Why environmentalists can’t get rid of clutter

slow declutter, zero-waste declutter, environmental decluttering

You know you want to declutter, but as a person who is environmentally conscious, you know too much.

When you care about people and planet, you can get in your own way. Where can you take your items so they don’t just go into the landfill? How can you donate so that you’re helping the organization, not burdening them? What about social concerns?

Decluttering is hard enough but for people who pay attention to environmental and social issues it can be paralyzing.

The situation is a symptom of the disposable culture we live in; we don’t have good ways to get rid of the things we buy when we’re done with them. No wonder people are daunted by the complexities of decluttering.

The good news is that with some extra thought the problem can be solved. Once you’ve figured out the right answers for you, you’ll be able to use your solutions again and again to keep your space calm and clutter-free. Even better, you’ll know that your items are being used for a good purpose and you’ll know how to avoid the problem in the future.

Marie Kondo has a lot to answer for

I too love the adorable tiny woman with her amazingly tidy everything. But as drop-off bins groan under the weight of discarded belongings inspired by Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up”, charity managers are begging donors to consider alternative ways of unburdening themselves.

Thrift stores aren’t always the answer

My friend had a collection of glass animals when she was a kid. It was hard for her to let go but she thought some other little girl might enjoy them. As she was telling the thrift store guy “careful that’s fragile” he dumped the whole box into a bin and she heard them crash to the ground.

The truth is that thrift stores get far more donations than they can sell and they can’t take the care you can to see that things go to a good home.

Even some charities have drawbacks

If that’s not bad enough, many big thrift stores use “sheltered workshops”, workplaces that employ people with disabilities at far below the minimum wage. Goodwill and ARC do this. Advocates for people with disabilities insist people should be paid minimum wage and when possible, integrated with the rest of the workforce.

However, many thrift stores pay their employees at least minimum wage. You can ask your favorite thrift stores if they pay at least minimum wage to all workers, or check the list of federal 14(c) certificate holders at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Many donations go in the landfill

When it comes to clothing, only about 15 % gets resold according to Annie Leonard, author of “The Story of Stuff”. Depending on the item, it will be sold on the thrift store shelves, sold to resellers in another country, recycled or put in the landfill. Lots of electronics get tossed, and large pressed wood furniture (read Ikea) gets trashed the most. It’s worth it to responsibly recycle when you can.

“Throw away” is not a real thing

Environmentalists know that there is no “away”—the only way things really go away is if they are biodegraded. Most of the plastics we have, including our synthetic clothes, will be with us until the end of time, though there are advances being made in biodegradable plastics. The best you can do is to find ways to give your non-biodegradable items new life or find reputable places to recycle them.

You can drop off textiles for recycling at H&M or and American Eagle Outfitters or find responsible recycling companies for mattresses and defunct electronics just by doing a quick internet search. Shelters will often take household goods that are otherwise hard to place. A quick couple of calls or online inquiries can do the trick. People on Freecycle and Craigslist often have purposes for items that no one can anticipate.

Nearly anything can be turned into a lamp

Environmental people are often creative, people who repurpose and reuse things. A quick search on Pinterest will reveal a whole suite of ideas that might let you repurpose your items as new things.

But beware of the “sure you can but you won’t” reality—if you know you won’t really follow through then try some other avenue. Give yourself a time limit and if you haven’t repurposed it, do something else. You don’t help yourself if you end up with a box of broken crockery instead of a ceramic mosaic patio table.

Environmentalists stockpile natural materials

Cardboard makes good mulch in the garden, especially for non-edible plants. I have grown pink oyster mushrooms on a bag of old cotton towels. Paper can be used for bedding in a worm bin. It’s easy to stockpile natural items thinking you will use them in the garden. Still, there are limits to the amount of cardboard one family can use. If an honest judgement says you have too much, recycle it or ask local gardening groups if they can use your materials.

Accepting the inevitable is hard

Say you‘ve tried but no one wants the items you have, they aren’t saleable, and you don’t have a feasible way to reuse them. If you’ve made a good faith effort, go ahead and dispose of items that just don’t have any other good place to go. It’s not ideal, but modern landfill operations are engineered to minimize environmental impacts. Just think about the end game next time you buy something.

The future solution

To solve the problem once and for all, environmentalists need to think about the forever home for an item BEFORE purchase.

Buy it once

The Buy It For Life movement is about buying well-made and durable goods that are made to last. Check online reviews from people who have owned the item for a long time. When you buy second hand it means someone else has already used the item (usually) and you can see if it is durable. While someone else has already incurred the initial environmental cost, keep your high quality standards and your knowledge of what will happen to the item when you’re done with it in mind.

Cradle to cradle manufacturing

More and more manufacturers produce goods that are fully biodegradable or fully recyclable and address a host of other environmental concerns. Search “C2C certified” to find products that meet this manufacturing standard.

Share and rent

One of the many benefits of knowing your neighbors is that you can share. My neighbor uses my food dehydrator, we borrow their air compressor. Those with snow blowers take care of the whole neighborhood after a storm. Tool libraries are popping up everywhere and you can rent a mother of the bride dress. Are there ways you can borrow or rent what you need if it’s not a daily thing?

When you are done, you’ll be done for good

In the end, it’s all about being true to your commitments. The more often you exercise your decluttering commitment in environmentally sound way, the easier it will be to do next time.

Learning which companies have take back programs, knowing which items will last and asking yourself what you will do with an item BEFORE you buy it will mean you won’t ever again be surrounded by clutter you hang onto because you don’t know what to do with it.

Think about it-you already have high standards for the food you eat and the companies you support—finding good places for your unwanted items will make it just one more area of your life you can feel good about.

As a bonus, your actions can make a difference to how businesses behave; as more people demand sustainable manufacturing and recycling, the more “regular” businesses will be compelled to be responsible.

Imagine how it will feel when you’re done, knowing that your old items are doing good in the world and feeling secure that you know how to handle your belongings in the future.

why environmentalists can't get rid of clutter

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