Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life By Reducing Your Waste, by Bea Johnson. 2013, Simon & Schuster.
I recently watched Bea Johnson on a Youtube TedTalk about the ZeroWaste lifestyle. When she evangelizes about reducing waste, people listen. She seems to have earned a certain amount of "street cred" by her testimony of a sinful (i.e. overspending and overtrashing) past, and by the fact that she practices her gospel of glass-not-plastic while raising two teenagers (in California). Besides, she's an attractive woman with an easygoing speaking style. If viewers were expecting a hellfire and damnation sermon about plastic straws, it wasn't going to happen.
I borrowed Zero Waste Home from the library, mostly because of our impending garbage collection restrictions, and also because we've been making an extra effort to streamline our possessions. I figured out two things quickly: first, this is (like listening to Bea Johnson speak) an enjoyable, chatty, practical book. Second, in spite of the fact that I like the book and got a few ideas for things we might try here, or products we might look for, I will not be a Zero Waster any time soon, if ever. There are just too many things I would have to say no to, and some of them are very good things, even if they do come in non-compostable packaging. When we were at the very busy Euro-Foods store this morning, I wondered how the meat and cheese counter people (and the already-antsy customers) would react to someone slowing things down even more by bringing in glass jars. Along with meat (wrapped in butcher paper) and three prepared cabbage rolls (which they put into a foam clamshell), we bought frozen perogies (in a plastic wrapper), tea (in cardboard boxes), chocolate (in wrappers), a glass jar of sauerkraut, doughnuts and rolls (which we put into plastic bags), and some cheese (which came in foil-wrapped triangles inside a round cardboard box, you know the kind). So we brought home just as much packaging garbage as we would have from buying supermarket foods; but at the same time we were supporting a locally-run store with its own bakery, meat processing, and cabbage-roll-wrapping facilities; plus the small company that made the perogies and so on. In a Zero Waste lifestyle, I guess we could take in jars and ask for the cabbage rolls and pork loin to be put in those; we could make our own sauerkraut; we could choose a different kind of cheese that doesn't come in extra packaging. And we probably wouldn't be buying the Polish chocolate bars, or the perogies. Again, all this comes out of the choices we make every day, and Bea Johnson makes a very good point about it: those choices are based on the ideas that are the most important to us. If we are convinced that every bit of paper and plastic and styrofoam should be rejected for the sake of the planet and/or for our health and/or for our peace of mind, then saying "no" is a no-brainer, and it's totally worth giving up boxed tea and perogies in a plastic wrapper. I'm just not sure that that's the best goal for our family, right now.
I found her take on clothing interesting, and somewhat surprising. She has little interest in promoting the purchase of new sustainably-made clothing, preferring to shop what's already been produced, at thrift stores or by swapping clothes with friends. She gives a sample list of the contents of her own closet, which comes out to around the same amount of clothes as a Project 333 wardrobe. But when she describes being able to sweep all her clothes into one bag and leave the closet bare for visiting renters (and having all the members of her family do the same), I realize that that level of proficiency in Tiny-Wardrobe-ness, like the problem of boxed groceries, is probably not where I need to be aiming right now. I also don't see myself using cocoa or cornstarch as makeup anytime soon. Or making my own glue.
However, I am not dissing everything that the Johnsons do, by any means. While I don't agree with some of her thoughts on population planning, or the small value she puts on owning books, I am in total agreement about the need for children to have more time outdoors, less time plugged in, and fewer but better toys. When it comes to the bigger picture of trying to live responsibly and safely, I think they have a lot of the right ideas. The question then comes down to how we implement those ideas, and how far we take them before they run smack into other (also valuable) values.
Final take from a still not quite converted reader? Worthwhile picking up in any case for the generous amount of practical homekeeping help (even a few recipes). You might also want to check out the Zero Waste blog.