a fraction of the time it used to. Tidying it takes a few minutes. Heirlooms and valuables have all been sold or passed on. Johnson sold her own huge engagement ring years ago and hasn’t missed it for “one second”.
“The house can burn down, there is not one thing that I would regret,” she says. “Everything is replaceable. Stuff is replaceable.” Instead the family prioritises experiences. The $350 a night that those Airbnb tenants pay in rent funds holidays and adventures, from skydiving and canyoning together to exotic foreign trips.
Johnson greets me at the door of their small whitewashed wooden house wearing a black T-shirt, black fake-leather trousers and black high heels. It doesn’t look like an $8 outfit but it is. Almost everything inside is white and immaculate: the floorboards, the walls, all the furniture — even the chihuahua, Zizou, whom Johnson says they bought to “match the floor” because “when he sheds you don’t see it”.
Zizou is sitting on a white cushion in a glass swing chair suspended from the ceiling. There’s also a cluster of white modular leather blocks that can be adapted to become a sofa, a bed or a seating area and table, a white dining table and six white chairs, 20 fewer than they owned before they downsized. There’s nothing else on the floor downstairs, and no mess. Anywhere.
The only flashes of colour come from the orange and yellow mural that Johnson, a former artist, painted on one wall, the lush greenery visible through all the windows and the 12 pieces of fruit lined up on the white kitchen shelves.
Sitting at the table looking out at the wooded hills across the valley, Johnson talks fast, expansively and candidly, with the same self-deprecating humour that permeates her wise and sharply written book. Yet although she is happy to ridicule herself, she is very serious about the “movement” she has launched. In her view we are destroying the planet through mindless and unnecessary overconsumption. She believes with an evangelical zeal that makes her eyes shine that she can convince vast numbers of people to change their habits to do something about it.
Johnson boils her formula for zero-waste living down to five Rs: refuse, reduce, re-use, recycle, rot. Of those, by far the most important is to refuse. She reasons that the less you bring into your house the less you will have to throw away. This means no packaging, no plastic bags, no kitchen paper (they still buy loo roll — the moss was a bit much), no aluminium foil, few household products that can’t be used for multiple purposes, no freebie hotel shampoo bottles, no takeaway coffee cups, no junk mail and no Christmas or birthday presents (they ask for experiences instead of things).
The kitchen has been ruthlessly streamlined. Apart from the stainless-steel toaster and kettle, the marble counters are deserted. There’s one set of crockery and one set of cutlery. In the shelves and drawers are 200 (second-hand) French glass jars that Johnson uses for storage, canning fruits and vegetables and for shopping instead of bags; there are five large jars set aside for buying meat, cheese, grated cheese, deli produce and fish. In her freezer she has compartments for dry bread, candles (they burn longer if frozen), fish bones, meat bones and butter. There’s a composting bin and a recycling bin.
Under the sink where most people have a jungle of different cleaning products there’s a colander and a glass jar of dishwasher powder. Castile liquid soap bought in bulk cleans “our hands, the dishes, the floor, even the dog”. For everything else, from worktops to windows to the lavatory bowl, the Johnsons use white vinegar mixed with water.
Upstairs is similarly white and similarly minimalist. There’s a metal bucket in the shower to collect water for flushing the loo and a medicine cabinet with a select few items displayed like artworks. The family deodorise with one shared alum stone that never needs replacing and brush their teeth with baking soda sprinkled on compostable wooden toothbrushes. Johnson might not shampoo her hair with vinegar any more but she only switched to soap instead of shampoo and conditioner.
The bedrooms are even more austere, with so few possessions that Johnson knows everything that’s there off the top of her head. Max, 15, has “three pairs of pants [trousers], one pair of shorts, seven T-shirts, one dress-up shirt, two long-sleeve T-shirts”, a box of mountain biking gear and a box of underwear, plus one hat and one jacket.
There’s also a grey cuddly rabbit, a set of headphones and a (salvaged) desk with an A4-sized drawer containing the handful of favourite Playmobil and Lego figures he has hung on to. Leo, 14, has a small drawer of metal toy cars from thrift stores, a second-hand computer and second-hand Beats by Dr Dre headphones.
Each family member has a carry-on trolley bag. When they go away they simply pack the entire contents of their wardrobe into it.
As a child growing up in Provence with parents who grew their own vegetables and fixed anything that could be mended, Johnson adored the self-reliant family in Little House on the Prairie. She was also a “perfectionist” and that obsessive tendency clearly persists. “Maybe if I’ve been able to attain this much waste per year it’s because of that, but it’s also my creativity,” she says. “Today I no longer feel the need to put my creativity on to canvas because zero waste feeds my creativity all the time.” Family life in France seemed happy but behind the scenes her parents’ relationship was breaking down, leading to a bitter divorce.
At 18 she moved to California as an au pair to escape. There she met and fell in love with Scott. In the book she writes: “He was not the surfer type whom young French girls fantasise about, but he was a compassionate person who provided me with much-needed emotional stability.” They travelled the world and lived abroad, but when she became pregnant, “my yearnings to try the American soccer-mom lifestyle (as seen on TV) brought us back to the United States”.
He climbed the corporate ladder as an IT consultant and she received all the perks she’d hoped for, but she felt trapped in their big house in suburbia. They both missed “the life that we had known in the big cities”, she says now; “being able to walk to things”. So in 2006 they moved, eventually finding their current home, which was a third of the size of their old place and a financial stretch but beautiful.
“It took me 250 houses” to find it, she says, another glimpse of that perfectionism. While they were searching they rented a flat and took with them only necessities. “During that year we realised that living with less allowed us to live more because we had more time on our hands to do the things we enjoy doing. When we bought the house we got everything out of storage and that’s where we saw that 80 per cent of the stuff we had put in there we hadn’t used, we hadn’t missed, we even forgot we had.”
They embarked on a scorched-earth decluttering programme, eventually letting go of 80 per cent of everything they had. This part of her story leads to one of my favourite sentences in the book: “Scott had some initial trouble letting go.” What depths of personal agony lie behind that?
Johnson isn’t telling. “Really, once he saw the finances he was like, ‘This is awesome, Bea. Go for it.’ Because Scott is a numbers guy, but letting go was harder for him because he just didn’t see . . . He’s like, ‘You know, the golf clubs are not hurting anyone. They’re just there in the corner.’ ” The golf clubs went.
Scott had swapped his lucrative job to start a sustainability consultancy and for a few years money was very tight. Yet when they compared household costs from their old and new lifestyles they found that even by shopping at farmers’ markets for much of their food they were saving 40 per cent of what they used to spend. For Bea the change in her life has been an “epiphany”, she says. “I want to pinch myself that I didn’t do it earlier but maybe if I had I wouldn’t appreciate it so much.
“I can’t predict the future. I can’t tell whether my kids will do zero waste or not. As a matter of fact, I expect them to live a very different lifestyle from mine, but then we always go back to our roots and we go back to what we’ve learnt when we’re little. What makes me feel comfortable is knowing that I am giving them the tools to live this way if they choose to later.
“As a matter of fact, I asked Leo not too long ago, ‘Do you think you’ll live a zero-waste lifestyle?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know. One thing is for sure, I don’t want paper towels. What a waste of money that is.’ ”
Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Bea Johnson is published by Penguin, £9.99
Bea Johnson’s ten rules of waste-saving
The zero in “zero waste” makes it sound scary and hard to achieve. It is actually not as hard as it seems if you follow these five Rs in order: refuse, reduce, re-use, recycle, rot.
1 Fight junk mail. It’s not just a waste of resources, but also of time.
2 Turn down freebies from conferences, fairs and parties. Every time you take one, you create a demand to make more. Do you really need another “free” pen?
3 Declutter your home and donate to your local charity shop. You’ll lighten your load and make precious resources available to those looking to buy secondhand.
4 Reduce your shopping trips and keep a shopping list. The less you bring home, the less waste you’ll have to deal with.
5 Swap disposables for re-usables (start using handkerchiefs, refillable bottles, shopping totes, cloth napkins, rags, etc). You may find that you don’t miss your paper towels, but rather enjoy the savings.
6 Avoid grocery shopping waste: bring re-usable totes, cloth bags and jars (for wet items such as cheese and deli foods) to the store and farmers’ market.
7 Know your council’s recycling policies and locations — but think of recycling as a last resort. Have you refused, reduced or re-used first? Question the need and life cycle of your purchases. Shopping is voting.
8 Buy primarily in bulk or secondhand, but if you must buy new, choose glass, metal or cardboard. Avoid plastic: much of it gets shipped across the world for recycling and often ends up in landfill (or worse, the ocean).
9 Find a compost system that works for your home and get to know what it will digest (tumble dryer lint, hair and nails are all compostable).
10 Turn your kitchen waste bin into one large compost receptacle. The bigger the compost receptacle, the more likely you’ll be to use it freely.