Saying goodbye to musical instruments, part two

Last week, I shared the story of my inability to let it go of my drum set during our big basement clear out. I had succumbed to sentiment! After much deliberation, I’ve made a decision — the drum set stays — for now. There’s a deal in place, which I’ll describe in a bit.

First off, I’m going to refurbish them. They need new heads, a good tuning, some cleaning, and maybe some new hardware. (The bass pedal is older than my marriage.) Once the upgrades are done, I’m going to play a bit and see how it feels. I’ll adopt a regular practice schedule and see if I can stick to it while working off the years of rust. Perhaps my kids will express an interest. If so, I’ll provide lessons.

Now here’s the deal. If, at the end of one year, the drum set is still satisfying the definition of clutter (an item that is unused and without purpose), then away it goes. What will happen to it? There are several options for an unwanted musical instrument:

  1. Selling is the most obvious choice. These drums are very old and not worth a lot, so I’d give them to a young musician who is looking for his or her very first set. It would be nice to see them inspire a student they way they once inspired me.
  2. Donation is also an option (and I can get a tax write-off too). I’m sure a local community center, church, or school would gladly take a free drum set.

I could get real fancy and turn them into art, but that’s a bit beyond me.

Parting with sentimental clutter is never easy, but it’s something we must do eventually. Memories are more important than the things themselves and great memories are never clutter. Additionally, here’s a good opportunity to practice the concept of non-attachment. It reminds me of this little parable, the origin of which I do not know.

There was a man who kept a glass on his bedside table. He loved the glass and would look at it and think, “How lovely this glass is. When it catches the light it looks so beautiful. When it’s full of water, how lovely it appears. If I tap it with my finger, what a pretty note it plays.”

“But if I bump the table and the glass crashes on the floor, I may think, ‘Oh, of course.’ Or, I can realize the glass is already broken. Then every moment with it is precious.”

In a way, my drum set is already gone. Some day it will fall apart, or be in the dump, or reside in somebody else’s basement, or I’ll be too old or frail to play it. And that’s OK, because every moment I’ve had with it has been precious.

An exercise in uncluttering: books and magazines

Some people expect that since I’m a professional organizer my home will be somewhat like that of minimalist Joshua Fields Millburn, and it’s not at all. I get a lot of pleasure from having carefully selected art work on my walls and selected horizontal surfaces. My cats like having a lot of good places to curl up, so my house has lots of baskets, blankets, and plush mats strategically placed for them.

And then there are the books. After writing about minimalism yesterday, I decided it was time to take a look at the bookcase in my home office, because I wasn’t at all sure the books on those shelves still enhanced my life in any way. Sure enough, I found myself freecycling 24 of them right away, with more to come. And one went into my recycling bin when I decided the extensive technology-related information was too dated to be useful to anyone.

None of these books were bad purchases — they served me well when I first bought them. But I no longer need a huge collection of books about organizing, even if I think the books are excellent. I have a few favorites that I do pull out at times, and there are some with specialized information that come in particularly handy. But most of them just sit there, year after year. I had a lot of marketing-related books that never got looked at, too. No more!

It’s easy to get accustomed to having things in your space and to stop really noticing them. In The Organizing Sourcebook, Kathy Waddill wrote about going through your home with the eyes of a stranger, looking at everything as if you’ve never seen any of it before. An exercise like that can get you to question things like those books I had in my office.

As I went through the organizing books, I looked at what I had highlighted in each one. If a sentence or two particularly resonated with me, I typed the sentences into a text file for future reference. One of those books I was passing along is Order From Chaos by Liz Davenport, and I noted this line: “If you have more than a three-inch pile of things to read, what you have is a stack of guilt.”

Reading that made me think about the pile of magazines in my bedroom — which was only 2.5 inches tall, but still felt like a stack of guilt. The pile consisted of multiple issues of a single magazine, and that same magazine had recently sent me numerous renewal notices that had piled up in my in box. I decided it was past time to make some decisions here, so I looked through the entire pile and realized that as much as I had enjoyed the magazine in the past, there was nothing in the current issues that I wanted to read. So they went into recycling (being a bit too specialized to be donated to doctors’ offices or such) and the renewal notices will get discarded.

So now I have less guilt and a bunch of spare space on my previously stuffed-to-the-limit bookcase — not bad for a few hours of work! This exercise was a nice example of how even a small uncluttering project can make a noticeable difference.

Is “organizing” a dirty word?

The two men known as The Minimalists wrote an essay entitled Organizing is Well-Planned Hoarding in which they stated, “We need to start thinking of organizing as a dirty word. It is a sneaky little profanity that keeps us from simplifying our lives.”

Well, yes and no.

Certainly putting things away in an organized manner doesn’t do much if the underlying problem is that you need to unclutter. In his book Clutter’s Last Stand, Don Aslett wrote about “junk bunkers” such as shoe organizers (for shoes you never wear) and magazine binders (for magazines you’ll never look at again). That’s why professional organizers will tell you that buying cool containers (if you find you need them) is one of the last steps in organizing, not the first.

I also find that this “elevator pitch” for minimalism makes a lot of sense:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

If you look through the tour of minimalist Joshua Fields Millburn’s home, you’ll see he owns very few things, and that obviously works for him — and a similar approach works for others, too.

But perhaps the things that add value to your life are work or hobbies that require stuff: a carpenter’s tools, an artist or crafter’s supplies, sports gear of various sorts, etc. For example, if you make a contribution by providing quilts to cancer patients and others facing a tough time, you’re going to have a stash of fabric.

Or maybe you’re passionate about music, and you have a large collection of vinyl albums. You’ll want to have some organizing scheme for those.

Another example: You may have family members whose well-being depends on a number of medicines and medical products, which you certainly want to keep organized.

It pays to look through that stuff periodically to make sure you still want all of it. Do all those hobbies still have a meaningful place in your life? Did you buy a package of scrapbook pages but only really like half of them? Do you have old tools that have been replaced by better ones? Did you buy an album on speculation just to find it’s not to your taste at all? Have your prescriptions changed so that you now have medicines you no longer need?

But once you’ve decided what to keep, you’re going to want to have it organized so you can find things when its time to use them.

So yes — the first steps in organizing are to “imagine the life you want to live” (as Peter Walsh says in his book It’s All Too Much) and to discard those items that don’t help you achieve that goal. But after you’ve done the imagining and the uncluttering, you’ll also want to take whatever final organizing steps — giving everything a defined storage space, keeping like with like, containerizing, labeling — will help you store your things so you can find them later.

Saying goodbye to musical instruments

I spent this past weekend cleaning my basement and enduring a life crisis. The two are related.

As it’s the start of school vacation week here in Massachusetts, my wife and I decided to take this time to clean out the basement. I’m not referring to the pedestrian practice of knocking down cobwebs and doing a bit of sweeping. No, this was a full-on, no-prisoners/no-survivors clean. Every single item was hauled out into the yard and sorted into one of three piles:

  1. Keep
  2. Donate
  3. Trash

Once the room was empty, the industrial vacuum came out, cobwebs were swept away, floors were swept and scrubbed, and shelving was dismantled, cleaned, and relocated. Every inch was polished and prepped for the contents of the “keep” pile to be neatly re-introduced. I drove the donate pile to the local donation station and later this week a team of professionals will arrive to haul the trash pile away. That should be all three piles sorted.

Dave's drum setExcept there’s one problem. I lied. There are actually four piles. The fourth pile contains only a single item: my drum set.

I bought this set of drums with money I saved by delivering newspapers when I was 13 years old. I started playing drums when I was seven, and to say that they occupied the first 23 years of my life is an understatement. Music, specifically percussion, was my life for two decades.

In elementary school I played in the orchestra. In high school, it was band, orchestra, and jazz band. Some friends and I formed our own noisy rock band and tormented the neighbors with an endless racket. I took private lessons outside of school, and traveled to district orchestra events. I even attended music camp at our local college. Music was my social circle, my solace when times were tough, and my celebration when everything was going well. After high school I attended Berklee College of Music and gave snare drum lessons to the neighborhood kids in the summer.

Then I finished with school, moved away, and got a job. The drums came with me, but I didn’t have much time for them. A few years passed and I got married. Soon enough we had a daughter, then a son. I had more responsibility at work. I continued to give lessons for about a year but that ended. My drums sat idle in the basement — for years… many years.

Now, here we are with my drums satisfying the very definition of “clutter.”

We’ve written about parting with sentimental clutter before. I know it’s hard, and I know the strategies. I also understand that, in the end, memories are more important than things. But this feels like more to me.

Real musical ability isn’t something that every person has. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I do. I was really good at playing drums. To me, parting with the instrument feels like I’m throwing the gift away, too, and that’s not right. I understand that, if I haven’t touched my drums within the last 15 years, I probably won’t during the next 15 years either. Yet, I can’t bring myself to say goodbye.

For now, they’re still in the limbo that is “Pile Four.” I’ve got until the end of the week to decided their true fate. Do you have any input, readers? Have I merely succumbed to the emotion of sentimental clutter? Or is there something more at work?

Inherited work clutter – what will your successor have to deal with?

In my last post, I wrote about inherited family clutter. But there are other places we inherit other people’s clutter and the biggest one is at work.

Let me give you an example. Where I work, my former boss had been in her position for almost twenty years. Her mind worked better in paper. She liked to be able to touch things and look up information in books and files. After retiring this summer, she did me the mega-favor of coming in on her own time in September to clear out her office and leave me with what she considered to be the right amount of information.

I, however, don’t work the same way. As I think I might have mentioned once or twice, I hate paper, filing cabinets and bookcases full of books that nobody references.

This has meant that whenever I’m not focused on daily operations or moving the organization forward, I tackle a shelf or a handful of files. I have also rearranged furniture and eliminated several non-matching pieces that just begged to have unused paper piled on top of them, and in the process taken a sort of informal inventory of what we have.

Some areas of the office are bit chaotic since I haven’t been able to devote whole days to a beginning-to-end purge and reorganization, but I am bit-by-bit transforming the office, bringing it in line with the beliefs and habits of the staff who are paper-haters like me.

This process has raised questions for me about my own work habits and although I have just started in my position with the intention of staying in it a long time, having to go through the inherited clutter of my boss, I have been asking myself about succession planning and what someone who comes in after me will think of the way I’ve left the office.

Before I go any further, therefore, I’ve decided to formalize the organization and to depersonalize it. In other words, I am going to use the organization’s mission statement and objectives as my guide for what we end up keeping, what we get rid of, and even where and how we store it.

In doing so, if and when I move on, my successor will have a clear understanding of what is where and why.

In the end, I will have cleared out four bookcases, two small filing cabinets and what’s left over, the staff will able to use because they know what it is, where it is, and what it can be used for.

So, now my questions for you:

  • What information do you store at work?
  • Are you clear why you are holding onto it?
  • Are you making your organizing decisions based on personal preference or are they tied to the cultural beliefs and mission of the organization?
  • If you won the lottery tomorrow and stopped working next week, what would your successor have to deal with? Could he or she sit down at your desk and start working without too much trouble?

An April opportunity to recycle old, broken toys

Many parents face the issue of toy clutter. Their children have more toys than they could ever need or want, often gifted by well-meaning friends and relatives. Or they just have toys their children have outgrown.

If the toys are in good condition, they can often be passed along to other families. But what do you do with the toys that are broken or missing parts? Sending them to landfill often seems like the only answer.

However, through April 30, those in the U.S. have a cool alternative. Tom’s of Maine and TerraCycle have joined forces to provide free recycling of these toys. Just go to the Tom’s of Maine website and click to get a free shipping label. Then fill a box with up to 10 pounds of toys and ship it off at any UPS location.

TerraCycle has a number of ongoing free recycling programs for Clif Bar wrappers, Brita items, Solo cups, Wellness pet food packets, and more — including Tom’s of Maine toothbrushes and much of the company’s product packaging. Tom’s worked with TerraCycle on a toy recycling program in April 2015, but that one was limited to 500 of TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. The boxes were all claimed within four days, so this year’s program was designed to allow more people to participate.

What happens to the items sent in through the Tom’s of Maine Toy Recycling Program? Lauren Taylor of TerraCycle gave me the answer in an email:

The collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated into fabrics, metals, fibers, and plastics. Fabrics are reused, upcycled or recycled as appropriate. Metals are smelted so they may be recycled. The fibers (such as paper or wood based products) are recycled or composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products.

So if you cringe at sending things to landfill, here’s your opportunity to gather up those dilapidated stuffed animals, the puzzles with missing pieces, the mystery toy pieces, the torn playing cards — and any other broken, worn-out, or incomplete toys — and ship them off for recycling.

Dealing with the clutter of previous generations

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to help a friend clear out the family home that needs to come down before it falls down. The house, which fills half a block in a small northern Spanish town, is a 17th century villa cut up into living quarters, a bar, a garage, and now-inaccessible storage space. My friend grew up with his parents, two uncles, a grandmother, and various other family members at different points over the years. When half the house was renovated and modernized, the unchanged part became a dumping ground for all those things no one quite knew what to do with.

The bar has been shut for over 15 years and yet (apart from the dust) it looked like it could have closed a few weeks ago. Every bedroom still had all the furniture, bedding, leftover clothes, and memorabilia from the last person to occupy it. The two living rooms had wall units that were stuffed to the brim with everything imaginable.

I was curious to see exactly what was in the dumping ground, but my friend told me the floors were not safe to walk on, meaning whatever someone had stored two, three, or ten decades ago was now gone for good more or less (perhaps to be rescued when the demolition starts).

A local charity shop was going to stop by to take furniture, wearable clothing, and “anything that is sellable.” That last category was never quite defined, so when it came to clearing out the house, about 80% of what was in the cupboards, closets, and wall units ended up in garbage bags. After two full days, the main living spaces were cleared out and ready for the charity pickup, but that still left the bar, the accessible storage spaces, and the terraces (I forgot to mention earlier the two large internal terraces full of more stuff).

With the sheer amount of junk to deal with, no one suggested organizing it all for recycling. Everything went into the same garbage bags, meaning it would all end up in landfill. And being non-sentimental types, my friend and his cousin were ruthless — photos, letters, report cards, everything went out. Their thinking was “if we haven’t missed it in ten years, we don’t want to know about it.”

That attitude seems to be one that is growing among people my age. We grew up with parents who were born just before the Second World War (or during the Spanish Civil War) and that generation for the most part, liked to hold onto things. My parents (who lived in Canada) were very organized people, but they had a house of over 4000 sq ft plus about six outbuildings. It gave them a lot of room to hold onto a lot of stuff.

My friend is single and works in an industry that requires him to move quite a bit. He has no interest in collecting anything. His cousin told me that as soon as she was done with the family home, she was going to go through her own house and clear out most of the stuff because she didn’t want to leave the same disaster for her own kids.

My brother and sister had the same reaction after clearing out our parents’ house (having picked up and moved to Europe a few years earlier, I had already purged everything I’d owned).

There are lots of articles on inherited clutter here on Unclutterer, but I wanted to talk about my recent experience because it raised some questions for me:

  1. Are Generation-Xers less sentimental and less interested in holding onto stuff?
  2. For those 40-somethings with parents still alive, have you encouraged them to streamline while they are still around to help give context to some of their collections?
  3. Are our children going to hold onto everything because we don’t?
  4. And finally, on an unrelated note, does having a lot of space always mean building up mounds of unwanted clutter?

I’m not going to try to answer any of these questions. Instead, I’ll leave them open to you to answer them in the comment section.

Eliminating mid-station clutter

As I write this, there is an overflowing laundry basket behind me. I can’t see it. I can’t hear it or (for now, at least) smell it. But I can sense it. I know it’s there. It’s always there, eyeing me with its passive-aggressive glance. “Dave,” it says. “Daaaave! Look at all this laundry.”

No, I’m not going crazy, nor am I having a conversation with the laundry basket. I am, however, aware of what the laundry basket really is: a mid-station.

What is a mid-station?

Think of a train that leaves Boston for New York City but first stops in Hartford, Connecticut. Partway between its departure point and its final destination. That is the mid-station stop. If you wanted to, you could get off the train at Hartford, have some lunch, do some shopping, and then eventually continue to New York City.

The laundry basket is a mid-station stop — holding the dirty clothes before they get to the washing machine. The trouble is, laundry often gets stuck in the basket. Days go by and the pile gets higher and higher. It’s annoying, and this prompted me to find other mid-stations in my home and I found several.

The dish drainer is a classic mid-station. I’ll clean up after a meal, wash the dishes, and put them in the rack. A couple of days later, we’re all using the rack as if it were the cabinet.

We also have a collection of keys, backpacks, and lunch boxes that come in from work and school every day. In this case, the mid-station is the mudroom. The coats and backpacks have hooks and the keys have a small basket, yet these items often languish on the first flat surface inside the door, or on the floor itself.

What can be done about mid-stations?

Adopt new habits. I live with three other people and laundry builds up quickly. After just 72 hours there’s a mountain piled up. The solution that works for us is to do at least one load per day. If we do this, the clothes don’t pile up as much. Doing one load per day, is manageable, and a lot better than spending three or four hours on the weekend getting caught up.

As for the dishes, diligence is the answer here, too. Simply make it a part of the daily routine to empty the drainer and put the dishes, glasses, and utensils, away.

Continually reminding the guilty parties results in getting the coats and backpacks hung up properly in the mud room.

Eliminating mid-stations. I’ve read about people who’ve addressed mid-stations by eliminating them. In other words, laundry won’t pile up in baskets if there are no baskets. Likewise, there’s no “Leaning Tower of Dishes” to admire without a dish drainer to serve as the foundation. This is true but not often practical. When I was a kid, we didn’t have laundry baskets because my parents’ house had a laundry chute. We tossed the dirty clothes through a little door in the wall and they fell downstairs to the laundry room itself. Most homes don’t have laundry chutes these days.

If you can get away with eliminating a mid-station, give it a try. I don’t think I could do it.

The other point I want to make here is delegation. My kids, my wife and I all share chores. Many hands make for short work, as the saying goes.

If you’ve identified any mid-stations in your home, share your solution (or struggle) in the comments below. Let’s see what we can do about this common problem.

Reader Question: Storing someone else’s clutter

Reader Christopher wrote in to ask us this:

A former co-worker, “Robert” stored stuff in my basement. He promised to pay, but 6 months later I haven’t received any money. The only time I see him is when he wants to crash on my couch overnight. I’m getting ready to renovate my basement and I need his stuff gone! What can I do?

Thanks for a great question Christopher. It is nice to be able to help out a friend in need but there comes a point when you feel a friend is taking advantage of your good nature and in this case taking advantage of your storage space. I’m sure you’re very frustrated. It is difficult enough to deal with our own possessions but having to deal with someone else’s clutter is rather unfair especially when he should be able to manage on his own.

What you legally can and cannot do with someone’s stuff stored in your home varies by jurisdiction. It is also based on the relationship of the people in question. For example, former spouses are treated differently from landlord/tenant relationships. The actual items in storage may also influence what you can legally do with them. For example, cars and high value items like jewelry may be treated differently from clothing and low value household goods.

Do not act hastily to dispose of Robert’s stuff. You could be sued or accused of theft. It is unfortunate that this could be the case especially since you were trying to do Robert a favour.

The best thing you can do is speak with a legal advisor on this issue. If you cannot afford a consultation with a lawyer/notary, you may be able to find a free legal clinic in your area that can provide some advice. Often there are free online help centers. Ensure you contact one that is in your local area so the advice you receive is relevant to your jurisdiction.

Before you visit or speak to a legal advisor, I suggest that you write down very clearly the events/conversations that led up to your agreement to store Robert’s stuff.

  • Did you offer to store the items or did he ask?
  • Did you suggest payment, or did he?
  • Was there a verbal or written agreement about the
    • amount of storage space;
    • duration of storage;
    • conditions of storage area;
    • rate of payment?
  • Provide a list of dates of when you contacted Robert for payment or when Robert stopped by for a “visit” and include details of your conversations on those dates.
  • If you have records of your communications on the subject of the items in storage (text messages, emails, etc.) keep secure copies either by printing or by saving them as PDFs. Make sure they are dated.
  • If you have records of other moneys you have spent on the storage of Robert things (a portion of your utilities, a portion of your rent/mortgage) keep those too.

You will be able to provide all of this information to your legal advisor if he/she asks. You will also have records to look back on should Robert’s recollection of events differ from yours.

In the meantime, keep trying to connect with Robert and let him know there is a deadline for collecting his belongings.

I wish you all the best of luck with your situation. I hope you are able to get things resolved to your satisfaction.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, 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 as “Ask Unclutterer.”

Reader Question: What to do with digitized CDs and DVDs

Recently, reader Sarah asked us this:

I don’t know if it’s still true, but it certainly was the law in the USA that if you own a music CD and rip it to create mp3 files (or similar), you had to continue to physically possess the CDs from which you did the ripping, otherwise it was considered illegal use. Perhaps someone can update me on that?

That’s a great question – and yes, it still is the law. Copyright law protects the work of artists. If you make unauthorized copies, you are taking the artists’ works without providing payment. This type of theft is called piracy. You may have seen the FBI anti-piracy warning shield on movies you have watched. Although audio recordings may not have a warning label, they are still subject to the same copyright laws. Thanks to the internet, piracy is a world-wide problem and law enforcement agencies in many countries are working together to protect intellectual property.

The Recording Industry Association of America® (RIAA) has a great summary of the different actions that are considered music piracy but they also applies to movies. Piracy can include uploading and downloading unauthorized versions of copyrighted music/movies from peer-to-peer networks as well as ripping CDs/DVDs to your own computer and selling the originals at a garage sale.

What does this mean for uncluttering and organizing if you can’t dispose of the original CDs/DVDs once you’ve converted them to a space-saving digital format?

First of all, you can sell or give away the original CD/DVD, but only as long as you no longer have any copies of the music/movies in any format. Once our children were older, we donated all of the DVDs and CDs that they were no longer interested in. It didn’t take long after that (mere minutes, in fact) for me to delete every digital copy as well. Bye-bye Barney and Friends!

Go through your collection. Are there any movies you will no longer watch or any music you won’t listen to anymore? Delete the digital copies and let the originals go.

DVDs and CDs tend to take up space because of their bulky, and rather breakable “jewel” cases. You could take the disks out of their case and put them into classy storage albums. This type of album also has storage for lyrics sheets or movie notes. It will take up much less space on shelving and allow your disks to be easily accessed whenever you need them.

After we downloaded our music onto our computer, we stored our entire CD collection in “cake boxes,” the spindle-type containers in which you can buy a stack of computer CDs. These are easily stored in the back of the drawer of our filing cabinet. The disadvantages of storing CDs in cake boxes include difficulty finding and accessing a CD if you need it again and lack of storage for movie notes or lyric sheets.CD storage box

Storage boxes like this one, can hold over 300 CDs/DVDs. The advantage of the storage box is that you can store movie notes or lyric sheets with the disks. It’s a good idea to put disks in sleeves to protect them — just in case the box gets tipped over onto the floor. Accidents can happen.

Regardless of how you organize your CDs/DVDs, you should also create an inventory and store it separately from the collection. You may wish to take photos of the disks and original packaging and include a copy of the sales slip. This information would be useful if your collection was ever damaged or stolen.

Avoiding an excess of tote bags

When I first started working as a professional organizer I often found people had what seemed to be an excessive number of grocery bags — paper, plastic, or both. If they agreed, I would often take those excess bags and donate them to charities doing food giveaways.

However, starting in 2007, laws in California changed — first in certain cities and counties, and then at the statewide level. California now bans many stores from providing single-use plastic bags at check-out (with a few exceptions), and stores now charge a small fee for paper bags.

There’s good reason for such bans, as Chelsea Harvey explained in The Washington Post:

Plastic bags are infamous non-biodegradable sources of pollution — although they will eventually break down into tiny pieces, scientists believe this process can take hundreds of years, or even up to a millennium, in landfills.

Many scientists are growing particularly concerned about plastic pollution in the oceans. Research suggests that 5 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic may have been dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone. There, the waste is frequently eaten by seabirds and other marine animals — or it breaks down into tiny pieces known as microplastics, which scientists believe can be harmful or even toxic to sea creatures who ingest it.

If you want to know more, Ed Yong wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic explaining why some seabirds are attracted to this plastic. If you still use plastic grocery bags, you’ll want to be sure they get reused (by you or others) or disposed of responsibly so they don’t wind up in the ocean. Bags that are left in the street often get washed into gutters, and go from there into various waterways.

As a result of these new laws restricting single-use bags, reusable tote bags have become popular. And now I often see people with an excess of those bags, partly because tote bags get given away so often. I’ve gotten bags at conferences and received bags as gifts from charities. I got one when I subscribed to a certain newspaper.

I use a lot of bags in my work — they’re handy for hauling away items my clients want to donate, recycle, or give away. But even I wound up with more bags than I could possibly use, without buying a single one. This is a common problem, as Noah Dillon noted in The Atlantic:

In a 2009 article about the bags for Design Observer, the Urban Outfitters designer Dmitri Siegel claimed to have found 23 tote bags in his house, collected from various organizations, stores, and brands. …

He notes that because the bags are large, flat, and easily printed on, they’re great for embellishment and product placement. They’re given away with purchases at galleries, bookstores, eyeglass boutiques, grocers, tattoo parlors.

Besides cluttering our homes, these bags have another problem: They take a lot of resources to produce. Dillon noted that a bag made of recycled polypropylene plastic would need to be reused 26 times to be as environmentally sound (from a resource usage standpoint) as a plastic bag. And a cotton tote bag would need to be used 327 times!

So what can someone trying to live a green and uncluttered life do? For one thing, you can decline to take extra bags you don’t need when they are offered. If you always carry a tote bag with you, it’s easy to tell a store that you don’t need theirs for your purchase. (Small bags that have limited reuse possibilities are especially annoying.) Get in the habit of always having bags in your car or carrying one or more with you when you walk, bicycle, or take public transit to any place where you might do some shopping. Many bags fold up to a very small size and can fit in a backpack, purse, briefcase, etc.

Similarly, if a charity offers a bag as a reward for making a donation, decline that offer if you don’t need any more bags. When you see clever tote bags on sale (and there are certainly many that I’ve found tempting), consider whether it’s something you’ll really use or if will just become clutter — just as you would with any purchase.

Finally, you can give away excess bags. It seems that not everyone has too many, because I successfully freecycled about a dozen a few months ago.

The inherited-photos dilemma

Do you struggle with a collection of old photos? If so, you may relate to the following question I got via email, which the sender agreed I could answer here since this situation is not uncommon:

I have a ton of old pictures that I ended up with when my mom passed away three years ago. Sadly, some of them I have no idea who they are. I dread organizing them and wonder if you have any tips to help me. Many of them are in old photo albums on black paper with those little edges.

I’m wondering if I should save those as is or take them all apart and scan and get rid of them. I’ve put this off for three years now. Help me before I put it off for another three years — or more!

I also have slides that my parents took and have no way of looking at them to see if I even want to keep them.

First of all, you are under no obligation to keep old photos that have no meaning to you, which would be the case with photos of unknown people. Just as with anything else you inherit, you can decide which items you want to keep and then find appropriate homes for the rest.

What would be an appropriate home for those photos of mystery people? If anyone in your family is into genealogy, that person might well appreciate getting the photos. My brother began researching our family tree over the past few years and has identified many of the mystery people in the photos we inherited from my mother. You might bring the photos to a family gathering and see if anyone wants some.

If no family members have any interest, you could check to see if a local historical society would be interested in them. An art school — or any school’s art class — might enjoy working with them. Some people have had luck using freeycle groups, Craigslist, or eBay to sell or give away old photos.

If none of these ideas work out for you, it’s okay to just toss the photos that aren’t meaningful to you. As Earth911 explains, many older photos have a chemical coating that keeps them from being recyclable, so they may just need to go into the trash bin.

For the photos you do want to keep, scanning at least the best of them is a good idea. Digital photos can be stored and backed up so they won’t be lost if you were unlucky enough to have a flood, a fire, etc. Also, digital photos can be easily shared with other family members. You could scan them yourself, using a flatbed scanner, or pay one of the many photo scanning services to do this for you.

You can then decide whether you want to keep the originals of the photos you’ve scanned. For any you do want to keep, using an album or box that has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) will help ensure the photos don’t deteriorate over time. Albums can make for nicer viewing, but photo boxes take a lot less space.

You are lucky that your photos are in albums with the little corner holders, so it will be easy to remove them as needed. If you have any hard-to-remove photos in those magnetic sticky albums, you can follow the advice from the Smithsonian Institution Archives about safely removing those photos.

For dealing with the slides, you can buy a slide viewer fairly inexpensively to allow you to look through the slides. Slides you would like to keep can also be scanned for easier viewing in the future. If you don’t want to pay a service to scan them, you could consider renting a slide scanner rather than buying one for just a one-time project.

Finally, work at a pace that is comfortable for you. Some people like to set aside a whole day or more for a project like this, while others prefer to do a little bit every day or every week.