A Visit From the Priestess of Waste-Free Living


Published: February 15, 2010

MY neighbor Bea produces no garbage. I am serious. None.
Hadley Hooper
It’s like some kind of amazing magic trick. Bea has a husband, two sons (ages 10 and 8) and a dog, and yet her household generates no empty containers, no food scraps, no dirty paper towels, no broken toys, no crumpled wrapping paper, no empty ketchup packets from fast-food restaurants, no orphan socks with holes in the toes.
Except toilet paper. And one time, a year or so ago, one of her boys used a Band-Aid, which generated a wrapper. But luckily it was paper — no wax — so at least she could recycle it.
Zero waste is her passion, her mission in life, something she thinks about constantly — some might say obsessively — because, as she has written on her tough-love, anti-garbage blog at Zerowastehome.blogspot.com, “The Earth has been trashed. Enough is enough.”
The goal, she said, is to prevent unnecessary things from coming into your house in the first place. Then there’s nothing to throw out. She takes a meat jar to the store so the butcher doesn’t have to wrap her order in paper.
From where I sit, in a disheveled-before-a-move house, Bea’s life seems so thought-out. Serene. And unattainable. Yet I went over to see her one day last week, hoping to figure out how she does it.
O.K., a small part of me also was hoping to unmask a secret trove of garbage; she had to be hiding it somewhere.
But where? At Bea’s house, every room and all the floors are painted a soft white (Benjamin Moore’s Swiss Coffee). There is barely any furniture — in the living room, a sectional; in the dining room, a table and chairs; and in the kitchen, a white wall clock, with no hands. Walking around in there was kind of like what I imagine it would feel like to be inside an eggshell, sort of pearly but less fragile than you would expect.
The only non-white objects were an orange pillow in the living room, a bowl of oranges on the dining table and a little orange ball that belongs to Bea’s dog, who is perhaps the world’s tiniest white Chihuahua.
“Cute dog,” I said.
Doesn’t shed, she said.
While I was snooping around in the pantry (stocked with bulk-bought grains in plain glass jars) and her freezer (stacks of frozen, unwrapped baguettes) and her echo-y clothes closet (one pair of jeans), I saw two small lemon trees — bushes, really — in pots on her balcony, their branches heavy with hundreds of lemons in various stages of lemon development. I’d never seen so much fruit on any single plant, so I asked about the fertilizer, and Bea said she has her sons urinate in the pots. Lemon bushes like their soil acidic, she said.
“Your life is the total opposite of mine,” I said, as if this were a revelation. As if I hadn’t already devoured every one of her blog posts, as if I hadn’t shivered, thrilled in some strange way, when I read what she had to say on the subject of avoiding dental floss waste (“Switch to a brass gum stimulator with a rubber tip”).
“How much stuff do you have?” she asked.
“In the past weeks, I’ve gotten rid of about 400 boxes of books,” I offered.
At the words “400 boxes,” Bea actually staggered, then clutched an (entirely bare) kitchen counter to steady herself.
But she recovered. “I can help you simplify,” she said.
“No one can help me,” I said, thinking about the exercise bike in a downstairs closet, my Junior Girl Scout handbook in the attic, and the infant-size car seat in the crawl space beneath my house. I have not had an infant since 1998.
“You got rid of your grandfather’s suitcase,” Bea pointed out.
“No, I didn’t,” I confessed. “I tried to. Then, in the middle of the night, I brought it back in the house.”
“I’ll come over tomorrow at 11,” Bea said.
This terrified me.
So when the doorbell rang at 10:59, I tried to divert her.
“Would you like tea?” I asked.
She opened a drawer — overflowing with tins of jasmine and roibos red and black oolong, with boxes of Sleepytime non-caffeinated tea, and forlorn single bags of lemon verbena and “Mother’s Milk” herbal flavor and green Salada and raspberry. And from this cacophony, she chose one box. She held it up, shook it and said, “It’s empty.”
“Bea,” I asked, “have you always been someone who didn’t want to own too many things or create garbage, or is it something a person can learn?”
“When I was a child, I thought I should have collections,” she said. “I had coins, and I had dolls from all over Europe, but they were for collecting, and my mother never let me take them out to play with them.”
Then, when she was 18, she moved from France to the United States to be an au pair. “The family I lived with had lost everything in a fire, and they didn’t replace a lot of it, so I saw how simply you can live,” she said.
As she talked, she opened drawers, examined contents, frowned at cheese graters. (“Why two? They do the same thing.”)
I put one in a box to send to Goodwill.
It was painful at first, going through stuff, having to admit to someone that yes, I was so wasteful that I had bought a second jar of cardamom before using up the first.
“What is King Kullen?” she asked, peering at some dried basil flakes.
“A store in New York,” I said.
“When did you live in New York?” she asked.
“Seven and a half years ago,” I admitted.
But then it started to feel cathartic, this process of putting all sorts of unnecessary chaos into a box to send away forever.
We had words, though, over my beloved Rosenthal soup bowls with handles shaped like wings.
“For Passover,” I said.
“If you don’t use something all the time, you don’t need it,” she said firmly. “You have 20 other soup bowls in a cabinet.”
“I love these,” I said.
“O.K., make a list of 10 things you love, even though you don’t need them, and keep the 10,” she said. “But just 10.”
She found my mother-in-law’s silverware in a drawer. “Use this every day,” she said. “Silver gets more beautiful with use, and you love it, so why use anything else, ever?”
After three hours, we had filled three big cardboard boxes — salvaged from behind a store down the block — with things to give away.
The next morning, I felt buoyant.
“What’s gone?” my 12-year-old daughter, Clementine, asked.
I couldn’t really remember.

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