The Johnson family is labeled many things—extreme, obsessive-compulsive, privileged, entitled, out of touch, hypocritical, fanatic. Their minimalist Mill Valley home gets described as cold, void of personality, influence run amok and "as warm and welcoming as a bus station bathroom."
So what did Bea Johnson—the public face of this family of four—do to deserve such vitriol? Did she shut down the government to keep low-income Americans from getting affordable health insurance? Did she bomb a village in Pakistan in the name of killing terrorists and maim a toddler?
Not exactly. Johnson is the author of the blog-turned-book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, the story of an eight-year journey to pare down a household's consumption to nearly a trickle. What Bea (pronounced Bay-ah) Johnson, along with husband Scott, a sustainability consultant and middle school- aged sons Max and Leo have done is minimized the waste stream leaving their house to such an extent that their yearly trash fits perfectly inside a quart-sized Le Parfait jar. They've done this by employing the 5Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
The money saved—a 40 percent reduction in household expenses since 2005, according to Scott's calculations—is what allows the family to stay in their 1921 two-level cottage in one of the Bay Area's wealthiest enclaves, says Johnson, brushing off suggestions that her lifestyle is a sign of privilege. "It's funny because people say, 'You're living minimalist because you're wealthy.' If we live minimally, it means we're not buying stuff and we're saving money."
During a tour of her home on a drizzly September afternoon, Johnson appears unfazed by the criticism, and, if anything, more energized by the challenge to share the aesthetic, environmental and economic benefits of the zero-waste lifestyle. Today, she's wearing an electric blue strapless dress (purchased at Goodwill) with a gold-colored necklace and black-heeled booties. It's one piece from an entire wardrobe that can fit into a carry-on suitcase. Seven pairs of shoes, two dresses, two skirts . . .you get the picture. To keep from buying new clothes and shoes, she's on a first-name basis with her tailor and her cobbler. "That's how Charles Ingalls did it," she says with a laugh.
'We're not telling people how to live our lives—that was never our intention," Johnson says, who's been critiqued for traveling by plane, driving a car (a used Prius) and depriving her children of Halloween candy and toys. "The blog started because people were asking me how to do zero waste. If I didn't, it would be a waste of information. It's better to share what we know."
Inside the house, the sparse, clean space is the culmination of a journey that began in 2005 when the Johnsons stopped buying big and started living small. Stepping into the living room, the first thing visitors notice is a severe lack of furniture or decoration, with the exceptions of a space-age looking hanging chair (currently occupied by a white Chihuahua), two white sectionals, a brightly-colored set of stripes painted across the facing wall and a living-plant wall. For those accustomed to houses crammed full of family photos, books, toys, plants, rugs and assorted tchotchkes, it's disconcerting. A deck with a view of Mount Tamalpais holds only a simple herb garden, a white patio set (bought second hand) and two Meyer lemon trees. Johnson mentions with a laugh how she encourages her sons to pee in the pot as a trick for making the soil more acidic.
The kitchen counters are bare and the drawers hold only the most necessary of utensils—not even a vegetable peeler. Under the sink, instead of a trash can, sit two bins: one for recycling and one for compost. A meticulously organized pantry contains rows of glass jars filled with the basics: flour, sugar, pasta, grains. Upstairs, the two bedrooms contain only beds, a bookstand for each boy with one library book each, and a plant in the master bedroom. A family room holds a flat screen TV, a rug, a couple of electronic devices, some well-worn board games and four labeled crates filled with used video games and musical instruments.