Ask Unclutterer: Trash or treasure old stuffed animals?

Reader Kay submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m trying to figure out what to do about all my old plush toys stored in *mumble mumble* cardboard boxes in the *mumble mumble* basement. I know the Unclutterer idea of taking pictures of sentimental objects before taking the next step; what I don’t know is what the next step should *be*. I doubt that Goodwill wants them; I don’t want to pass them on to young relatives — I’m not convinced they’re still healthy. Is there another option I’m overlooking?

You can have them steam cleaned, which will kill viruses, mold, dust mites, and other creepy crawlies. If you know someone who works in a hotel, the enormous steamers they have there will definitely do the trick. Otherwise, check with your local dry cleaners, who may have one in their facilities. They’re giant machines, a lot like dryers, that blast the contents with heated steam while tumbling things around to make sure all surfaces are affected.

Once this is done, you could pass them along to your young relatives without worry.

However, if these are elderly stuffed animals, they may not survive the cleaning process. For the more delicate ones, the trash may be your best option.

Actually, unless your young relatives are clamoring to take the stuffed animals off your hands, I suggest throwing all of them in the trash. Even though you once loved them, there is no guarantee your nieces and nephews will enjoy playing with a worn-out toy. So instead of dealing with your clutter, you’ll just be passing the responsibility of getting rid of it along to someone else.

Peter Walsh, in his book It’s All Too Much, makes a point about donating worn-out clothing to charity that applies equally to your stuffed-animal situation:

Goodwill receives a billion pounds of clothing every year. Ultimately, they use less than half of the clothes they get. Clothing is cheap, and the cost of sorting, cleaning, storing, and transporting the clothes is higher than their value. If you wouldn’t give an article to a family member, it’s probably not good enough for charity. Sure, it’s great to get the tax deduction and it makes you feel like you didn’t waste money buying the clothes, but if you’re truly charitable, be sensitive to the needs of the organization. Charities aren’t dumping grounds for your trash.

If throwing them in the trash brings you to tears, contact a local professional puppet group. Maybe they could reuse the pelts? However, I think this is one of those situations where these items belong in the trash.

Thank you, Kay, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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46 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Trash or treasure old stuffed animals?”

  1. posted by Sara on

    Why not donate them to someone making things like pet beds for animal shelters? I have a friend asking for old t-shirts to use for the bed and bits of yarn, stuffing, dryer lint for stuffing the beds.

  2. posted by Alex on

    If the critters survive steam cleaning, see if your local children’s hospital will take them.

  3. posted by Sue on

    My 17 year old son recently went on a declutter binge on a rainy summer day, and came up with 2 boxes of stuffed animals in excellent shape. He donated them to a city elementary school after the principal mentioned she often gave students a stuffed animal to comfort them during a CPS interview.

  4. posted by michaela on

    We donated ours straight to an animal shelter — lots of dogs LOVE to play with/shred stuffies. They accepted a garbage-bag full gladly.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    The idea for donating them to an animal shelter totally slipped my mind. That could definitely work if the shelter wants them!

  6. posted by Dawn F on

    What about a battered women’s shelter? Many times women show up to the shelter with their kids. Perhaps a shelter would accept the stuffed animal donations.

    Our local police department has a teddy bear program – they accept teddy bears as donations and give them to children who have been picked up and removed from an unhealthy living arrangement.

    Perhaps a daycare center, orphanage or church nursery would appreciate the donation.

    Maybe even a local performing arts theater would like them for props.

  7. posted by kim on

    I’m currently in the process of going through my stuffed animals. I originally had 3 totes of stuffed animals given to me by my husband. He was the one who had problems letting go. He finally agreed for me to get rid of some after telling him that I would take pictures of the old ones.

  8. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    About the clothing to Goodwill, per Peter Walsh–I read that they turn suitable items into shop rags, so old t-shirts would be useful. Furthermore, I have shopped in our Goodwill thrift store, and seen plenty of items I wouldn’t give to family or friends–holes, stains, runs in sweaters–yet they were for sale. I revised my standard for what was donatable downward after that!

  9. posted by Kristen on

    Here in NYC, some of the Greenmarkets have weekly textile collections to recycle unwearable clothing, rather than relegate it to a landfill:

  10. posted by Jessica Chandler on

    In regards to clothing donations to Goodwill etc. Alot of the clothes donated to these organizations are sold to wholesalers of used clothing. The charity organization “makes money” from this type of sale to benefit their other programs. These wholesales then sort clothes and sell them in bulk to other countries. Also, even with stains etc. someone may buy clothes for other purposes – costumes, craft projects etc.

  11. posted by strawbrryf on

    there’s another option if there’s a fiber recycling program in your area. we have one in NYC. they take everything, no matter how disgusting to be reused by manufacturers for things like recycled insulation.

  12. posted by Elaine on

    I have two of my stuffed animals – my oldest, a polar bear I’ve had since I was five and who lives on my dresser, and a monkey, which I still sometimes sleep with. The others never saw enough use to get dirty or anything, so I think they were sent to Sally Ann. I do like the idea of a women’s shelter or pet shelter depending on the state of the stuffie.

  13. posted by Amy on

    I know the House Rabbit Society (there are chapters all over) often sends out requests for stuffed animals of various sizes for their single bunnies to cuddle. The bunnies don’t care if they’re worn!

    I had heard that Goodwill takes all the clothes that they can’t sell or donate internationally and has them cut into rags to be donated for various purposes. Has anyone else heard of that?

  14. posted by Sassy on

    Thanks for the information about steam cleaning and places to donate; we have had up to 6 of those totes stuffed with animals I was not ready to let go of — we are slowly reducing the number and in two years, when we move from our current home, it will go down to two animals only (the bear that got me through the bar exam prep and the first stuffed bear that my husband gave me). The boys went through the animals with me before we repacked them after Christmas (oh, we have a big bench that we cover with the animals every Christmas: my justification for keeping them so long) and let me know which ones they want to hold on to for awhile longer. But knowing I can find a good home in two holidays from now is quite cheering.

  15. posted by Annette on

    Don’t be so afraid to put them in the washer. For the more fragile looking ones you could use a lingere bag. But I would stick them in there and wash them on the hot or santitize setting then donate the best ones as you see fit. If they fall apart in the wash they weren’t good for much anyway.

    Happy decluttering!

  16. posted by Fern on

    Goodwill isn’t a chain we have over here (UK). It always amazes me that Americans refer to charity shops by brand name – here, so many charities have shops and you’ll often find several different ones on the same street.

    If you’re not sure what your local charity shop does with clothes they don’t want to sell, PLEASE check with them. I volunteer for one and we get money for unusuable clothes and textiles because we sell them for recycling. It doesn’t matter how bad the item is – if it’s made of fabric, we *will* get money for it. Goodwill may not do that but some charity shops do, so it’s worth checking before you throw anything away.

  17. posted by Tod on

    Wow, I am shocked at how many people threw away their stuffed animals. I could never part with mine, even though I’m a guy. They’re soft and cute. What’s not to like?

    As far as a stuffed animal being too dirty for a kid, I have to politely disagree. The germs on a stuffed animal may actually help a child build resistance. It’s been shown that children who grow up on farms, or with siblings (thus more germs), for example, have a lower incidence of serious diseases later in life.

  18. posted by Ann on

    I kept my first dog stuffed animal. The rest were not important to me.

  19. posted by KateNonymous on

    Fern, the same is true here, but people often say “Goodwill” as a catch-all. The same is true of other brand names vs. overall product categories.

    Considering how many charities won’t take upholstered furniture, I’d ask if they’d take stuffed animals before I went to the trouble and expense of cleaning them.

  20. posted by Natalie on

    …trying to get images of Woody, Buzz, Jessie & Co holding hands in the incinerator out of my head…

    I’m sure that’s made decluttering old toys hard for lots of people!

  21. posted by L. on

    I may have mentioned this in comments here before, but I have seen photos and film of people in undeveloped countries sorting through piles of used clothing, which they then wear or sell. I believe this is where some of the “reject” clothing from charitable organizations ends up. I would not donate clothing with serious issues, but I do give some clothing that has minor holes or stains, in the belief that this will be either recycled or filtered down to poorer economies. I would, however, be interested in further commentary about what these organizations can and can’t use.

    I wouldn’t donate an old stuffed animal unless it was in very good condition. I did know someone who gave a bunch of animals to a police department to distribute to young children who had just been in an accident or other traumatic situation and would explore that solution first. In contrast, my local battered women’s shelter told me the women they are helping need to carry a minimum of items and can’t take anything extraneous.

    I only had one animal of sentimental value left over from my childhood. Of his own accord, when he was about two, my son discovered a huge bag full of this and other stuffed animals that I had been meaning to unclutter, and loved being able to choose a whole bunch of them to play with. At three and a half he’s whittled down the collection, but in the meantime I’ll keep the bag for my daughter to sort through when she’s a little older. They’re not very dirty and many are close to new, so when they get tired of them I’ll ask friends with young children if they’d like to have a look, and/or explore other options, including trash, then.

  22. posted by Michele on

    Echoing @Fern, above. Re: charity shop recycling fabric, around here (Philadelphia, U.S. East Coast) it’s called selling the unusable clothing as “weight.” If you donate clothes that are too shabby to re-sell, or if you donate out-of-season clothes and the shop can’t store them until the season rolls around again, they’ll stuff the clothes into sacks and sell the bundles by the pound.

    Two huge caveats! (1) Not all shops do this. Call the shop ahead of time and ask them what they do with unsaleable clothes. Inquire if they sell the clothes for weight or if they just trash them.

    (2) Donating shabby and out-of-season clothes is fine. But please do your charity shop a favor and don’t donate soiled clothing. It’s disgusting to handle, it soils other perfectly fine donations, and it just ends up in the trash.

  23. posted by J in the UK on

    You can’t throw them “away”, there is no such place as “away” – it all goes somewhere. You can reuse them, recycle the materials they are made from, or you can put them in landfill. You make it sound like putting something in the trash (aka landfill) is some kind of virtue vs. finding a new use/user for them.

  24. posted by ecuadoriana on

    Here is a great place you can “retire” your stuffed animals:

    Or, if you and some friends are “crafty” you can start your own Urban Beast Project!!!

  25. posted by Helen Connelly on

    Of the stuffed animals that do make the final cut, and stay in your home you might consider what I did:
    Panda Pierce was at the trash or restore phase and went to a teddy bear hospital. He came home a repaired bear with instructions to vacuum him every 6 months.
    I think taking care of the one plush toy that I have is a good compromise.

  26. posted by Heather on

    Sometimes, you just have to give yourself permission to throw something away. Too often, unwanted items have sat around the house for months (or years) because we couldn’t find “the perfect home” for them. Perfect is the enemy of done in many areas of our lives, and the “perfect home” for an object is the enemy of an better home and a better life for your family.

    If something is broken or not nice enough to donate, I always try Freecycle or Craigslist (the free section) as a last resort. There is often somebody who will take your broken objects for parts or for arts & crafts. In fact, there was recently somebody on my local Freecycle begging for everybody’s old logo t-shirts so she could make and sell tote bags with logos of local sports teams. Maybe somebody creative will cut up your old stuffed animals and patchwork the better scraps into something

    With regard to donating worn-out or stained clothes, I will second the suggestion to ask your local thrift store. I emailed Goodwill Industries of North Louisiana to ask about clothing, and I got the following response: “We gladly accept all donations. Anything that cannot be resold on the sales floor will be recycled or sold to wholesalers. Worn clothing in particular is shredded and reused in recycled paper products.” So it’s worth asking. In some cases, they’ll even take your broken electronics and recycle them.

  27. posted by Marla on

    Our daughter’s school organizes a “Toys for Troops” type-drive every year through a local church. Last year we collected over 400 stuffed animals. Here’s a link: and one to a similar program:;mid=6929

    She had no problem giving up close to twenty, knowing this was what they’re for. We already have a bin going for this year’s drive.

  28. posted by Tabbycat on

    I worked for Goodwill in Norther IL for five years, and they do recycle old unsellable clothing they bail it and sell it by the pound. I think pretty much all goodwill’s do this. They refer to it as salvage. I do not know about Salvation arm or other thrift stores, they would need to be contacted and asked. My goodwill also salvaged certain kinds of shoes, stuffed animals, books, and scrap metal. So it would be good to call and ask b/c if you can’t give them to someone Goodwill might take them and either try and sell them or salvage them at least.

  29. posted by Tabbycat on

    Salvation army* sorry my spelling and grammar suck.

  30. posted by Karen on

    Tod, some children may have allergies to dust or mold. Dust mites adore stuffed animals–the animals never get vacuumed, and the mites can take up residence in there, and if a child is allergic to dust they can get quite ill. I am severely allergic to dust and mold. For a long time I held onto my brother’s old teddy bear. It was a pathetic looking thing, but it was one of the few mementos I had of my brother, who died when he was 30. Finally, after recognizing it was too dusty and old to be around, and couldn’t be washed without falling apart, I threw it away.

    So germs aren’t really the issue. Germs can’t survive long on a dry object, but dust mites can, and mold can start growing in stuffed objects if they get damp in a basement, for example.

  31. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    When donating the not-suitable-for-resale stuff to Goodwill or other charities that do bundle and resell it, it’s helpful to bag it separately from the better items that will go in the shop for sale to the public. I mark the bags, too, to help save them sorting time.

    Some years ago I found a charity in L.A. that specifically collected stuffed animals, cleaned them and distributed them to kids in hospitals and half-way houses with their mothers. Sorry, I can no longer track down the name, but I gave them a couple of pastic bins filled with my childhood collection. Had to toss only three that were, sadly, too far gone — from so much love in their day!

  32. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Tod — I agree that an irrational fear of germs is, well, irrational. However, germs can travel in fabrics very easily, especially fabrics that have been stored in dark and damp locations (cardboard, basement) like this question asker admitted.

    Need I remind you about small pox deaths in the Native American community?

  33. posted by Kay Chase on

    Wow! There are so many good suggestions, and I never would have thought of half of them (such as puppet theater & other prop departments, or donating to the animal shelter, which is a *great* idea.) And I have a friend who creates mad monster stuffies out of old ones — I just didn’t make the connection that she might be able to use my (steamed) old animals for her craft projects. Thank you.

  34. posted by Erin Doland on

    @J in the UK — I’m all for reducing one’s footprint and recycling when possible, but trash belongs in the trash. In fact, there are times when throwing something away can actually be better for the environment than recycling it. And, in this case, if the toys could make a child sick, the trash might also be the safest place for it.

  35. posted by Allison on


    Exactly! Wash them and let someone else play with them. We create enough garbage as a species as it is. No need to create more waste if they can be donated to shelters, hospitals, schools, etc. (after washing, of course.) I am not a fan of uncluttering my home by overcluttering the landfill.

  36. posted by Trevor Huxham on

    Speaking from childhood experience (which was, strange to say it, barely a decade ago), if you decide to wash your stuffed animals before “uncluttering” them, beware the dryer. If the animals have that thin, wispy, long hair that you can manipulate to make all sorts of hairstyles (manes on horses, crests on birds, tails on Chick-fil-A cows), do NOT stick them in the dryer after they are wet; the hair with mat together and you will never be able to untangle it—and you’ll be left with a really silly-looking toy. Just sayin’, ’cause a number of my childhood animals were ruined because of the dryer.

  37. posted by Pamela on

    Our church has a circulation day every spring. It is like a giant garage or rummage sale except everything is free. So if you get toys and clothes cleaned and they are too worn for charity (who seem to want nearly new stuff these days), consider it. Someone may still want it. It is always a HUGE success. People pick up clothes and toys for their kids, books, furniture, etc. Our priest approaches people who seem to be flea market people and offers to let them have what is left over rather than take the cream off the top.

  38. posted by catastrophegirl on

    i’ve been told that sticking your stuffed animals in a large ziplock, squishing out the air and freezing them for two weeks can take care of dustmites. i haven’t ever examined one microscopically to check afterwards but it might be worth a try if you can’t steam clean them and have the freezer space

  39. posted by foilhead1 on

    Goodwill may accept them, but they will not resell them. I have recently found this out. My local one will not even accept them anymore. I did find that many can be washed and fluffed, some just need vacuumed.
    A few years ago, a family friend who went crazy for those Webkins, would only buy them and play the games online and then give or throw away the stuffed animals. (ridiculous, I know). so my daughter asked if she could have them. She brought home 4 large garbage bags full. We hand picked about a dozen various animals for my grandson and the rest we gave away on Halloween that year. They were brand new within a few months and had never been played with. The kids were thrilled to get them. We are in a small town, and were able explained to parents why we were giving them away. We gave out hundreds that year!

  40. posted by Gina on

    Long time reader, but this time I had to come over and comment. I wholeheartedly agree with J in the UK. I think this post should be rewritten to include a lot of the commenters’ ideas. I was shocked to read that we should just put these types of items in the trash. I have gone out of my way to find textile recycling for old unwearable clothing due to guilt over the landfills. I would have assumed that you would be similarly inclined. Part of my whole aim in decluttering (or never buying clutter in the first place) is to reduce my impact on the world. I am really disappointed by this post, and hope that you may consider editing the main text to include other ideas. Some of us just read the main body of the post due to rss feed settings, and I would hate to train people who are decluttering that their first stop might be the trash. Aside from this post, Erin, I really enjoy and appreciate your blog.

  41. posted by Em on

    After a natural disaster some years back, older children in local schools brought in their old stuffed animals. These were collected and brought to a benevolent local drycleaner who cleaned them all for free, to help out, and they were then included in packages that were put together to pass out to affected families. Many of the recipients had lost all their toys, and they were very welcomed.

  42. posted by J in the UK on

    Then you need a realistic assessment of how unhealthy a toy actually is after cleaning. Not sure that allusion to small pox deaths facilitates this realistic assessment (given that small pox has now been eradicated and all). What is the risk of a child getting sick from these items (post-cleaning)?

    Making a virtue out of wasting stuff (and making people feel good about doing so “giving ourselves permission” etc….) is the opposite of what no impact man and others are talking about – despite your desire to be seen as on the same page.

  43. posted by Erin Doland on

    @J in the UK — I am not an environmentalist. I have never claimed to be, nor do I imagine I will ever claim to be. It is impossible to be alive and NOT impact the environment. The mere act of breathing, eating, walking, etc. impacts the world.

    Your comments are written from the perspective of someone who probably already lives relatively simply and who has a low attachment to physical objects. However, not all of our readers are in the same position as you are. A great majority of our readers have homes stuffed, where damage has been done to objects in their storage spaces. Additionally, some readers will hold onto an object until they find the “perfect” home for it, which might never happen.

    I’m not saying it’s virtuous to throw something away, but trash belongs in the trash. Watch an episode of hoarders where shovels are used to scrape up clutter from the floor — this stuff does NOT belong at Goodwill.

    You are welcome to disagree with me, but if you do, you should offer up suggestions for recycling the materials beyond just complaining about my trash suggestion. Passing judgment on me does not help out anyone else to come up with alternate ideas. The purpose of the posts and comments on this site are to help people who have issues with parting with their clutter.

  44. posted by Fern on

    A couple of people have replied to my comments about recycling worn-out clothes.

    Whoever said that it’s a good idea to mark clothes for recycling as such is absolutely right. It saves a lot of time, especially if there’s bags and bags!

    As for upholstered furniture, a lot of the time that can’t be taken because of health and safety, more specifically it not fitting with fire safety regulations. The laws have changed and a LOT of old furniture doesn’t fit them so it can’t be resold. That’s also why it’s difficult to get rid of old beds – unless they’re new enough to be marked as complying with the latest regulations, it’s probably far easier to have them pulped down or something rather than find out if they comply (and they probably don’t).

    I agree that some things belong in the trash, but there’s a difference between used toilet paper and a cuddly toy. If it’s good enough to donate, donate it (possibly after cleaning it). If it’s too shabby but can be recycled, find somewhere that will recycle it. Only if you can’t recycle it and it’s really too bad to be played with again should it be trashed. The bin is for rubbish, not things you can’t be bothered to deal with.

  45. posted by J in the UK on

    You are not an environmentalist, but you do claim that your ‘remarkable goal’ is somehow similar to that of no impact man – and quite recently

    This post, and your reaction to my comments, suggest that not only are you on an entirely different path, but that the goal is in a completely different place.

    The original Q came from someone who has a few cardboard box too many of plush toys. No suggestion of a problem of ‘life of grime’ proportions. Most of what we call ‘trash’ has value, just not to us at that moment. It only becomes trash when mix it up with a whole lot of other stuff (e.g. in the wastestream and landfill) so that it loses its value (waste is a verb, not a noun).

    I can’t do better than the many other commentators here:

    Freecycle, craigs list, charity shops (for resale and recycling), specific charities (women’s aid, animal rescue shelters), repurpose as art. All great suggestions. All better suggestions than turning something that has inherent value (either in itself or in its materials) into trash.

    That doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t get rid of “clutter” – just to be more mindful about how they do so, so as to turn clutter into something useful again. Throwing it “away” doesn’t stop something being clutter – it just means the clutter from your house is now clutter in landfill or clutter in the ocean or clutter in a big pile on another continent. Simpler living, yeah maybe (but look at all the enormous amount of NEW STUFF we supposedly need to buy in order to live simply!)

  46. posted by Erin Doland on

    @J in the UK — Please re-read the post you linked to of mine, as well as Colin’s book. You’ll see in both that environmentalism is Colin’s path to a remarkable life (not his goal), and also that environmentalism is not my path. You’ll also see that his definition of a remarkable life has very little to do with saving the planet, and everything to do with saving himself and his family. (And, assuaging a great deal of his personal guilt.)

    Additionally, re-read this post. You’ll see that I gave Kay a lot of advice for what to do with her stuffed animals that doesn’t involve putting them in the trash if they’re in decent condition. Also, the numerous comments for other ways to recycle the plushies are fantastic. But, if it turns out these stuffed animals are in really bad shape, I continue to support her putting trash in the trash. That’s not going to change.

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