Downsizing That Won’t Kill the Planet
A room-by-room guide to how to get rid of your stuff -- without it all ending up in a landfill
My parents have lived in my childhood home since 1986. They’ve amassed hundreds (thousands?) of book reports, trophies (for my sister: gold or silver, for me: mostly participation), report cards, and countless other memories in physical form. I’m dreading the day when I can no longer avoid my mom’s pleas to finally return to Shaker Heights, Ohio, where I haven’t lived in 16 years, and help them downsize. While I can’t recommend exactly what to do with mementos, here’s how you can effectively reduce clutter or old products in a more sustainable way.
Hello, Spring Cleaning! You just got a lot easier.
Generally, with most old products from CDs to tables, the Salvation Army or Goodwill are great places to start. Finding a second life for products is always a better option than throwing something away or even recycling it.
For the rest, let’s break things down room by room, so you’ll have a strategy for every inch of your house.
Disclaimer: Many of these systems are highly localized, so it’s important to look at your community for their recycling regulations and take-back programs. Below are general tips across the United States.
Living Room: Remember that National Geographic subscription you never canceled? Now you have 140 issues stocked up and need to dispose of them. For magazines, you don’t need to remove anything from inside the magazine, like staples or cardstock ads. These, along with books, fall into the mixed paper category. Although mixed paper has a lower commodity value than newspapers or cardboard, most paper mills will recycle it. The only magazines or books that need to go into the trash are ones that have gotten wet.
If your living room furniture needs a refresh, be sure to check out SMART for resources on textile recycling, and Furniture Bank for furniture recycling in your area.
Bathroom: First of all, let’s all agree on the need for a bathroom recycling bin. It’s so easy to mix your used kleenex with that cardboard container your lotion came in, but in reality, you’re forgetting those same principles you use in the kitchen! We love this sleek one. For expired pills, check the FDA’s flush list. Note that most medications are not okay to go down the toilet and if that’s the case or you’re in doubt, throw it in the trash. Expired makeup, cosmetics, or toiletries can all be emptied in the trash and washed out so that just the packaging gets recycled. Ilia has a partnership with Pact Collective where you can request to have a box shipped to you with a prepaid label, and you can send old cosmetics of any brand back to have them properly recycled. How easy is that?
Kitchen and Dining Room: For pots and pans, there aren’t universal rules here because it depends both on where you live and what the products are made of. Most modern cookware has a blend of plastic and metal, and special chemical coatings that can’t be recycled. The best recyclable material will be cast iron, which is scrap metal with value that can be reused. If you want to ensure these will end up in good places, it’s smart to go to your local scrap yard and see what they’ll take. Old aluminum cups and bottles can be recycled, as well as plastic tumblers. For old appliances, particularly blenders or toasters, there are drop-off locations in most neighborhoods to ensure they get properly recycled. Glassware and Pyrex can be donated, while broken glass should be safely thrown in the trash. Everything else, like ceramic or vintage China, should be donated or thrown away.
Bedroom: For textile recycling, SMART is your best go-to resource. For lightly used clothes, we are big fans of Poshmark (they take home decor, too!) and ThredUP. For other old clothes that can’t be donated, take old cotton sweaters or shirts and upcycle them into rags, or drop old linens, blankets, towels at a local animal shelter. For mattresses, did you know that 98% of old mattresses end up in the landfill, often off-gassing for decades? When it’s time to get rid of yours, the Mattress Recycling Council and Donation Town will share resources on how to get rid of it.
Garage: Bikes have a ton of recycling value because their metal scraps and tires can be repurposed. Some curbside recycling programs accept bikes, but you can use Earth911’s locator to see what the best option is for you. For older high-quality sporting goods, there are a lot of local resale or charity options.
If you’re actually moving and trying to figure out how to sustainably pack, here are some helpful tips:
- Channel Marie Kondo and get rid of everything that doesn’t bring you joy. Even Hillary Clinton admitted she had a hard time letting go (Secretaries of State! They’re just like us), but it makes a big difference. Check your local recycling services for e-waste, or look into TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. Here, you can order an empty box with a pre-paid label, and put in anything that’s generally hard to recycle, even things like action figures or art supplies. This Christmas, my family of 14 and I bought one exclusively for wrapping paper and shipped back the entire box. It couldn’t have been easier.
- Order reusable moving boxes. ZippGo, Bungo Box, Bin It, Rent a Moving Box, Redi-Box, and even U-Haul offer reusable heavy-duty plastic moving crates of different sizes, wardrobe boxes included.
- Collect used cardboard boxes from local shops. If you plan ahead, you can check with your local wine stores and corner shops to arrange to pick up their cardboard boxes after new deliveries. For tape, we love what this company is all about.
- Before you buy all the biodegradable packing goods, use what you already have. Our favorites are t-shirts, dish towels, and bath towels.
Lizzie is the CEO & Founder of Finch, which aims to decode sustainability and empower consumers to make better purchasing decisions. Lizzie has been passionate about sustainability since the age of 16 when she lived off the grid. It was there that, depending only on wind energy and rainwater, she saw the solution of climate change before fully understanding the problem. Before Finch, Lizzie worked in supply chain and sustainability at Unilever and then became Chief Operating Officer at Muuse, a startup that aims to mitigate single-use plastics in the to-go industry. She has a BA from Middlebury College and an MBA and Master of Environmental Management from Yale University.
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