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The Simple Life

Bea Johnson ditched the SUV, sold her stuff and famously lives with almost zero waste. So why do critics try to rip her efforts apart?



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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 (before instant watch became the norm) 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).

FRUITS OF CONSUMPTION The jar containing the Johnson household's entire waste for the year; before instant streaming, the family even sent back the plastic strips from Netflix envelopes. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • FRUITS OF CONSUMPTION The jar containing the Johnson household's entire waste for the year; before instant streaming, the family even sent back the plastic strips from Netflix envelopes.

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.

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