Ask Unclutterer: Is my desire to recycle an excuse to keep stuff?

Reader Sky submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know I should recycle, and I donate unwanted things to a local charity on a regular basis. Sometimes just tossing something in the garbage is easier, but I feel guilty doing that. So clutter “hangs around” until I can dispose of it “correctly.” Can you help? I feel like I’m using my desire to recycle as an excuse to keep stuff.

Deciding exactly how to purge your clutter can be a difficult process. Do you trash it, recycle it at a recycling center, recycle it by repurposing it into something more useful, sell it, or donate the item to charity or to someone you know who wants it? And, like you suggested in your question, recycling, repurposing, donating, and selling items can be an excuse to hold onto clutter if you’re never actually following through and recycling, repurposing, donating, or selling the items.

I try to use the following guidelines when purging items:

  • Trash the trash. If something is trash, it should be trashed. You can compost the environmentally friendly items, but if a product needs to go to the dump, by all means take it to the dump. And, if something is a hazardous material, be sure to take it to your county’s hazardous waste facility. Trash is clutter and you shouldn’t hold onto it a minute longer than necessary.
  • Recycle what can be recycled, but do it now. People who live in city’s with curbside recycling pick up have it the easiest — put your recycling on the curb and be done with your aluminum, glass, paper, and plastic products. If you don’t have curbside pickup in your area (or have larger items, like steel beams) you’ll need to drive to the closest recycling center to make deposits. I recommend incorporating this errand into your weekly schedule so the recycling never builds up beyond seven days. For other recyclable items that aren’t accepted at most recycling centers — eye glasses, electronics, clothing for rags — only recycle these items IF you’ll recycle them in the next seven days. If a week passes and the items are still lingering, trash them. Schedule the recycling action items on your calendar (research to find where you can recycle the item, boxing and shipping of the item or dropping it off), as well as the deadline for trashing the item if you fail to recycle it.
  • Only sell, repurpose, or give an item to a friend if you do it now. You can sell, repurpose, or give an item to a friend, but only do this if you’re actually going to follow through on the action. Similar to recycling, schedule the action items on your calendar and a deadline (I give myself two weeks) for when it will be out of your house. If it has been two weeks and you still haven’t rid your home of the objects, trash them.
  • Only give good items to charity. As Peter Walsh so aptly stated in his book It’s All Too Much:

    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.

    Like the two items before this one, set a specific time on your calendar to take your good items to charity (maybe make a regular errand for charity donations on the 1 and 15 of each month). If the charitable donations are still lingering around your house two weeks later, throw them in the trash.

In short, if clutter sits in your home for more than a week or two after you’ve decided to purge it, you should trash the item. It seems like a harsh statement, but the short deadline is usually enough motivation to get you to handle the items quickly and in the preferred manner (recycle, repurpose, donate to charity, etc.). If you know you’ve set a firm deadline for yourself, clutter won’t hang out in your space because you’ll actually deal with it.

Thank you, Sky, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers, and good luck!

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

29 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Is my desire to recycle an excuse to keep stuff?”

  1. posted by Dorothy on

    I live in a rural area where we don’t have trash pick up. I have to take my trash to the county recycling center.

    I do tend to go fairly often (so I don’t have kitchen garbage sitting in my garage forever). But here’s how I handle recycling.

    For each recyclable — for me that’s paper, cardboard, glass, plastic and aluminum — I have a container. When that container is full, I take it to the recycling center on one of my normal runs.

    So for Sky the solution could be to have an area/bin/container for recycling. Limit what you collect to what you can reasonably store. Then when it’s full, it’s time for a visit to the recycling center.

  2. posted by Pat on

    How do you recycle computers, phones etc and make sure all of your personal data is completely gone?

  3. posted by mginwa on

    I really disagree with these suggestions when it comes to clothing. I love the suggestion that if you wouldn’t give it to a family member, don’t give it to Goodwill. However, Goodwill can only hold onto good clothes for a short period of time, about 30 days, before they have to clear items out for new stuff. That means if you clean out your closets at the end of the season and take stuff to Goodwill, it isn’t doing much good. No one wants to buy winter sweaters in May! So if you possibly can, keep a bin for donations somewhere and take them to donate at the right time–fall and winter clothes in the fall, spring and summer clothes in the spring. It will help your donations go to their intended use instead of ending up in the trash. And it gives you a chance to do a second pass on your closet when you’re thinking about new clothes, yourself, and have fewer things hang there unworn all season long because you thought you would get one more year out of them.

  4. posted by Rowhouse Livin' on

    Re: clothing, many second-hand stores will deal with unsaleable clothing as “weight.” That is, they sell it to processors at a certain price per pound or even ton for recycling into carpet padding and some types of stuffing and insulation. Some Goodwills do, and some don’t. Best bet is to call or visit the store and talk to the manager (the workers or volunteers may not know).

    But still don’t donate moth-ridden clothes! Speaking as a long-term thrift store volunteer, if your moths infest an area of the store, all the the clothes and textiles may have to be landfilled.

  5. posted by arianna on

    I was going to say what Dorothy said: what I find helpful is to keep a designated place (a box, a corner) where I put everything that I plan to get rid of but isn’t destined for the trash. That way I have a way of knowing how soon I have to get myself to a donation center, Craigslist, my friend’s houses, etc. It usually begins to bother me when the pile gets too large, and that will spur me into action. Just a suggestion, as I know we all have our own ways of going about things, but this definitely works for me!

  6. posted by RJ on

    For recycling, I have to agree with Dorothy rather than the article. One week would not be enough time to accumulate the amount to make it worth a trip to a recycling center (unless you really go through a lot of newspapers, packaging, etc.). Unless it is on your way somewhere else, it is a waste of gasoline (environmental impact), money, and time. I also prefer the bin accumulation method. I have a neat row of bins (the amount that will fit in one car load) in the garage for metal, glass, plastic, paper, and cardboard, which I take to the local recycling center when they are full.

    If you are fortunate enough to live somewhere that charities send trucks around collecting donations, that can be a great way to get the unwanted stuff out of the house. After a massive purge several years ago in anticipation of a move that didn’t happen (twenty years worth of extra furniture, children’s toys, and unneeded items filled 2 donation trucks), our house has been in maintenance mode. The items from deliberate decluttering a couple of times a year and the random things that just aren’t wanted any more land in a designated spot in one of the closets until the next charity calls requesting donations. If there is too much for that spot, we take a car load to the donation center benefiting a local battered women’s shelter.

  7. posted by Jeannette on

    One of the reasons some of us hold on to stuff is because of the difficulty in getting stuff out of the apartment in a timely fashion.

    I have learned the hard way that even if our items are relatively new (and not totally outdated), many organizations have very strict rules on what they will take or not take. Worse, even if they take it you have to schedule a pickup. This is often during the workday when no one can be home or several weeks later (which means stuff has to sit somewhere in piles till then, that is space we do not have).

    For that reason, many times, sadly, we have tossed stuff rather than donating. We simply cannot keep it in the apartment while we wait for people to possibly buy on ebay or craigslist, wait for pickups (which are often cancelled at last minute) etc. We have no way to get stuff to organizations (too costly as stuff does NOT fit in cabs). It’s a real hassle in the city

    When companies/organizations make it easy to donate, we and others will.

    I used to feel really really bad about tossing stuff that we knew people could use until we found out (to our horror) that many many good-quality donations never made it into the actual thrift shops or the hands of people who needed affordable clothing.

    (They ended up tossing stuff!Not even reselling by pound to make money.)

    It really annoys me that there seem to be all sorts of unnecessary rules about donations that often prevent stuff that is usable (whether toiletries or other stuff) from being donated. I get that we live in a world where some people have questionable actions when donating, but the average person is just trying to see if someone else can use and maybe make their life a bit eaiser/better.

    We can’t just put our stuff out on the sidewalks and try to sell it as folks do with tag sales in the suburbs, etc.

    What we need here and in other cities, is free space where you can book a table and then take your stuff there (using the services of donated trucks that pick you up and take you to the location) and sell it or have folks in need (NOT RESELLERS!), who have gotten info on the sale from social organizations, to come and just pick stuff they need. For free. I want stuff to go to those who have need. Not those running a business –and that should be my choice.

    We stopped donating to local organizations like Salvation Army and goodwill when we found out that workers were taking stuff for themselves and then RESELLING it for their personal profit. This defeats the purpose of wanting to give to charity (I’m not doing it for deductions on taxes as we don’t itemize.)

    If we want more people to declutter and recycle, we have to make it a whole lot easier than it is. Otherwise, a lot of stuff that others could use will continue to be tossed.

    My mantra when decluttering and concerned about the state of an item, is something like this: WOuld I give this to someone I love to use in this condition? If not, toss. Just because others have limited money for clothing doesn’t mean they should have stuff that is falling apart (and also, good thrift stores cull this junk out). Why insult someone or waste worker’s time? (Exceptions: If we know an organization is collecting fabric scraps for quiltmaking.)

    When I’m really getting stuck in whether to toss or save, I remind myself: It is wasteful to hang onto something we are NOT using when someone else could use this item. In essence, I shame myself into letting go with the thought that someone else has need and this would help fill it.

    Which explains why I want it to go somewhere so that it gets in the hands of folks who need it. Really need the actual item.

  8. posted by WilliamB on

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  9. posted by Scott Carlson on

    I disagree with the “if after seven days, trash it” . I have a spot for electronic recycling. When a recycling event happens I load up my car and drop off everything.

    Especially for electronics, those should NEVER just be thrown out. Many states also now have dedicated dropoffs.

  10. posted by chacha1 on

    I have to pitch in on the timeline.

    For most decluttered stuff, unless you are talking about doing a Giant Purge, most people aren’t going to be collecting enough hazardous waste, recyclables, or donatables in a single week to warrant adding those trips to a regular schedule of errands.

    I’ll be going to Goodwill and hazardous-waste collection myself this Saturday, but the stuff I’m taking was accumulated over a period of months, not days.

  11. posted by MayT on

    How do you handle electronic waste, old computers etc when 1) it is illegal to put in trash 2) no charity wants the stuff and 3) there is no approved recycling for electronic goods within 500 miles? I’ve got a garage of stuff I can’t get rid of without taking 2 days to drive it to a city with approved electronic recycling! Some of us live in rural areas with no access to safe ways to get rid of this sort of trash. Even hazardous material like paint and stuff are not able to be disposed of within 100 miles of where I live!

  12. posted by pat on

    I used to live in a little rural town with similar problems as you. I would schedule a day to go to the city to recycle and combine it with a treat day for me. A special lunch out, take a good friend on the drive to talk with, or just run away from your family for the day for some alone time. Yes, gas is expensive but if you combine the “responsible recycling trip” with “stress relief for me” everyone wins.

  13. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jeannette — I agree with you. I think there are problems and in some parts of the country there are some innovative solutions popping up. I’ve actually seen a “Free if you want it” non-sale at a local church that proved very successful. And, in the DC area, we have B-Thrifty, which has revolutionized charity donations. ( One thing we did when we lived downtown was just sit stuff out on the curb with a “Free, welcome to take” sign on it. The stuff was always gone in a couple hours.

    @MayT — If you and your neighbors have shared your email addresses with each other, you might coordinate “neighborhood” drops where one person agrees to drive to the recycling center once a month. The other people will bring their stuff for donation plus a couple bucks to help cover gasoline to the home of the person who will drive to make the donation. Then, you only have to make the long trip into town when your month pops up on the schedule. The other months, you simply have to drive to your neighbor’s house who is on tap to make the donation trip that month. Just an idea …

  14. posted by SarahN on

    I’m worried about the timelines too – don’t get me wrong I hate my outbound clutter lingering too. But I won’t let mercury or similar leach into the environment cause it took longer than a week to sort something out!! For me, I BOUGHT this stuff, and if I can spend the time and money buying it, and using it, I should show enough respect for everyone (and the environment) and finish it’s life as well as possible.

    This means waiting for a electronics day (today!) or paying a ‘company’ to take it. Going via IKEA to drop of CFLs, normal light globes and batteries. Freecycling well used stuff – there are people out there that craft, upcycle etc. If they can be bothered to come get it (I live in a city, and mostly they can), then they are welcome to it – and these are things that maybe a thrift store wouldn’t take (food that’s not to my taste). I suppose I made a commitment since reading this site’s forum, to do the right thing, rather than the quick or easy thing. And every inconvenience is MY fault – I bought this stuff! And now I don’t want it! Lesson learnt. As they saying ‘where is away’ in ‘throw away’?

  15. posted by Carol Swedlund on

    The charity I work for recycles rags and old computers that are too old to be sold. And if an employee is caught “shopping from the warehouse” they can be fired on the spot. It unfortunately probably is true that at some charities the employees pick over the good stuff, but not at all of them. It is surprising (at least to me) how many people donate trash to charities! “This dish only has a little chip,” or “the clothes are clean, they just need a little mending” are things we do hear from potential donors.

  16. posted by laura m. on

    There are drop off places in my town that are convenient. Larger items will be picked up like furniture. I usually give to group homes and what they don’t need they usually donate or have yard sales. Another clothing solution is taking it to low income housing or elderly housing (sweaters, pants, jackets, etc.)as they have no extra money for clothing. Toiletries and cleaning products, linens also help. Many are on SSI. I quit giving to the Goodwill years ago and the Sal. army is too far away. If in larger towns, group homes and children’s homes need most everything. Call first for large items like furniture, and they will pick it up; ditto for abused womens shelters. Giving to all these places motivates me to unclutter several times a year.

  17. posted by Stephen on

    Good article but not sure that its great advice to put things like eye glasses, electronics and clothing for rags in the trash if its not within 7 days. If these things are supposed to recycled then that’s exactly where they should end up regardless of the time frame.

    It’s items like electronic goods that are causing big problems to the environment due to the number of years they are taking to break down once at landfill.

  18. posted by Debbie on

    Another method that I’ve used quite successfully to get rid of things is to use Freecycle. Check and see if your city/town has a group. Usually people interested in your stuff have to come pick it up from your house and mostly its front porch/door pick up, so you don’t have to be home. Also, its a great way to get rid of stuff that is still useful, but not able to be donated, like toiletries or random household items. I’ve even seen food given away.

  19. posted by Lee Cockrum on

    I love Freecycle. Can definitely find a person that will use the random item you have.

  20. posted by Charlotte on

    As I’ve begun to declutter more seriously, I’ve run into the exact same dilemma as Sky. I have no answer, only a personal insight (not exactly new to Unclutterer readers…), that will be difficult for me to live up to: don’t accumulate stuff to begin with. Buy less. For example, I really dislike throwing away magazines in the trash, or in the paper recycle bin; they cost good money, and still (of course…) contain lots of good articles, photos etc. I do NOT want to hold on to them. I’m kinda ashamed that I spend so much money on magazines (3-4 per month; it adds up..) so I’m not comfortable giving them away to friends. Silly, but there it is. Not buying these magazines would save me money as well as eliminate this particular type of clutter. I can after all read them at the library. (Although sitting down at home with a cup of tea and a magazine is a treat I then can’t enjoy…)

  21. posted by Susan in Florida on

    @Charlotte, My public library system circulates back issuea of magazines. You have to read the most current issues inside the library, but you can check out issues more than a couple of months old. Call or email your nearest public library for their rules regarding magazine circulation – and while your talking to them, ask if they will accept magazine donations from you!

  22. posted by Mup on

    I think the point of the timeline is to HAVE a time by which you will deal with it so that it doesn’t linger endlessly. If a longer time frame works for you, super.

    HOWEVER, if you are dealing with an actual hoard or serious squalor, I completely support the concept of amnesty — you have amnesty to throw out everything if that’s what it takes for you to get your home under control.

  23. posted by Charlotte on

    Thanks Susan, for two great ideas! I’ll definitely check with my local library. I had no idea you could (perhaps) borrow older issues.

  24. posted by susan on

    My library lets you check out magazine that are not the current issue. I usually take 6-8 at a time and curl up with a cup of tea. It lets me read ones I would not normally ‘buy’. I don’t buy any or books either because of the library.
    I recently noticed several clothes and shoes drop boxes all over town. This is great for the times I want a bag of clothes out and Goodwill is closed. I tend to declutter on weekends and evenings and am more than happy to drive right then and there to the drop box.
    I scanned all my CD’s and donated most to the library.
    I agree about Freecycle. I found homes for a used feather bed, roof shingles, bird suet, extra kitchen ware, and Christmas decorations.

  25. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    I also use Freecycle a lot. And I have a box in my garage labeled “Freecycle at Christmas” because I know that stuff will be easy to give away in November/December, and not so much in February. But I have the space to do that – and I know what I’m doing with anything that doesn’t get taken on Freecycle. None of that will stay in my garage past December.

    So I agree with the commenter who said a key point is to HAVE a deadline. The “week or two” guideline can help in many situations, but there are exceptions – as there are with almost any guideline.

  26. posted by Jean on

    RE: Charlotte, magazines: Ask around or call your local elementary school and find an art teacher who wants them. I am always begging people for their magazines as my daughter uses them in her classroom for collage, origami projects, etc. When they are too cut up for her students to get any use out of, they go in the paper recycle bin at her school. Other items she will always take are leftover yarn and ribbon.

    We also use the “bin” method for recycling, although frequently the bins are cardboard boxes that get left at the recycle center. And ditto to the people who recommended freecycle–there always seems to be someone wanting the odd item I no longer want. Many people in my area post a list of what they are putting on their curb!

  27. posted by MayT on

    Thanks for the idea of coordinating with neighbors. That is doable for dealing with normal hazardous waste that can go to the towns that are only a couple hours drive away but electronics are still a problem. Taking them is not a matter of a day trip it’s a full day driving there and back including a night staying over. You can’t do the trip in one day. Cost of one trip is running about $300 plus the cost of a hotel and meals for 2 days. Electronics are the biggest headache to deal with.

  28. posted by MayT on

    Also meant to add, freecycle and craigslist are also great if you have them in your area. There isn’t a group within 50 miles of me. A lot of time people forget just how big the US is and that there are many places that are very remote from things a lot of city folk take for granted.

  29. posted by clothespin on

    I am in the process of vastly reducing my magazine load (free mag subscriptions are still clutter)… but in the mean time, there are LOTS of places to take them to. The local kiddy bounce house has a reading area for the adults – I take mine (without address labels) and leave them there. Or donate them to the thrift store – one local store sells them for a quarter each. Or to places like WIC or other social services offices that can’t afford subscriptions but need reading material for their clients.

    We also live out in the boonies – and with kids… so we have a recycling center in the house and when those fill up, then they’re moved to a holding area in the shed. Once we get enough for a car load and are heading to town anyways…

    That said, if you’re not going to town in a reasonable for the boonies time frame – ditch it. We did after last year and a disaster and… there is a limit to what a person can do sometimes.

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