The importance of having tools you love

Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

Dish towels
Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

Smartphones and their apps
Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.

What to do with an old toothbrush

Over the course of your life, you’ll buy things that are meant to last, like a home, and others that are frequently replaced, like the humble toothbrush. Speaking of the toothbrush, dentists recommend replacing your toothbrush every three months. If you adopt that schedule, four of your toothbrushes will hit landfills every year. If you’re feeling resourceful, however, you can prolong your former toothbrush’s landfill trip by putting it to further use after you’re done using it on your teeth.

Note that you’ll want to give old brushes a good cleaning before taking on these projects. Just run them through the dishwasher and then rise them in a simple bleach solution (5mL bleach / L water or 1 tsp per 4 cups). After that, you’re good to go.

Make a robot!

I did this project with my son’s Cub Scout Troop last year and it was a bit hit. The result is a little buzzing “Bristle Bot” similar to a Hex Bug. All you need is an old toothbrush, some tape, a 1.5V button battery, and a tiny motor. Once it’s assembled, battle your bots for supremacy!

Get the dirt off veggies

Mushrooms often come with a bit of dirt, but they don’t like to be cleaned with water. A soft-bristle brush will let you remove dirt easily and effectively. Don’t stop at mushrooms, either. Other fruits and veggies can be cleaned just as thoroughly with a soft-bristle brush.

Cleaning pesky dishes and tile grout

The lids of sippy cups, stubborn Tupperware containers, and other hard-to-clean kitchen hardware are a perfect use for an old toothbrush. You can get right into the spots that a typical kitchen sponge can’t reach.

This next one is kind of a gimmie but it’s still worth mentioning: A toothbrush is wonderful for cleaning pesky kitchen grout.

Bicycle chains

We live on a dirt road and the chains on my kids’ bikes get dirty pretty quickly. A toothbrush is great for getting that dirt out before it causes problems or builds up excessively.

Working with crafts

A toothbrush can be used to apply paint, glue, polish, and all manner of arts-and-crafts materials. It is a brush, after all. Speaking of arts and crafts…

Make a bracelet

Finally, if your spent brush is of a particularly pretty plastic, and you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can turn it into a quite nice-looking piece of costume jewelry. Just don’t try this with an electric model toothbrush.

When your toothbrush is done cleaning your teeth, its life has only just begun.

Being considerate when donating

Many of us try our best to keep things out of landfills and find new homes for those items that may still be useful to others. However, please consider the following three points when making donations:

Only donate things the organization has said it can use

My local nonprofit thrift store has a handout with an extensive list of what it accepts and what it will not accept. Small appliances are okay, but not coffee pots. Lamps are okay, if they don’t take halogen bulbs. The store also says this: “All items must be clean and in good working condition. We have no facilities to clean clothing.”

Organizations that accept books often provide guidance about the condition of the books they accept. For example, Housing Works says it won’t accept books with “markings, heavy wear, water damage, missing pages or covers, mildew, or strong odors.”

Many other organizations that depend on donations are equally explicit on their websites — and if you’re not certain about what the group takes, you can always call or send an email to inquire. If you donated to an organization in the past, but not recently, I’d recommend doing a quick check of its current policies about donations, because things change.

Donating something that cannot be used just causes extra work for the organization getting the donation. Furthermore, such items might wind up in the dumpster, causing the group to incur an extra expenditure if it gets too many unacceptable donations and an additional pickup is required — and defeating the whole purpose of donating.

You also don’t want to drive to a donation place only to have your donations turned away because they aren’t accepted, as happened to me when I forgot to check the website for my local Goodwill and found it didn’t accept the skis I had. (Fortunately, another nearby charity was glad to take them.)

If you cannot find a place to donate something that you think might still have value to others, you can always try giving it away on freecycle or the free section of craigslist. If it’s permitted where you live, you can also leave things at the curb.

Disaster relief groups usually need money, not stuff

Jessica Alexander was in the Philippines after the 2004 tsunami, and saw what happened when unwanted clothes got shipped there:

Heaps of them were left lying on the side of the road. Cattle began picking at them and getting sick. Civil servants had to divert their limited time to eliminating the unwanted clothes. Sri Lankans and Indonesians found it degrading to be shipped people’s hand-me-downs.

… Someone has to unload those donations, someone needs to sort through them for customs, someone needs to truck them to affected areas which are hard to reach anyway and where there’s a limited supply of fuel. When old shoes and clothes are sent from the U.S., they just waste people’s time and slow down getting lifesaving medicines and food to affected people.

Alexander encourages all good-hearted people to give money — “not teddy bears, not old shoes” — to agencies that know what’s needed and how to get it to the people in need. If such an agency asks for specific items, that’s the only time you should look at donating stuff.

Protect your items when dropping off donations

I recently dropped off some books for an annual book sale in my city. The church that holds the sale has waterproof plastic bins sitting outside to accept donations. But I saw cardboard boxes filled with books sitting out next to those bins — and some of those boxes had no lids. That’s a problem, because we often get heavy fog and mist overnight, and the books sitting out with no covering are likely to get damaged.

Unless an organization specifically permits it (and has donation receptacles in place), you won’t want to donate after hours. Perfectly fine donations can get ruined not just by the weather, but also by raccoons and other wildlife.

Fragile items should obviously be wrapped to protect them, so you don’t wind up with broken glassware or china. Also, be very careful when donating anything sharp — knives, sewing needles, etc. — to ensure no one gets hurt.

10 things you can do right now to be more organized

Here at Unclutterer we often focus on long-term solutions for clutter problems. But this week, I want to focus on the short term. The following are 10 things you can do within the next 10 minutes to help yourself be more organized.

  1. Lay out tomorrow’s outfit tonight. Last week, we wrote about what I think of as doing a favor for your future self. Unless you’re going the Steve Jobs route and wearing the same outfit every day, you probably spend a few minutes each morning staring at the dresser or closet in an early morning fog and the longer you stand there the more you run the risk of being late for work or school or wherever you need to go. Reclaim that time from your morning by doing it the night before. It’s a great feeling to pop out of bed and find your outfit ready to go.
  2. Update the calendar. Once a week I ensure that our family calendar is up-to-date. This is especially crucial now that the new school year is starting. It only takes a few minutes to ensure that every appointment that’s scheduled for the next seven days has been properly recorded. If you live with other people–kids, roommate, spouse, whomever–have everyone participate in this activity to be sure everything is included on the calendar.
  3. Plan the week’s menu. Years ago, I supervised a group home of students with autism and other developmental delays. Something that my staff and I had to do was prepare nightly meals for everyone. Every night we cooked for seven students and five teachers. That was when I learned to keep a weekly menu up on the refrigerator; a habit I continue today. It’s much nicer to see what I’ve planned to prepare, as opposed to wondering, “What can I make tonight?”
  4. Find a pen and some scrap paper. Prep a stack of index cards and a small collection of pens and you’ll be ready the next time you need to jot something down while on the phone, at your computer, or wherever ideas come to you. If note cards won’t work for you, get a small notebook and carry it with you in your pocket so you can capture ideas before putting them down in a more permanent way (like on a to-do list or calendar).
  5. Round up extra batteries. Instead of searching your home for wayward batteries whenever you need them, put together a package of each type — AA, AAA, and so on — in an obvious place. If you don’t have any extra batteries of a type you typically need, consider getting reusable ones and storing those.
  6. End the missing sock nightmare. There are four people in my house. For years, sorting socks was a nightmare. They all ended up in the same laundry basket, and we played Rock Paper Scissors to identify the poor soul who had to sort them. Today, everyone has a mesh laundry bag for socks. Put the socks in the bag, tie it up, and put the bag in the washer. Socks come out clean and more importantly, sorted.
  7. Employ a tray. Not long ago, we abandoned the key hooks we used for hang car keys. Keys then cluttered up the kitchen table until I put a small, unassuming tray right beside the door. Now that there is a key tray it’s where the keys land, without making a cluttered mess. Even a tray full of haphazard contents appears sorted and tidy simply by being a container.
  8. Tidy your work area. The dissonance of visual clutter is real and can adversely affect your work day. Take just 10 minutes to tidy a desk and you’ll feel better and maybe even be more productive.
  9. Label your cables. Raise your hand if you’ve played the “unplug this to find out what it’s connected to” game. It’s no fun. A simple set of cable labels can eliminate that nonsense.
  10. Take 10 minutes to just be. There’s so much going on each day: Work and maybe kids, home life and friends, the constant firehose of social media. Find 10 minutes in each day that you can use to walk in the yard, listen to quiet music, or simply sit and experience the moment. This might sound a little hippy dippy, but it’s a great practice to get into for keeping the rest of your day organized. An organized mind helps a great deal in having an organized life.

Certainly continue to work toward those far-reaching goals, but don’t overlook the power of 10 minutes in the meantime.

Keep your computer clean with digital decluttering

A few days ago I got a desperate call from a friend. “My computer says ‘disk full’ and basically won’t work. What do I do?” Her laptop’s hard drive was full to capacity. She tried deleting the contents of her downloads folder, some unwanted photos, old emails, and stray files on the desktop and it wasn’t enough. Albeit a good start, I told her, but it’s kind of like using an eyedropper to empty a swimming pool. For real digital de-cluttering, you’ve got to break out the big guns.

While photo and video libraries can take up a lot of storage space, as well as music, backups and more, there are other, space-hungry files on your machine that you can’t see. For keeping those in check, I recommend using a piece of software. I recommend Clean My Mac and Clean My PC by the folks at Macpaw. (Both pieces of software are $40.)

Before I explain why, let me quickly discuss memory vs. storage.

Computer memory vs. computer storage

In the 20 years that I’ve been working with computers professionally, I’ve found that memory vs. storage causes confusion for people more than anything else. One refers to how much your machine can physically hold; the other, how much it can do at once.

Here’s an analogy: Consider an office desk. It’s got a broad worktop and many drawers for storing all sorts of stuff. To work on something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The drawers are your storage. The more drawers you have, or the more spacious they are, the more they can hold. A desk with six drawers can store more stuff than one with four (assuming the drawers are all the same size). The drawers are your computer’s internal hard drive. The larger it is, the more “stuff” — photos, videos, Word docs, music, etc. — it can physically hold. Back to the desk.

To work with something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The bigger the top of your desk is, the more you can spread out and work on at once. The work top is your computer’s memory. The more memory your computer has, the more you can look at one time. There’s a little more to memory than that, but this is a good basic explanation.

Kill digital clutter

As I mentioned, there are big ‘ol files lurking on your machine that many people can’t easily find and drag to the trash. That’s why I recommend using a piece of software to help you find these. As a Mac user, I use Clean My Mac from Macpaw. Clean My PC has a reputation for doing an equally fantastic job on Windows machines. However, since I don’t have a PC, I can’t speak for it directly.

I like Clean My Mac for three reasons: It’s thorough, it’s clear on what’s happening, and it’s safe.


I cleaned my MacBook Pro earlier today, and Clean My Mac found outdated cache files amounting to nearly 2 GB, as well as iPhone updates that I no longer need. Additionally, much software is “localized” for several languages. I only need English, so Clean My Mac found the superfluous (for me) language files from my software and removed them — to the tune of 2.45 GB.


Whenever Clean My Mac conducts a scan, it identifies what it calls “Large & Old Files.” These files are not removed without your review and approval. You might find video projects in there, large audio files, and the like. For instance, the scan I recently conducted found several iMovie files that are quite large but not for deletion. Clean My Mac was smart enough to leave them intact for me.


This software’s help system is fantastic. Deleting files from your computer should not be taken lightly, even when you’re talking about known junk. The help section defines every term and process clearly and concisely, so you’ll know what’s going to happen. Additionally, the software’s main screen is quite legible and logically arranged.

It can be frustrating when your computer is cluttered. Fortunately, you can be safely proactive about it. Grab a good piece of software and stay on top of your digital decluttering before you end up with a virtual mess on your hands.

The power in 15 minutes

Uncluttering is a lifelong endeavor. Perfection is not the goal, especially in a working home, and time is often a rare commodity in a busy home. Recently, I’ve been working to see how much I can get done in a small amount of time, and how good I can feel about the results. I’ve found that 15 minutes is a perfect amount of time to be productive and not feeling overwhelmed by the time commitment.

I started this experiment by cleaning the closet for half an hour without pause. I went about this logically, as I wanted measurable results. I set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes and got to it.

It went well, but two things happened. First, my interest started to wane around the 20 minute mark. Other tasks — tidying the kitchen or the laundry room — took less than the 30 minutes I set aside, so I either ended early or started a second project that put me over my 30-minute limit.

Next, I dropped it down to 20-minute intervals with a smilier effect. Ultimately, I dropped down to 15 minutes, and it has been exactly what I needed.

I’ve stuck with this number for a few reasons. First, it’s quite easy to work for 15 minutes without getting distracted by something else. Second, I’ve been amazed at how many tasks only take about 15 minutes. I’ve been able to completely organize my desk reducing visual clutter, get laundry folded and put away, organize the kids’ stuff for the next day, and so on.

I also found that 15 minutes is perfect for doing one of my favorite things: a mind dump. I take a pen, a piece of paper, and the time to simply write down everything that’s on my mind — it is so liberating and productive. Even an overwhelming list of to-do items can seem manageable when you’ve got it written down. There’s a sense of being “on top of it” that comes with performing a mind dump, all in 15 minutes.

Find a timer and discover what length of time is good for your for completing most projects. You might find that 10 minutes works for you, or 20. The point is that when you say, “I’m going to work on this and only this for [x] minutes,” you’ll be surprised at what you can get done.

Getting organized doesn’t happen overnight

I’m currently dealing with an annoying problem in my left leg — some muscles are way too tight and make certain motions painful. I ignored the problem for too long, and it only got worse. But now I’m in physical therapy and doing exercises at home every day, and I can feel things gradually getting better. This is very encouraging, and I have faith that if I continue to do those home exercises, I’ll get back to being just fine in a while.

And this is very similar to how things go with many organizing efforts: They require continual work over a period of weeks or months.

Some of the common situations that lead to disorganization include:

  • A change in the household: a move to a new home, a new roommate, a newly combined family, a new baby, etc.
  • Medical issues (your own or those of a family member or close friend)
  • A new job or a crunch time at an existing job

In such situations, when you begin to get organized again, please realize that the problem areas built up over time and it will take some time to fix them. Try not to get discouraged by what’s still undone, but rather take pleasure in your progress — in each small step.

Doing my home exercises only takes about 20 minutes per day, but those 20 minutes are making a huge difference. If you can spend even 5-10 minutes each day on uncluttering and organizing, it will add up, too.

The following are three basic approaches you might take to starting a slow-but-steady uncluttering or organizing effort:

1. Focus on one space at a time

You might pick a room, and then tackle smaller projects within that room, as Dave has written about before. Maybe you can go through one box, or half of a box, or the first inch of a box on one day. Or maybe you can organize one drawer in a desk or in the kitchen.

2. Focus on one type of item at a time

For example, you could decide to deal with all the magazines or all the socks as one mini-project. You may want to start with categories that are easy for you and gradually move on to harder ones. Paperwork takes a long time for the volume of space cleared, so if you want a quick visual win you may not want to begin there — unless you have some buried papers that need attention right away.

3. Focus on one process at a time

Maybe you want to work on how you handle incoming mail, or how you get everyone out of the house in the morning, or how you keep track of your to-do items. This will often involve trying something new and then tweaking that new approach as you see what works well and what doesn’t.

Whatever approach you choose, the thrill of seeing ongoing progress can help keep you motivated to do more. As Harold Taylor of Harold Taylor Time Consultants wrote, “You cannot get organized in a day; but you can get more organized daily.”

Uncluttering and other people’s things

An unfortunate uncluttering incident hit the news last week when Leonard Lasek accidentally discarded his wife’s copy of an old Judy Blume book.

As Lasek wrote on the posters he has put around his neighborhood:

I accidentally gave this book away on Saturday July 25th in a box on the corner of Green & Franklin. This book is extremely important to my wife. It was a keepsake from her mother and is irreplaceable. On the inside cover is a note that reads “Christmas 1991.” If you happened to pick up this book can you please get in touch with me.

Judy Blume heard about this and has offered to send an autographed copy as a replacement — which is wonderful, but even she isn’t sure she can get the specific edition since that particular printing is no longer available. Perhaps the person who picked it up will see one of the posters and will return it.

This incident is a good reminder that uncluttering someone else’s stuff without permission is almost never a good idea. (I’m not discussing extreme situations here, where there may be health or safety issues — just normal stuff that one person sees as clutter.)

Rather than getting rid of your partner’s things on the sly, consider going through them (with permission) and identifying those items that seem like good candidates for giving away, and then checking to see if your partner agrees.

I’ve found that checking in about everything, even the smallest of stuff, shows respect and builds trust. And that trust makes it easier to then have good discussions about the bigger things.

With children, uncluttering their things a bit more complicated. I’ve read and heard plenty of stories about adults who felt betrayed when, as children, their parents got rid of much-loved possessions. Yet involving children in every decision might be a real time-waster.

But it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. It might be fine to throw away a broken toy no one plays with anyway or to give away clothes the kids have outgrown. For other things, though, involving children in the decision-making process can teach them uncluttering habits and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. And sometimes they may surprise you! I’ve seen some children gladly give up way more toys than their parents thought they would.

At what age can children be involved? From my experience, I’d say that some preschoolers can do a fine job of choosing things to give away, with a bit of coaching. You can read online accounts of parents who started working on this with their children at age 3 or age 4.

Everyone likes to know that the things that are special to them, for whatever reason, aren’t going to disappear because someone else decided they were unimportant.

Uncluttering: Moving past the “what if” questions

I’m in the process of cleaning out my garage — going through the cabinets and getting rid of things I no longer need or want.

In many cases, the decision-making has been easy. For example, I don’t remember how I wound up with 15 packages of wood screws, but I sure don’t need them now. I freecycled them, so they’ve moved along to someone who does have a use for them.

But other times I found myself asking “what if” questions, just as so many people trying to unclutter do. But when I really considered my answers, I wound up getting rid of almost everything I questioned. The following are some examples — I hope this will help others who fall into the “what if” trap.

Item #1: Skunk odor remover
I got this when I had an indoor/outdoor cat, but both of my current cats are indoor-only. But what if a skunk sprayed me while I was out walking at night?

What I decided: That’s never happened in the 25 years I’ve lived in my house. If for some reason it did, I could always use the hydrogen peroxide/baking soda/dish soap mixture that so many authorities recommend. So I gave the bottled product away to someone with a dog that gets skunked every so often.

Item #2: Various organizing products
I had a collection of random organizing-type products. Some were given to me as samples, some were leftovers from a specific project, and some I can’t even remember how I came to own. I could certainly give them away, but what if I have a client in the future who could use them?

What I decided: There are a small number of products I specifically keep on hand because so many clients find them useful. But these other items were all products I hadn’t found a use for in many years. And some of them, such as the legal-sized file pockets, would only appeal to a limited number of people. I freecycled the file pockets (which went to a legal office) and one other item, and donated the rest.

Item #3: Phone bell
I have a phone bell that serves as a replacement ringer for my landline phone, and I really like it. But somehow I wound up with a second one of these. I have no immediate use for it, but what if my current one broke?

What I decided: The phone bell I have seems unlikely to break; it’s not a fragile kind of thing. And if it does break, it wouldn’t be a big deal, since I could just turn the normal phone ringer back on. I get fewer calls on the landline then I did when I bought this product years ago, given how many other ways we have to communicate now, so the annoying phone ringer wouldn’t be something I’d hear all that often. Therefore, I gave the extra phone bell away to someone who can use it now, rather than leaving it sitting on a shelf.

Item #4: Heart-shaped glass bowl
I got this intending to use it as a gift many years ago — so long ago that I don’t remember who it was intended for and why it never was given away. But what if I could use it as a gift for someone else?

What I decided: While this is a beautiful piece, I can’t think of anyone for whom it seems like a perfect gift. (If I did know someone, I’d gladly give it to that person right now!) And I don’t like keeping generic gifts around to give to someone, someday — I prefer to choose something specifically for each recipient. So this item will be given away, too. It would be a shame to keep it sitting in my cabinet any longer when it could be used and appreciated by someone else, right now.

In summary: I realized all my “what if” scenarios were unlikely to happen. And even if they did, I’d cope just fine. I didn’t need to keep things around indefinitely, “just in case.” I could let them go on to new owners, who would make use of them right away, and reclaim my storage space.

Organizing a hat collection

I have a lot of hats. My hair began its exodus from my head when I was in my 30s, and now that I’m pushing 45, it’s all gone except for a few hangers-on that I shave down to nothing. I like the clean look actually, but I’ve also got a new enemy: the sun.

Get a sunburn on the top of your head just once and you’ll know a fun new experience of discomfort. A shower feels like tiny pins stabbing into your skull and forget trying to sleep with you head on a pillow. An even greater and more serious threat is skin cancer. The fair skin on the top of my head is an open invitation, now that the protective hair is gone. As a result, I own a lot of hats.

The following solutions are what I’ve done to corral them, as well as a few other ides you might consider for your own chapeau collection.

A hat in the car

I keep a neutral-colored baseball cap in each car. The color ensures it’ll go with whatever I’m wearing. Also, it’s kept neat and clean, so if I have to make a public appearance, I’ll look halfway decent. When storing things in your car, try your best to keep them in the trunk so they’re out of people’s way and if in an accident the item can’t become a projectile. A simple trunk organizer is a good way to keep the trunk of your car from being a mess, as a result.

The curtain/closet rod approach

Storing baseball hats on a simple curtain/closet rod works great. We’ve got a decent-sized closet in our bedroom. So, I put up two curtain rods spanning its length, and put a couple dozen shower curtain hooks on them. One hat hangs on each hook. (See image.) I love the temporary aspect of the hooks; since they’re not affixed, I can add/remove them as necessary. Plus, all of the hats are easy to see so I can grab exactly the one I want.


I’ve got several seasonal hats, like my beloved Stormy Kromer. I consider baseball caps to be all-season, but winter hats go into a plastic bin with a lid and a label. That way they’re out of sight yet easy to find when the seasons change.

While thinking about this post, I found a few other clever ideas I wanted to share. Here they are.

You can use a shoe rack on the back of a door. This solution is very clever, accessible, and tidy.

A “clothesline” of hats is pretty clever, as long as you have the room for it.

If a curtain rod will take up too much room, you can substitute a clothes hangar.

Disposing of unused medications

You may find yourself with unused medications for a variety of reasons. For example, your doctor could make a change to your prescription, or you may have medications that have expired.

How do you properly dispose of those medications? You have three options.

Donate them using repository programs

In the U.S., some states have programs for medication redistribution. Many of these are conducted at the facility level, allowing pharmacies and nursing homes, for example, to find alternatives to destroying usable medications.

However, some states have drug repository programs that will accept medications from individuals, as long as the medications are in their original sealed and tamper-evident packaging (such as blister-cards) and won’t expire in the near future. Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin are three of the states that have such programs. You can search online to see if your state has a similar program. Note that these programs cannot accept controlled substances, which include some pain, sleep, and anxiety medications.

Safely dispose of them using medication take-back programs

Take-back programs are a great way to safely dispose of expired or excess medications. In my area, there are drop-off containers at many police stations. Other locales in the U.S. use boxes from the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (with its Rx Drug Drop Box) or MedReturn, which have box locator functions on their websites. Some pharmacies also accept medications, and Dispose My Meds has a pharmacy locator.

You can also search for medications at Earth911 to find a disposal site near you. And you could check with your trash/recycling service provider to see what options are available in your area.

The Drug Enforcement Agency, along with local law enforcement organizations, used to hold an annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Because there are now more options for disposing of these medications — the law was changed in 2014 to allow for more authorized collectors — the DEA has no plans for future take-back days.

Other countries such as Canada and Australia also have take-back programs.

Safely dispose of them at home

The FDA has instructions on how to safely dispose of medications as part of your household trash if no better option is available:

  • Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds.
  • Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag.
  • Throw the container in your household trash.
  • Scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of your empty pill bottle or empty medicine packaging to make it unreadable, then dispose of the container.

The FDA also provides a short list of medications that can be especially harmful if used by anyone other than the person for whom they were prescribed. If these specific medicines cannot be disposed of quickly using a take-back program, the FDA recommends flushing them down the toilet as soon as they are no longer needed. Specific disposal information may have come with the medicine, but the FDA also links to that information if you don’t have it. This is the only time when flushing is recommended. In general, flushing is strongly discouraged for reasons that the Environmental Protection Agency explains (PDF).

What to do with unused school supplies

Now that school’s over, the kids are at home and all of their stuff is with them. Having a break from school is great, but what can be done with the half-used notebooks, stubby pencils, worn crayons, and more?


First, and most simply, use them. They’re good practice for your kids and their writing or maybe for keeping a summer journal. Have them draw on the pages or send letters to far-flung family and friends.

Another, less obvious idea is to find every half-used notebook that’s hiding in backpacks, on bookshelves, etc. Go through them and decide: is what’s written in here important? Do I want to save it? If the answer is yes, tear out those pages and scan them into the archive software of your choice (I prefer Evernote). If you’d rather not go digital, a quality three-ring binder will do the job as well. If the notebooks in question still have a decent amount of blank pages inside, consider donating them. Fiends of Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and often accepts donations of school supplies. Likewise, Operation Give helps members of the US military supply those in need with a variety of items, including notebooks, as does Project Smile.

Alternatively, old notebooks can be upcycled into scrap paper notebooks quite easily. Here’s a great tutorial from Instructables for making a handy scrap notebook to keep by your computer, on your desk, in the kitchen, or where ever you typically jot down quick notes. In this video, Martha Stewart describes a similar project that looks great.


Kids love crayons until they get too small to use. It seems wasteful to toss them away. Instead, you can make them super appealing all over again. You can follow a tutorial that explains how to use some candy mold, your old crayon numbs and a microwave oven to make great-looking crayon characters.

Alternatively, send them off to Crazy Crayons, a service that essentially uses the above process to upcycle unwanted crayons and make them available again.


One idea for those frustrating pencil nubs is to use them with a pencil extender. This clever little device does just what you’re thinking it does: holds the nub in a larger case that lets you continue to write until the thing is completely gone. This might be a unitasker, but if you actually use it then it won’t be a unitasker in your home.

If you’re willing to saw off the eraser, the pencil can be tossed into a fire. Also, the graphite can be a good “dry lubricant” for keys and locks.

Whatever it is you decide to do with old school supplies, just be sure to turn that after-school clutter into something useful or get it out of your house so it’s not still sitting in your kid’s backpack at the start of next school year.