Our last post was about our theme for 2017: Learning to say no, to make room to say yes in the parts of life we care most about. But there’s one area of our life where we are resolving say no this year, not just as a means to say yes.
First, some context:
The Pressure and Problem of Decluttering
Minimalism and Marie Kondo-inspired decluttering are both reaching near-hallowed status these days, and if you’ve ever felt the pressure to winnow your belongings down to some impossible standard, you’re not alone. I think there’s some tiny voice in the back of my brain that’s constantly saying, “You really should be decluttering.”
And the idea sure sounds great, that if we get rid of the stuff that’s stressing us out and taking up too much time to keep it organized and clean, we’ll feel better. And maybe we will.
But, let me ask you: Could you imagine your grandparents who lived through the Great Depression ever going on some massive decluttering spree and getting rid of all their belongings that don’t “spark joy”? Of course not. People who’ve known true hardship have a different appreciation for the value of things than those of us who are willing to toss bags of stuff without another thought. That’s why that generation would never dream of tossing a margarine container when it could be reused to store leftovers. Not to mention that throwing it out is wasteful when it could serve another purpose.
Decluttering is a massive privilege, born from the trust that we can always buy that thing again if we find that we tossed it in error. Not that that makes decluttering bad, but I do wonder sometimes if we’re succumbing to the pressure to take it too far.
Which is important, because:
Your Donations Don’t Go Where You Think
Recently we learned this alarming fact: Only a small portion of donated clothes actually get sold in U.S. thrift stores, approximately 20 percent. Most donated clothes either don’t ever make it onto the racks at thrift stores, or they don’t sell and end up getting shipped in bales overseas. Some of that clothing is sold in poor communities in other countries, but even that is not without costs — doing so kills jobs of local textile makers who don’t have any of our safety net programs to fall back on. And worst, more than 10 percent of clothing donated to Goodwill in the U.S. goes straight to the landfill.
In fact, between 10 and 12 million tons of clothing end up in U.S. landfills every year.
This is all part of the clothing deficit myth, this idea that there are people out there who don’t have enough clothes. But it’s just not true. We collectively buy five times more clothing now than we did in 1980, per person, and that means that the clothing waste stream has multiplied many times over. No one — not even the poorest people — are lacking a shirt on their back.
What that means for those of us who have more than enough is that we shouldn’t use the excuse of donation as a way to absolve our guilt of tossing out something we don’t need. And there’s more:
Your Recycling Mostly Isn’t Getting Recycled
Ready for more bummer news? Just as the stuff you donate to thrift stores isn’t all getting resold to people who need it, the stuff you put out for recycling isn’t getting recycled at very high rates either.
Sadly, only 33 percent of recyclable materials put out in bins actually get recycled. More than half of that stuff ends up in landfills, and some of it — more than 10 percent — ends up getting incinerated, which is about as far as you can get from the green image we have when we put something in the recycling bin.
Some materials have higher recycle rates than others, of course, and more durable materials like aluminum and glass can be recycled infinitely, unlike plastic, which can only be downcycled into things like those flimsy plastic grocery bags everyone hates.
This is not a case against recycling — by all means, please recycle! Then at least the stuff has a fighting chance of getting reused! Rather it’s a reminder to all of us that all this stuff we’re getting rid of — perfectly good clothing, serviceable household items, recyclable materials — thinking we’re doing the right thing, it’s more likely to end up entombed for all time in a landfill than being reused as we intend it to be.
Good intentions when decluttering aren’t enough to keep this stuff out of the trash.
Which leads us to our challenge:
The Use It Up Challenge
This challenge isn’t about spending less, though it will probably lead to that. This challenge is about becoming more intentional about the full life cycle of the products we engage with — not just being deliberate about what we bring into our homes or being mindful about what we purge, but considering both halves of the equation. Asking ourselves what will happen to that new gizmo when we’re done with it, what our responsibility will be for it without the easy out of the donation or recycling bin.
And the challenge is simple: Rather than simply tossing things into the blue bin, or putting them in the thrift store donation box, we’re going to start asking ourselves:
If we knew this thing was going straight to the landfill when it leaves our hands, would we treat it differently? Would we try harder to get more use out of it?
For us this challenge aligns to our values of not trashing the planet, and working to reduce what we’re contributing to landfills, but it’s also a powerful way to reduce spending. Because we’ll be a lot more discerning about what we buy if we know that it goes to the landfill after us, and because thinking this way will make us a lot more resourceful with the things we have, the way our grandparents were with margarine containers.
- Instead of donating old t-shirts that aren’t in great condition (and are likely to end up in the landfill anyway), cut them up to make washable, reusable kleenex. Stop spending on kleenex altogether.
- Instead of buying storage containers around the house, use the many reusable food containers that groceries come in these days.
- If you’re crafty, sew worn-out garments into stuffed animals (they could even be the filling if you shred them first) to give as gifts when friends or family have babies.
- For garments in great condition, try selling them instead of donating them to ensure they will be used. (Bonus: money in your pocket, obviously!)
- For shoes that aren’t in style anymore but are still wearable, use them for yardwork or other tasks where you end up trashing your shoes anyway.
- For shoes that are still stylish, but are damaged, get them repaired instead of tossing or donating them. (Same goes for purses, leather jackets, etc.)
These ideas are nothing new for thrifty people of generations past, but our culture has gotten away from these basic ideas. We’ve embraced the disposable culture, and absolved ourselves of the guilt of it by giving ourselves the “right” choice of donating or recycling our toss-offs. But we can do better.
Related Post: You Don’t Need That Thing // On Cachet Vs. Value
Bonus Points: Considering the Full Waste Stream
We’re not proposing anyone go zero waste, but you definitely get bonus points if you take steps to reduce your overall waste stream, in recognition that most of what you throw out will end up in a landfill — not to mention the vast resources that are consumed just to make the packaging for goods that serves no purpose except to make that thing sit on a shelf. We’ve worked hard to reduce the packaging we consume, though, in all honesty, we did buy a lot more packaging than usual during our super hectic 2016 work year, because we had too much on our plates and minds to do all of our shopping with jars at the co-op. We’re going to work to reduce our packaging again this year, and you might consider asking yourself if, for example, that CostCo product is the right choice for you, given all the extra packaging it often comes with, especially if you sometimes end up tossing half of it out when it spoils. Could you actually end up saving money buying it in a smaller quantity with less packaging, but not wasting any?
Our Version of the Challenge: The Nothing New Year
We’re committing fully to the Use It Up Challenge this year, and are going to build our muscles at becoming much more discerning about whether things we’re inclined to toss could serve another purpose. But that would quickly lead to hoarderville if we didn’t also ensure that this fewer-things-out policy was balanced by a fewer-things-in policy.
And because we do consider ourselves environmentalists who don’t want to burden the planet with our material desires, we’re adding a wrinkle to the equation: We’re not going to stop at just buying less. This year, we’re committing to buying nothing new. Food and necessarily toiletries are fine, of course, but anything that’s not a consumable item must come to us secondhand, preferably locally, not shipped across the country in boxes that will then need to be recycled. We have a short list of exceptions, but other than those items, we’re going to stick to our guns, trying to buy as few bits of stuff as possible overall, and buying used when we really need something.
Game to Join Us, Even in Small Ways?
What we love about this challenge is that it isn’t really about spending at all. We can still spend all we want on travel, meals out, movies, experiences and even takeout coffee (so long as we bring our own travel mugs!), but it could also fit just as well into a frugality challenge like the Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month Challenge. And you can take it exactly as far as you want — maybe just picking through your recycling bin from time to time to see if you could reuse any of that stuff, all the way up to deciding not to throw out anything and going fully zero waste. Sooo… anyone inspired to join us? Already doing something similar? Shocked by those landfill stats on donations but not yet sure what you’ll change as a result? Let’s talk about it all in the comments!
You don’t have to sign up for anything to do this challenge, or even tell us about it (though we hope you will!). We’re just sharing information we’ve learned and hope it spurs some of us to think differently about what we consume and dispose of. We’d love if you’d join us! And if you blog about it, please link back and let us know so we can add a link here to your post, like we did for the Road Less Traveled Challenge.
Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!
Subscribe to get our bimonthly newsletter with tons of top secret info we'll never share here on the blog. It's like a whole extra post or two a month!