Marie Kondo Came For Your Stuff; Bea Johnson Is Coming For Your Garbage
A zero waste lifestyle could mean fitting a year's worth of trash into a jar. Bea Johnson can show you how.
Bea Johnson isn’t a New Yorker, but you could be forgiven for mistaking her for one. Sitting in the lobby of 1 Hotel Central Park, she’s in head to toe black: black top, black skirt over black leggings, black stiletto boots. A chunky metal necklace interrupts the monochrome, and a black beret perches on her auburn hair. As we admire the serene, plant-filled décor of the $400-a-night hotel, she ticks off some of its ecologically sound features — refillable tanks for shampoo and conditioner, a chalkboard to scribble notes on instead of wasteful paper pads, a timer in the shower to encourage people to save water. She shows me the wooden key, but then observes with dismay that it comes in a disposable cardboard sleeve.
"I’ll have to talk to someone about that," she murmurs, making a note to herself. A year ago, Johnson had been invited to the hotel to speak about the Zero Waste lifestyle, a global movement to eliminate household trash (in case you haven’t heard Haagen Dazs, Hellman’s mayonnaise, and Pantene hair care are all about to become available in reusable jars). CNN has called Johnson Zero Waste’s "mother." Clearly, 1 Hotel still had room for improvement.
Sitting by the door on a blustery October evening, apparently immune to the gusts of cold wind coming in off the street, Johnson, 44, held forth for the next three hours, telling story after story about how the Zero Waste lifestyle is spreading like wildfire around the world. She seemed to draw energy from the air like a tillandsia; she neither offered nor required water or food, yet her energy never flagged.
Like the decluttering empress Marie Kondo, whose "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" has sold over 5 million copies and spun into a buzzy Netflix series, Johnson promises a simpler, less materialistic life, richer in time, space, and experiences. But while Kondo offers little beyond an immaculate apartment, Johnson is at the forefront of an environmental movement of sorts, premised on the idea that a modern household can produce virtually no trash.
Kondo famously encourages people to get rid of items that don’t “spark joy,” but with little thought as to where they go after they’ve been banished. Johnson, a huge proponent of second-hand stores and eBay, insists on donating, swapping, and repurposing, or any other action that will keep an item in circulation. She turns old bedsheets into cloth bags to carry home bread, uses cornflake crumbs for quiche, and picks up her dog’s waste with a scoop in the yard.
"Those things are valuable resources," she said. "It’s important to let go of things we do not really use or need, so other people can have access to them."
Yet "Zero Waste" is something of a misnomer, Johnson admits, since she and her family still create around one pint of garbage a year, which she keeps in a mason jar that accompanies her on her travels and features in her lectures. This year, it consisted largely of stickers from fruits and vegetables, a chunk of silicone from the back of her sink, a piece of duct tape stuck on someone’s shoe, and a hairnet from a volunteer stint at her local food bank. She instead defines "Zero Waste" as "a philosophy based on a set of practices aimed at avoiding as much waste as possible."
Although Johnson started blogging about her Zero Waste lifestyle in 2009, the movement has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, spurred by the publication of her book, Zero Waste Home, five years ago, a phalanx of Zero Waste social media influencers, and a confluence of economic, demographic, and environmental trends that make her message uniquely suited to the current moment. The book has been translated into 26 languages, most recently Danish; the #ZeroWaste hashtag pulls up nearly 2.1 million Instagram posts. This week, when she announced on Instagram that Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, was partnering with other companies to launch a home delivery service with refillable jars of popular products, she congratulated her fellow Zero Wasters for "changing the world."
"LOOK AT WHAT WE, AS A COMMUNITY, HAVE ACHIEVED!???," she wrote to her 187,000 followers. "Our lifestyle's movement is getting attention and it's changing the world!"
Yet just as meditation peddlers of today frame a centuries-old spiritual and intellectual practice in terms of productivity and health benefits, Johnson consciously avoids the look or the language of tree-hugging, emphasizing instead the lifestyle advantages of avoiding waste. Otherwise, she believes, people simply wouldn’t listen. She cited a talk she gave in a small town in western France, at the invitation of a local environmental group. After the talk, her hosts asked how she’d been able to conjure up over 300 attendees on a rainy weekday.
"I told them, I don’t know if you noticed, but in my talk, I only say the word ‘environment’ twice," she said. "Everything else is about how we’ve been able to improve our standard of living with this."
Her capsule wardrobe of fifteen items, for example, fits into a carry-on suitcase. When she and her family vacation, they pack up the entire contents of their closets in minutes, and rent out their light-filled apartment to pay for the trip.
"If it’s not good for you and you’re only doing it for environmental reasons, you won’t be able to stick with it in the long run," Johnson continued. "But if along the way you discover it’s actually good for you, that’s when you’ll stick to it, and that’s what happened to us."
This message has reached an increasingly receptive audience, as evidence mounts that we need to figure out something better to do with our garbage than throw it in the ocean, where an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic populate the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating in the North Pacific Ocean. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American generated 4.48 pounds of trash per day in 2015, a 67% increase from when the agency began measuring in 1960. Just one-third of which is composted or recycled; the rest presumably becomes landfill or marine debris.
It also resonates deeply with millennials, a generation whose traumatic experience entering the labor market during a recession nudged them towards valuing experiences over things (arguably because, in an era of downward mobility, they simply can’t afford a lot of things).
Currently, the movement is spreading most rapidly in Europe, Johnson said, with Canada a close second. She seems mildly disappointed it has not been embraced more in the U.S., her adopted homeland. In France, where Johnson is a minor celebrity ("French people love my story," she said, joking about how the French media has portrayed her as “the little French au pair who went to the US and now she’s teaching the world"), the industrial city of Roubaix asked her to speak during a municipal Zero Waste challenge. Then-Minister of the Environment Ségolène Royale caught wind of it, and issued a nation-wide challenge to all French cities to aim for zero waste.
Bulk grocery stores, or what Zero Wasters call "unpackaged" stores, have proliferated in her wake, sprouting up in cities from South Africa to Malaysia as she tours the world. In the year and a half Johnson since spoke in South Africa, fifteen Zero Waste stores, selling food and sundries such as dishwashing detergent in bulk, have opened primarily in the country’s three large cities of Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town. The night we met, Johnson was in New York to address United Nations tour guides the next morning; the following month she would be in Papua New Guinea. She has given talks about Zero Waste in more than 60 countries, including Namibia, New Zealand, Brazil, and India.
It certainly helps that Johnson, a former fashion student and artist who laughs easily at herself, makes composting and tomato canning look glamorous and fun.
"She always looks stylish and gorgeous and yet all her clothes are second hand and she has such a cleverly limited wardrobe," said Rhian Berning, a Zero Waste enthusiast and environmental activist living in the South African town of Plettenberg Bay, who helped organize Johnson’s South African speaking tour in May 2017. "I think that is why she is such an international role model for the Zero Waste movement."
The majority of high-profile Zero Waste influencers, such as Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers and Kathryn Kellogg of Going Zero Waste, are women, and Johnson has observed the most enthusiastic adopters are women aged 25 to 34. Women typically shoulder more household responsibilities than men, she explained, and they aim to simplify their tasks. This is also a period, she noted, when women often become pregnant, and begin paying more attention to the products they consume.
"When I first started speaking about Zero Waste in France, I would say the audience was about 90 percent women, ten percent men," she recalled. "There was a guy at the end of one of my talks and he said, ‘Oh gosh, it’s filled with chicks here, are your talks always like this? He was the last person to leave."
Johnson’s path to zero-waste evangelism began in the mid-2000s, when she, her husband, and their two sons moved from a large home in the San Francisco suburb of Pleasant Hill to the more urban area of Mill Valley. After renting an apartment for a year while they searched for a permanent home, they realized most of what they had been living with — multiple dining sets, a vast array of sporting equipment, endless kitchen gadgets — was superfluous. Within a few years of moving into their new home, half the size of their old one, they had let go of 80% of their belongings.
They read books and watched documentaries about environmentalism. In 2008, in the throes of the recession, her husband quit his job to launch a sustainability consultancy. Johnson, at that point working as an artist and part-time French teacher, set about greening their home; she was also looking for ways to save money as her husband got his business off the ground. In her research, she came across the industrial concept of "zero waste."
She began documenting her efforts at zerowastehome.blogspot.com, not least to telegraph to friends and family she was serious about this undertaking. In her first post, dated December 24, 2009, she articulated four of "the five R’s": refuse, reduce reuse and recycle, and rot (that last one refers to the art of composting.)
"I have put my family on a waste diet for the past 12 months, analyzing whatever comes in contact with the bottom of our one home trash can and slowly trying to get it as close to Zero Waste as possible," she wrote. How? She gins up eye shadow from burnt almonds. She spends one day a year canning jars of tomatoes. She washed her hair with vinegar for six months until her husband pointedly commented that she had gone to bed each night smelling like salad dressing. She even tried using moss instead of toilet paper (it dried out and became…uncomfortable to use).
Eventually she and her family found a balance that worked. They would still buy toilet paper, but from a bulk supplier so it came wrapped in paper, not plastic. Her sons, 5 and 6 when she began, didn’t appear to mind, or even notice. At this point, she observed, they have spent far more time living with Zero Waste than without it, and it has come to seem perfectly normal. For their birthdays, instead of physical gifts, they receive experiences — one chose skydiving, another, bungee jumping. Four years ago, her younger son Leo assured her he would not buy paper towels when he grows up — "They’re such a waste of money," he said.
"I’m more worried about the daughter-in-law," Johnson laughs. "Because who knows, maybe she’ll have grown up with paper towels."
Her project grew into a small consulting business, helping others declutter, simplify, and learn how to reduce their waste. In 2010, a neighbour who also happened to write for The New York Times profiled her. Sunset magazine profiled her and her family in a nine-page spread, and interest picked up.
The glossy spread, she said, showed "how we lived, what we look like, what our interior looks like, so for people who had not seen the blog, all of a sudden, it really gave a face to the lifestyle. A lot of people saw that, and they’re like, If that’s what the Zero Waste lifestyle looks like, I want to do Zero Waste, it’s beautiful! I want that interior, I want a life with less! Then it really started taking off."
Her book came out in 2013; the requisite TED Talks followed in 2015 and 2016. Her work has caught the attention of major institutions and corporations, and she has spoken at the United Nations, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, and Ikea, among other places. At Ikea, she offered executives insight on how a Zero Waster would shop their stores, noting that if she were in the market for, say, a garlic press, she would avoid Ikea’s plastic offerings and search for a more durable (and recyclable) metal one. A subsequent Ikea catalog featured an array of glass jars featuring bulk dried foods, along the lines of Johnson’s own Instagram-worthy pantry. But it was still a paper catalog, destined to become junk mail.
If part of Johnson’s appeal is her lack of judgment, it could also disappoint those looking for a more forceful environmental advocate. She is quick to point out that the unenlightened masses toting plastic shopping bags and drinking from paper cups "were me not so long ago; who am I to judge them?" She is content to lead by example and offer ideas and solutions; the harder edge of social change – accountability, naming and shaming, politics – are not her bag. Even at companies like Ikea and Starbucks, she takes a hands-off approach.
"I’m not there to tell them how to change their policies in their own department, I’m only here to show what we’ve done and talk about the movement that is launched…then it is up to them to take it to their own committees," she said. "I’m not fighting these companies. I just want to present the lifestyle."
When I mentioned the Zero Waste movement at a dinner party of left-leaning journalists, one was quick to snort that all of this worry about household garbage is a distraction, a waste of energy when what’s really called for is radical political action. In Zero Waster Summer Hanson’s case, disillusionment with the prospect of legislative change reoriented her towards individual solutions that she could control.
Hanson, a Seattle resident, had interned while at Princeton on a carbon tax initiative, I-732 in Washington State. When it failed to pass in the 2016 election, she found inspiration in a video of Lauren Singer’s, another recent college graduate who had "realized she couldn’t rely on others to take care of the planet, so she started with herself," as Hanson put it.
"I wanted something where I could feel in control," she said. As she took up the Zero Waste lifestyle, she became embedded in Seattle’s Zero Waste community, and helped bring Johnson to speak in Seattle, including a stop at Amazon, where Hanson worked until April 2018. Johnson told executives there why she prefers to shop on eBay when she needs something – not only can she buy second-hand, but she can communicate directly with sellers, to ask them to use recyclable packaging such as paper when they mail her purchase.
Around the time of Johnson’s visit, Seattle’s Zero Waste community grew dramatically, from a dozen people in 2017 to over 1,200 Facebook members and a monthly meet-up group. Through the meet-ups, Hanson met two entrepreneurs behind Eco Collective, a woman-owned business that sells eco-conscious goods, such as reusable straws and mesh produce bags, for fellow Zero Wasters. She recently joined Eco Collective as a co-founder and head of web development.
While Johnson is thrilled the movement has grown so rapidly, she can also see it spiraling in directions she never anticipated — starting with reusable straws.
"The reusable straw, man, it drives me crazy,” she said. “Two years ago, five years ago, no one cared about straws. Now all of a sudden...you have these bloggers pushing people to swap for reusables. Excuse me — do you even need them in the first place?"
She also worried about the proliferation of Zero Waste influencers sharing recipes for homemade everything — homemade face cream, homemade toilet cleaner, homemade window cleaner, homemade floor cleaner, homemade toothpaste. This, she said, is also a misinterpretation of what Zero Waste is about, not mention, she added, “I think it’s scaring the crap out of the full-time working moms."
"You see the term ‘Zero Waste,’ it sounds scary," she said. "A lot of Americans also still wrongly believe that waste-free living is more costly and take more time. Some also still associate this way of life with a bohemian lifestyle. But no matter whether you drive a car or walk or ride a bicycle, whether you voted for Trump or voted for Hillary, whether you eat meat or not, or whether you use toilet paper or not — really, this lifestyle is open to anyone."
"It’s actually not that extreme."