Conscious decluttering: how to simplify your home without throwing out a massive pile of stuff

While decluttering seems to be THE thing to do right now, living with less stuff is the direction we all need to move in, not just as a passing trend but as a new way of existing on Earth. Because it’s the ONLY way our planet will be able to continue providing us a habitat. We need to move on from over-consumption and over-waste and adopt simpler ways of living. This doesn’t mean sacrificing modern comforts or living in poverty, it just means focussing on things we need and value and saying goodbye to the excess stuff we don’t (whether that’s stuff we already have or stuff that’s still in the store). And while many of us are keen to declutter and simplify our homes and our lives, we might be hesitant because of where we fear all our stuff may end up: landfill. We know now there’s no ‘away’, so throwing stuff in the bin is much harder on our conscience than it used to be. But decluttering our home doesn’t have to mean cluttering up landfill. There are many other options for getting rid of our stuff, from reuse to recycling, no matter what it is. While we need to be prepared to put in a bit of extra time and effort, a clearer conscience (and some extra $$$) makes it worthwhile!

I declared 2019 our year of decluttering. My partner and I had accumulated SO much stuff over the past nine years in our house (as well as the stuff we each had prior to that) so it was a mammoth task. As I’ve also been on a journey for the past two years to slash our household waste I was determined to minimise what we sent to landfill. So it took a bit of time and effort, to find out what we could take where, to clean and repair, dismantle, separate, sort, take photos, post ads and drive here and there from charities to salvage/reuse centres to recycling depots. Our starting point was our Council’s A-Z list of what goes where, which provides a comprehensive list of landfill alternatives. It turned out there were many options apart from charities, and we ended up taking a lot of our stuff to Reverse Garbage, (a local reuse centre that accepts a huge variety of items). Another option if you don’t have a place like this nearby is Freecycle, a non-profit movement with thousands of groups around the world. We also took a lot of stuff to H&M’s garment collection program and our Council’s metal, chemical, battery and e-waste recycling. For stuff we can sell I’ve mostly used Gumtree (an Australian online marketplace) or eBay is another alternative.

So here’s an overview of what we decluttered and where it went:

Clothing, shoes & accessories

Back at the start of this year I began my decluttering mission with my wardrobe. I discovered I had over five hundred items of clothing (not including underwear)! After 10 years of ‘collecting’ clothes (and shoes and jewellery) my wardrobe was overflowing but contrary to what many of us believe — that accumulating more stuff will make us happier — I was probably more unhappy and unfulfilled than ever. Then sometime last year I lost the urge to go shopping for new clothes every other week. So the time had come to deal with the clutter I’d created. First I had to work out what I didn’t want/need. It took me several attempts but I eventually pulled out around 200 items of clothing and 20 pairs of shoes I was willing to part with (admittedly I wasn’t very efficient at this and it ended up taking me several days, so for a more efficient approach I recommend Marie Kondo’s method).

Then I had to work out how best to get rid of this huge pile of clothing, so I divided it into three categories: what I could sell, what I could give to charity and what was only good for rags. After considering selling options I settled on a stall at my local markets as being the most economical and efficient option (i.e. affordable, way more customers than a garage sale and way less effort than selling each item separately online). I only sold about half of what I had so I kept a handful of items (the more valuable ones) to sell online and gave the rest to charity. Since I discovered H&M’s garment collection program, I ended up taking most stuff there as they accept all clothing and textiles regardless of their condition. They also offer a discount voucher for every bag of clothing donated (while the last thing I needed was more clothes, there is no expiry date). As some of my clothes weren’t worthy of donating to charity (because of wear & tear, stains, etc.) this saved them from landfill.

We also used this as an opportunity to declutter our hangers. We donated cheap and unmatching ones (like the plastic ones from dry cleaners and retailers) to charity.

The 13 bags of clothing & textiles we took to H&M’s garment collection

Fitness equipment

I’ve always been an ‘early adopter’ when it comes to fitness, so I’d get the latest equipment before it even became popular. But as is the case with most of our clutter, it seemed like a good idea at the time or I THOUGHT I needed it (but didn’t really). So I ended up with a lot of stuff I maybe used once, or used for a while but then stopped. These include a stairclimber, numerous kettlebells, boxing equipment, a set of micro-hurdles, a pilates system, an endurance-racing backpack and various bike accessories. We have sold or plan to sell most of this as it is all in good condition. We donated the bike accessories, and these took the longest to sort through as we had a bunch of lights we needed to test, tyre tubes to test for punctures, stuff to clean and bits & pieces to try and match up. I had a few old lights that no longer worked, which I recycled at our local e-waste centre.

Office/stationery/electronics

Office & stationery items — we had a set of IKEA drawers we bought years ago as a temporary storage solution (as my desk didn’t have any drawers), but I didn’t like them as they were made from laminated particle board. As they were in good condition I took advantage of IKEA’s furniture take-back scheme last year and got a store credit in exchange. So we just dumped their contents in a few boxes, where they sat for months. And I realised the only things I would go rummaging for were a ruler and eraser. We don’t really use paper or envelopes anymore. And what’s the point of having twenty pens sitting in a drawer? We also discovered we had five pencil sharpeners! So we ended up getting rid of more than half of our stationery, including pens, pencils, envelopes, paper and folders (most working and in good condition so could be donated). Most of our pens were freebies that we now refuse. For the pens that didn’t work, we dismantled them and removed any metal parts for recycling. So now our stationery items fit in two small drawers instead of five large ones.

CDs & DVDs — I still have pretty much every CD I’ve ever bought so I’ve gradually been going through them over the past few months and have put aside a pile to potentially sell (otherwise donate). I also had a lot that I’d used for file back-ups, which we can take to our local e-waste recycling (discs only, no cases). To avoid this waste in the future we no longer buy CDs or DVDs — we purchase music on iTunes as well as some TV/movies (that we can’t get on Netflix etc.) and we use USB sticks or external hard drives for file back-ups rather than blank CDs/DVDs.

Digital & electronic equipment — as my partner works in IT we had a LOT of digital, electronic and electrical items, mainly power supply units, AV cords, computer parts & accessories. We (eventually) sorted through them all, donating the working ones to Reverse Garbage for reuse and taking the others to our local e-waste recycling centre.

Cleaning items

Mop — this was a standard microfibre mop with a metal handle and plastic attachments. We were able to remove the plastic bits and take the handle to our local metal recycling centre.

Microfibre cloths/mops/dusters — after discovering the hazards of synthetic microfibre (to both us and the planet), I swore off microfibre forever (cleaning, clothing, anything). However, I had a decent collection of microfibre items. While we kept a few and gave a few unused ones away, the others (being poorer quality or with longer/looser fibres) are destined for landfill. Unfortunately to the best of my knowledge this is the safest place for microfibre. I’m not aware of any recycling programs for microfibre (apart from Patagonia’s garment recycling program, which apparently includes all of their clothing, not just fleece).

Plastic toothbrushes — I quit buying plastic toothbrushes over 18 months ago. But I faced the problem of what to do with the ones I had. I’m not sure I’ve ever thrown out a toothbrush — I’ve always saved them for cleaning. The problem is we ended up with a stockpile of WAY more toothbrushes than we’d ever need for cleaning. So I was SUPER-excited when I discovered Terracycle’s oral care recycling program.

Rags — whenever we had an item of clothing that had reached its use-by date, it went in the ‘rag bag’. So we had a huge bag of old clothes, sheets and towels — things with holes, stains or worn-out elastic that were in a condition too poor to be donated. But we simply couldn’t use that many rags so these accumulated much like the toothbrushes. So when I discovered H&M’s recycling program accepted all textiles no matter what condition, again I got excited: another opportunity to declutter our home without contributing to landfill!

Kitchen ware

Our excess kitchen ware was mostly mugs and things given as gifts, which we often don’t end up needing or using (e.g. egg warmers) and gadgets we bought that we could really manage without (e.g. salad spinner). These were in good condition so we gave to friends/relatives/charity. We also had a couple of stainless steel water filter bottles we no longer used, so we recycled the bottle component which was 100% metal and were able to remove some plastic bits from the filter part which can be recycled as mixed plastic (although only in our neighbouring council area, not ours, so I’ll have to find out their collection day and put them in someone else’s bin. That’s because different councils have different recycling contractors and different contractors have different rules. But you’d think since it is the Council paying the contractor that IT would set the rules. You’d think. But this is Australia I guess and we’d rather kill the planet than ruffle a few feathers (or perhaps it’s just the ‘near enough is good enough’ attitude).

Other house & garden stuff

Home maintenance items — we had a lot of paint samples and other paint we hadn’t used but that was still in good condition and were able to give to friends/relatives. If paint can’t be reused then recycling at a chemical collection is the next best option. We also had clear plastic that we’d used as drop sheets for sanding. As this was recyclable plastic we cleaned it, dried it, cut it up and took it to our local supermarket’s soft plastic recycling collection bin (REDcycle who runs this program requires large pieces be cut up into A3 size). We keep old nails, screws and other similar metal items for reuse (they don’t take up much space). If they’re bent or rusty we take them to our local metal recycling once we’ve filled a container.

Timber — we’d accumulated quite a collection of old timber, that we told ourselves at the time ‘we might use again’. But after lying around our house for 5–10 years we decided we probably weren’t going to use it after all. It included old pantry shelving, old skirting boards & picture rails (removed during renovation work) and fence posts & palings. As it was solid timber in good condition we were able to donate it (after cleaning it, removing nails and scraping off loose paint).

Plant pots — these are another item we’d accumulated a bunch of, so we kept a few and donated the rest to Reverse Garbage.

Curtain fabric — we had a huge piece of curtain fabric we bought from Reverse Garbage to use as a drop sheet for painting but never did, so it went back there!

Random bits & pieces including string/ribbon, rubber bands, corks — we’ve always saved bits of string from clothing tags, cotton/nylon cord handles off paper retail bags, waist ties out of old shorts and trackpants, ribbon off gifts we receive, etc. but we had accumulated so much and use so little. We also accumulate rubber bands as they come around much of the fresh produce we buy at farmer’s markets. I didn’t want to throw any of these out but fortunately Reverse Garbage was happy to take them.

Keyrings — we had quite a few keyrings lying around, mostly freebies that we now refuse. These can either be donated or if they are 100% metal, recycled.

Plastic storage containers — we ended up with a pile of empty plastic storage containers (that we were using to store most of the stuff we got rid of!). These were still in very good condition so we donated them to Reverse Garbage.

So after all our sorting and trips to charities and recycling centres, we were left with a small amount of stuff that appears to have no other option but landfill. The main items are:

  • Bicycle tyre tubes (worn/punctured)
  • Lever-arch folders and ring binders (cardboard covered in PVC with metal rings) (if I do end up sending these to landfill I’ll at least dismantle them and recycle the metal and cardboard components).
  • PVC plastic (e.g. bed linen packaging) and other non-recyclable plastic (polystyrene and polycarbonate)
  • Plastic waste bins, buckets, plant pots, etc. that are cracked/broken
  • Synthetic microfibre cloths
Items destined for landfill: these should not even be manufactured in the first place

I JUST DON’T GET why manufacturers are allowed to make stuff that is not recyclable. The concept of producer responsibility or product stewardship has been around for a while now and has been implemented by several countries to varying degrees, so I’m wondering why we’re still seeing SO many products and SO much packaging made of toxic, excessive, unnecessary, irresponsible, non-recyclable or difficult to recycle materials. For now my strategy is to just not buy this stuff, which for the most part is proving not that difficult. While most bed linen comes in PVC packaging, IKEA’s doesn’t — it comes in LDPE plastic, a soft plastic that is both recyclable AND non-toxic. AND they also use sustainably-grown cotton AND while they have some cheap options they also have some higher end ones including linen (that are still way more affordable than other more traditional brands). I now avoid buying plastic buckets (stainless steel is a great alternative) and my next laundry basket will be wicker (100% biodegradable).

Our decluttering mission is far from over but there is definitely more space in our house, we feel less overwhelmed and we’ve made over $1,000! So while I underestimated the time and effort required and naively thought I could knock this over in a matter of weeks, this undertaking has reminded me that anything worth doing is worth doing properly. And I feel REALLY good knowing we’ve saved a MASSIVE pile of stuff from landfill.

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store