Book Report Pt. 1: Back to the kitchen

Bea Johnson has become sort of a modern guru of zero waste living. Her family has reduced their amount of trash to one jar full of trash per year. She wrote a book in 2013 about how her family changed their lifestyle to get to this point, and to share tips so others can learn from their experience. I’m reading her book now and I figured I would blog about what I learn as I go (without infringing on her copyright, of course).

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I was honestly surprised that she didn’t annoy me. Bea is pretty realistic and up front about the advantages she has that allow her family to accomplish what they have done.

“Not everyone who reads this book will be able to implement all that I mention or be able to go as far as reducing his or her yearly household waste to the size of a quart jar. … What matters is understanding the effect of our purchasing power on the environment and acting accordingly.”

The first section of the book, after an overview of basic principles, is focused on the kitchen and grocery shopping. I didn’t necessarily learn anything I didn’t already know, but I did gain some insight into how the Johnson family as so successful at cutting out waste. A major factor is that they live in northern California, which means they have access to municipal compost pickup and access to stores that seem to have great bulk selections, including things like shampoo and olive oil, and yogurt and milk sold in reusable glass containers that you can return to the store when they’re empty.

(If you’re not sure where to find bulk sections near you, Bea Johnson has an app for that.)

My big takeaway was that I am being harder on myself than necessary. When Johnson started out, she also went on a big “make it at home” binge to avoid buying packaging, even churning her own butter. But she soon realized that wasn’t sustainable. She does make some stuff from scratch but is no longer churning her own butter or making homemade cheese and ice cream.

Instead, the family eats a pretty simple diet, making it possible to get all the ingredients in bulk. Johnson has also found creative ways to get things without packaging, such as taking her own containers to an ice cream shop or other specialty food place to fill up. They also do this with wine and beer, getting a growler filled at a local brewery and getting wine bottles refilled at a local winery.

Her zero waste shopping trip:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables and eggs from the farmer’s market (reuse egg cartons, return any baskets to the farmer, don’t accept any paper or plastic bags while purchasing)
  • Baguettes from the bakery section of the health food store, stashed in a repurposed pillowcase
  • Milk and yogurt purchased in glass jars that can be returned to the store for a deposit
  • Butter, the only thing she buys in packaging, wrapped in wax paper that can be composted
  •  Cheese from the cheese counter and meat/fish from their respective service counters, all placed directly into Johnson’s container from home
  • Items from the salad and olive bars, as needed, in her own jars
  • Grains, flour, and beans from the bulk bins placed in jars and cloth bags
  • Refuse the store receipt

Johnson’s family eats vegetarian at least five nights a week, but it would still be impossible for me to get my meat and dairy substitutes without packaging, as she can with her meat and dairy. I think my new goal will be to make large batches of things on a rotating basis, so I can keep my freezer stocked, and also get more creative with my legume dishes.

Things she does make from scratch include:

  • Mustard
  • Tortillas
  • Vanilla extract
  • Hot sauce
  • Pizza dough

The other big takeaway I had was to focus more on simplicity and quality of what you have in your kitchen (Johnson doesn’t even have a microwave). You don’t need three sets of measuring cups, but what you have should be good quality and built to last. Johnson recommends shopping at a chef supply store. And you don’t need to keep five varieties of dried beans and three kinds of rice on hand at all times. With buying in bulk, you can buy just what you need for that week, and then use a different variety the next week.

Next up, I’ll be reading her chapter on the bathroom and toiletries.


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