Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson; The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo review – waste knot

Bea Johnson and Marie Kondo
What do we do with all our rubbish? The waste of our lifestyles threatens to overwhelm us. As Andrew O'Hagan wrote in the LRB in 2007: "We grew up imagining that rubbish was taken away, only to find there is no such place as ‘away’." Rubbish tips overflow, the seas are awash with plastic trash and whole countries are turned into the dumping grounds of richer countries. OK, we recycle more, but recycling uses energy and often the thing made from the recycling is not itself recyclable, thus just kicking the can, bottle and packet one step down further the road before dumping it in landfill after all. Perhaps the answer is to produce less waste all together, recyclable or not.

Bea Johnson is described as the "priestess of waste-free living" on the cover of her curious book, first published in 2013 and now out in Penguin, which promotes the principle of zero-waste: putting nothing into landfill. The usual reduce, reuse and recycle mantra is here topped and tailed with refuse and rot. Of these refuse (verb not noun!) is the most pertinent, and the battle against accepting things into your home that will become rubbish is at the forefront.

The cover also includes the adage "Live Well, Consume Less, Feel Fabulous" on the back. Yes, this book is here to tell you waste-free living can make you happier, better off, your skin clearer, clear up your IBS, all while saving the world from swimming in its own filth. It's win-win, basically, and all you have to do is stop throwing stuff away, and you mainly do that by not accepting stuff that you will throw away in the first place. She's at war, essentially, with the disposability that we take for granted in modern life.

She is at pains to show that it's doable. She has come back from an extremist zero-waste lifestyle to a more manageable very-little-waste lifestyle, but has still got her waste-disposal needs down to one litre a year, which means if you throw out a two-pint bottle of milk, you've instantly out-wasted her.

It's an impressive feat, even if the entire book is shot through with a certain defensiveness whenever the terms "well-off, neurotic homemaker with too much time on her hands" hover above. Johnson is well-off, is a homemaker (housewife) and if she is neurotic, well, if only we could all channel our neurosis into internationally successful books. She's certainly thorough, although perhaps she's just enthusiastic.

I sort of liked it, even though I affect the same allergic reaction to lifestyle stuff that we all do. Johnson's style is all lifestyle, but the issue of waste is somewhat more pressing than the here-today-gone-tomorrow diets, exercise and skincare regimes that make up most of the lifestyle section. Waste is fascinating, to my mind: I seem to have a deep-seated, although largely unsatisfied, desire to feel that we and the things we use are in a ever-replenishing cycle, rather than on a one-way journey to the dump. 

Johnson does some wacky shit. Takes a plethora of containers to the bulk-buy supermarket in order to refuse any bags, boxes or packets that might imperil her one-litre-a-year habit. Makes her own cosmetics and deodorant. Mulches paper. Brushes her teeth with a twig. Refuses any and all freebies, even the shampoo packets in hotel bathrooms. The book itself is quite closely typeset, presumably an environmental choice to use less paper. Sometimes, following her thought processes can be nice, as she explains how she's ended up making this choice over that choice, or this compromise over that principle. But it can also be exhausting, although that could be from having to squint at the close-set type.

It's worth reading though, because even you don't subscribe to the whole zero-waste biz, the very fact that someone is bothering to consider the idea does begin to rub off on you. I started wondering whether I needed to take the wooden spoon with my takeaway cup of tea (let's not even get on to the takeaway cup itself), or the paper bag for my brownie. I became a bit more aware, a bit more conscious, of just exactly how much needless waste is generated in the course of a day, and, following Johnson's example, started to think that perhaps it is worth making even those microchanges, because after all, microchanges add up, eventually, to a macrochanges. Eventually.

So, I liked the book. It's absurd in parts, but not unbearable. She could have cut some of the liquid-soap recipes and instructions for building a dog-waste composter; it's not really a reference book, and those are the sort of things that are widely available on the web, but no matter. It's thorough and if a few of her ideas might sit well with you, we could, perhaps, eventually stop this world from turning entropically into a massive pile of slurried shite. 

At some points, Johnson mentions decluttering as a happy side effect of her zero-waste regime. In this she is very much stepping on the territory of Marie Kondo, the "queen of decluttering", who is currently having a moment and a half in the spotlight for her charmingly deranged method of de-stuffing our lives. Kondo's method is sort of the opposite of zero-waste – throwing things away is her jam. She tells you to go through all your possessions – in a very particular order – hold each one in your hand and decide if it "sparks joy" or not. If it doesn't, out it goes.

Kondo is very keen that we don't see throwing stuff away as shameful or wasteful. Fear of waste shouldn't mean we live our lives crammed with stuff we don't need and often don't even want or like. As a consultant, her clients have chucked away tonnes of stuff (she says, on average, 20-30 45-litre binbags, so 1,350 litres, or more than a millennium of Johnson's output), much of it straight into the garbage. 

It's not entirely clear to me how this method works once you move to the mundane items of daily life: can any of us truly say that our toothpaste "sparks joy"? Or our alarm clock. And if not, are we going to lob them out? "Sparking joy" here could perhaps mean having a positive reason to keep something, instead of negative reason for not getting rid of it. Kondo also goes in for a bit of animism: she wants you to think of your things as beings – something FWIW that my three-year-old is a dab hand at – and treat them with the respect they deserve – something that he is not so keen on. If you find something that you once loved but don't any more, you can thank it for its service and let it go, to the benefit of both you and it.

In contrast to Johnson's book, Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying is quite widely typeset – uncluttered – which makes it a more enjoyable read than Zero Waste Home, although it does use more paper per sentence. And whether not you can envisage thanking your old T-shirts for their service, or folding your underwear the way she recommends (no balling your socks, because they can't get any rest tucked up like that – that's what the lady says), there's something beautiful in the thinking behind her ideas. 

To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful. Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a cupboard of drawer that you have forgotten its existence? If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them. Help them to leave that deserted isle to which you have exiled them. Let them go, with gratitude. Not only you, but your things as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done tidying. 

One of the things Kondo gets across clearly is the waste of not throwing things away. We tend to see throwing things away as a loss, without recognising the cost of keeping them. But once she's painted a picture of a clutter-free lifestyle, where the things you have are things you've joyfully chosen, and, more importantly, where you can find them, because they're not surrounded by hundreds of other things you haven't, you'll consider swallowing your pride and wonder if you can't make time to follow her recommendations to energise your wardrobe.

Beyond a clear, tidy house, Kondo is aiming to train something more fundamental – the art of decision-making. By practising, first on clothes, then books, then papers, the miscellany, then sentimental items, you are honing your ability to use joy as a barometer for the things you want in your life. No prizes for guessing how this could leak out into the rest of your life. Moreover, she wants to help you see how your attachment to the past and anxiety to the future manifest in hoarding. It's tidying and psychoanalysis rolled into one. As long as no one tells her that when she throws all this stuff away, there is no away.

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