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Radical simplicity

Speaking to 150 women and a couple of men in Ashland last week, author and zero-waste crusader Bea Johnson held up a quart jar full of stuff and said, to much applause, that this was the entire garbage output for her family of four for the year.

Not only is Johnson, 45, waging war on waste, she showed strategies for de-cluttering your life of kitchen gadgets, clothes, furniture, vehicles and all that stuff in your garage, because “the less you have in your home, the more time you have to do what’s important to you.”

Johnson, author of “Zero Waste Home,” told a crammed hall at Ashland Springs Hotel Sept. 25 that radical simplicity has cut her family’s spending by 40 percent, increased their health considerably and got them on track with eliminating plastic and the huge amounts of packaging that are choking our environment.

Just take a peek under the kitchen sink if you want a glimpse of what’s wrong with our throw-away consumer society — then realize almost all of those kitchen and bathroom products can be replaced with baking soda and white vinegar and adherence to the code of refuse-reduce-reuse-recycle-rot.

As a pioneer of zero waste, Johnson learned you have to just say no to accepting single-use plastics, junkmail, even business cards — and you ask guests not to bring any prepackaged stuff into your house.

In the kitchen, why do we have 20 of those wooden spoons and big utensils? She cut it down to six: stainless ladle, spoon, spatula, tongs, whisk and one wooden spatula. That became the model for the kitchen and the whole house.

For appliances, you get one blender and a toaster. Three sizes of pans, three pots, one stockpot, one teakettle, all stainless. Table setting for 12. Cutlery: one paring knife, one chef knife, one serrated knife, one scissors, one cutting board.

Very instructive is what didn’t make the cut: can opener. How can you live without a can opener? That’s just the point of zero waste. You don’t have any cans. Why? Because they fatten the waste stream and can’t be reused. If you are forced to make soup instead of open a can, you are automatically starting to live green. You have to shop for locally grown food, which supports the local economy and just tastes better — and you eat it all, no waste.

Her list of ex-tools is eye-opening. You don’t need a garlic press because you can smash it with the side of a knife. No rolling pin, because she uses a bottle or presses dough into the pan with her fingers. Why a salad spinner when a towel dabs up water? Why a microwave or food processor? With hand-chopping, there’s nothing to clean. Place mats and table cloths are pointless and use energy to clean. Just wipe the table.

The amount of clothing we have is ridiculous, she instructs. We use about 20 percent of it. She shows a slide of 10 items of clothing, noting they can be shifted around to make “50 looks.” And in air travel, there is only one small carry-on.

In the bathroom, the revolution continues with a wooden, compostable toothbrush, mascara she learned how to make, moisturizer from vegetable oil. Missing are paper towels, foil, plastic wrap. Present are glass jars, which can be reused forever. She even goes to the meat counter with a glass jar, explaining she has no trash can and, after a while, the butcher stopped being surprised. School lunches were wrapped in cloth. Cloth tote bags, of course, were standard.

Born in France, Johnson went on to live in various places before landing in Northern California with her husband and two kids. During their move to the Bay Area, the young family settled in a small transition apartment for a year, opting to leave the majority of their belongings in storage.

“Going shopping” used to be a form of recreation when mom came to visit, she said, but that ritual fell before the minimalist lifestyle. Even her hair got recycled, grown into a pony tail, then cut and sent to the place where they make real hair wigs for cancer patients.

Surely, you might think (with her being French), the wine bottles would pile up, hopefully for recycling. Nope. Johnson tackled that item, which crams glass recycling bins the world around. She buys wine “unpackaged,” meaning she takes bottles to the winery for filling. Of course, it saves money for the winery, as well. By the way, about 15 percent of the cost of stuff is packaging and we’re starting to see “unpackaging stores,” where nothing is packaged.

The eager audience, by the end of the evening, just had to know what was in her quart jar of “garbage.” She knew the history of each item, most of the stories humorous, as she admitted defeat with a balloon that landed in her yard. She found the manufacturer printed on the balloon and called them, discussing why they had to make indestructible balloons, all of which must become garbage. Why not make something else to celebrate with? This was an example of “refuse,” as the first step to greening you life — and, she says, it got them thinking about it.

Asked why her audiences are virtually all female, Johnson said, “It’s tradition. Women take care of the household, even when they’re juggling careers. Women aged 25 to 34 are the most interested in zero waste because they’re the most independent or pregnant or in careers.”

The program was sponsored by the Ashland Community Food Store and Neuman Hotel Group, which owns Ashland Springs Hotel and Ashland Hills Hotel and Suites.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Bea Johnson displays mason jars in which she stores fruits and vegetables at her home in Mill Valley, California. AP Photo/Ben Margot
Johnson signs books at Ashland Springs Hotel for fans of her zero waste lifestyle. Photo by Denise Baratta