The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 15, 2009

Help! I’m buried under paper and I can’t get up!

So here’s the deal. I promised to write a post on about plastic-free organizing tips next week. But I have no business writing any such thing. Just take a look at my desk:

I’ve been trying to organize my office space ever since we moved here in 2005, and it’s just not happening. Paper, paper everywhere. I’ve been working to reduce the amount of paper mail I receive. I get most of my bills online and don’t print them out. And yet, my desk is always full of paper — to do notes, meeting notes, contact information, flyers, business cards — and I just feel overwhelmed. (That photo? I just took it this morning. Last week, my desk was even worse before I went on a rampage and recycled a whole bunch of stuff that had “expired.”)

So I want some ideas. Some systems for clearing the clutter. And if you have a blog and have written about this topic, I’ll totally give you full credit, link to you, and say how great you are!

The trouble is, many of the organizing and simplifying ideas I read in magazines at the check out counter involve buying a bunch of new stuff. Plastic bins. Plastic trays. Plastic business card holders. Check out the home page for the Container Store:

Every item is made from plastic. I’m not interested in buying new plastic. I’m not really interested in buying anything new at all.

How can I simplify, reduce, and organize without accumulating even more stuff?

Here are a few more photos to show you what I’m dealing with here. First, the full space. Can’t put anything on top of the shelf in the window because that’s Arya’s area. She loves to lie there and look out at the world.

That pile of stuff on the floor — always there and usually bigger. Stuff I don’t have a place for.

And here’s what ends up happening to the bazillions of business cards I collect. Useful, right? But I don’t want a plastic business card holder. Would love to figure this one out before the BlogHer conference next week, where I’ll inevitably end up with a whole lot more unless I can figure out a better system. (Write contact info in notebook and hand back the card? Seems like it could take too long in a room full of women all passing out cards.)

Can you guys please help? What do you do to reduce clutter on your homes? How do you manage piles of paper, or have you gone paper-free? Do you have instructions for DIY organizers that don’t require a lot of new stuff? Any and all ideas are welcome!

You might also enjoy...


Etsy handmade and vintage

I only post ads for companies I patronize myself. Your support helps to fund my plastic-free mission.

Leave a Reply

50 Comment threads
4 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
6 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

For business cards, I just type the information into a Word document. Then it’s easily searchable to find what I need and I can recycle the business cards.

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator

I do the same thing since I don’t have much space in my tiny San Francisco apartment. Sometimes I’ll just take a photo and then just send it to myself.


Use to automatically file your papers.


I just realised I posted the completely wrong link before… but since you don’t have an iPhone, it is no longer necessary :)


You could always try the Windows Marketplace and search for “Business card reader” and have a browse through the results – you might find it more expensive than the others, but still probably cheaper than a stand alone card scanner (which would likely come with plastic packaging). As for AT&T, I’m in Australia so we don’t have that issue!


In regards to your comment on OCR for business cards. I believe that if you have either an iPhone or an Android phone you can download an app that will convert business card details into contact details automatically. iPhone link here: – costs money, but not a whole lot I can’t quickly find one for the Android based phones out there but I’m sure they exist, and they’re probably cheaper than the iPhone version :) On the whole they won’t be perfect, but it’s a start! Also – it appears you have a MFC there too… do you know if… Read more »


If you need new three ring binders, Naked Binder is great:

Also, using thrift store purchases (vases, cups, etc) can make good containers for little things that tend to get lost in desks.


For business cards (and I also collect ALLOT) I have a binder with dividers labeled by the type of contact (advertising, merchandise, industry, other business contact & personal interests). I staple them to used copy paper (that would otherwise be thrown away. Two columns of five cards and file them in the binder so when I need a contact I just check in the binder. I am in such a habit if I ever meet someone that I think could fit in 2 categories of my binder I automatically ask for 2 cards, lol. Also for organizing rather than buying… Read more »

Rachael Herron

In terms of bills and important life papers, I finally did a huge purge a few years ago, keeping nothing that was more than a year old except a few things I thought I should (life insurance, medical stuff, tax info, house papers). Then I started doing this process, which has been AMAZING at keeping me clutter free: The only thing you need is one of those cardboard accordion file folders with 13 sections. Label each section with a month, and keep the first one label-free. Every day, I sort the mail into Deal With and Recycle. The Deal With… Read more »


Hello!My sister tought me this when I was 18 and I use it still today. first I must say I 'm very messy but somehow I kept that habit through and it really helped me.Each year, I buy one new folder file cabinets with sub tabs (accordeon style with compartment) and write: rent, taxes, insurance, doctor, utilities, bank. Every time I receive one or the other, i drop it in there. At the end of the year, I write in big marker Year 200X , and then I drop it in a closing folder (one that closes with a zipper).… Read more »


i noticed this has been said, but punching the business cards with a hole and stringing them up somehow would be a great way to organize them and easily accesible, too. Do you craft or have friends that are crafty? if you are done with the cards, donate the cards to artists…

what about using baskets to organize your stuff. Or, for papers, punch holes in them and store them in binders….
good luck!

Amanda Marr

You could punch a hole and use a binder ring (you can buy them unattached in different sizes)


Hi there, just discovered your site and it struck a chord. It seems to me you don't have enough surface space to actually get stuff organised. What about pushing your book cases perpendicular to the wall and lay a plank of wood/board/old table top on top and really spread the stuff out. I have a huge dining table which I find it much easier to organise on as it's eye level (as opposed to the floor) and lets me make loads of piles that can each be tackled individually or made into files. I find the only way I manage… Read more »


Hi, Beth – The only problem I can find in your post is that you're "overwhelmed." From looking at the photos, maybe you have too much stuff in too small of a space. But enjoying life doesn't require a perfect-looking desk. It sounds like you're really busy in general and the desk is a low-priority item. If it's keeping you from enjoying other things, then maybe it's a problem. But I find that those ads and organizing blogs just end up making me feel bad because my space isn't perfect. Getting Things Done Fast, on the other hand, has helped… Read more »


For coping with the to do list, being a philosophical sort, I have settled on 7 major life goals (from TreasureKeeping to Adventuring to Setting the World Right). I use those goals for folders in email/bookmarked favorites/to do list/filing. My mood is improved when I know that I can find the stack of personal letters to answer and do one, rather than have to search for it in a confused stack. I second the suggestion to get the CD's into cases and shelved or boxed. Also, I have a small binder of Good Ideas Whose Time has NOT yet Come!… Read more »


Just came to see that was mentioned here – much like the commenters here, the commenters there provide scads of great ideas.

– Oksoimnotperfect


I'm a terrible accumulator of paper — my work requires it.Re business cards — I have an old rolodex — I staple them to the cards or punch the business cards; I see these in thrift shops these days. For certain things (instrument repairs/dealers), I use (alas plastic) business card folders (the extended wallet type with plastic card sleeves inside that again showed up for free or yardsale.Other than that purge, sort, repeat. Then figure out what you need to do to contain what you've got.Scanning or photographing stuff is good IF you think about how you are going to… Read more »


Just happened to notice a lot of cool, useful stuff on your desk and in your office (see photos) that would not be possible to have or use without plastics.

Condo Blues

The thing that's so seductive about The Container Store is that all of their storage options look clean and uniform and is clearly labeled. I often shop The container Store for ideas – look for a size or shape or type of container that they sell that will work for me. Then I go home and see what I can find several of that type of container (usually from our grocery store) to use at home. To make them pretty and uniform I either cover the boxes with the same color leftover paint, fabric (can be leftover from projects, traded… Read more »

Amanda Marr

I looked at those container store ideas and tried to imagine what other materials could be used. Baskets can be wire or wicker and with or with our cloth. Closed items can be in glass jars ranging from baby food jars to canning jars (various sizes of mason or ball jars) to other glasswear)

You can recycle used jar candles by removing the wax (maybe keep or discard).

What about metal tool boxes or tackle boxes? Metal ice-cube trays.

Mesh grocery or laundry bags (small size) instead of plastic pencil cases.


Hello Beth,With business cards, I usually prioritize which people I really intend to contact in the next year and then I record their info in my Microsoft Outlook Contacts program. So out of that entire stack of cards, there may be only 10 or so people that you might assess that you will definitely contact again.If there are some that you think you might someday contact (or like their products) you might just input website info and not name/email/phone number to save time. Recycle the rest!I also go through periodically and delete contacts that are no longer current. With the… Read more »


Hiya – wow I know what you mean! As we live in a small flat, we *have* to deal with clutter so quick so it doesn't pile up. We used to leave it on the table, but that got so messy with piles. So I resused an old filing A4 size tray and sellotaped it to my slide out kepboard tray. Then ehwnever any paperwork comes in that is NOT urgent and needs 'reviewing' I pop it in there. I then try to look through that pile every 1-2 weeks. I put things like vouchers, bank statements, receipts, non-urgent bills… Read more »


Beth, looks like a perfect little storage unit on your desk. Clear out a drawer and make a tab with the event title / date and put all the cards behind it. Or, at the event you gather cards and take some time in the evening to transfer name, website to your computer (all other information is no doubt on the website – why recopy it all?). Then the next day, try to touch base with each to hand the card back. This is more demanding time-wise, but I suspect you will have a better chance of remembering or having… Read more »

knutty knitter

I use just one large exercise book for everything. I even use it for tear out notes. It takes everything from phone numbers to recipes and when a page gets too crowded I turn it over. Some pages end up real works of art :) For the rest it is all filed in the order it will be finished with in an old box lid. If I don't organize it, I will miss stuff! I did try smaller note books but have found that they tend to get lost too easily and weren't good for serious doodles, recipes and other… Read more »


one helpful tip i've learned to practice when faced with a dreaded de-clutter organizing job is to plug away at it in small doses. i start in on one area at a time and only work on it for 15 minutes or so. then i stop. the next day i move over to the next space and again allocate just 10-15 minutes. this way i break up the overwhelming nature of the job as a whole. also, the success of one area fuels me to go on to the next the following day. the short intense session leaves me satisfied… Read more »


Rolodex! It's a little old-school, but it works.

Also, what I do to keep my papers organized and contained is I file them in a bankers box. I got a bankers box from an office supplies store, but I'm sure you can get one from work, a friend or freecycle. They're not uncommon. Then you get hanging folders with the tabs on the side, and you can label them however you want and keep everything neat and organized, but ready at hand anytime you need it.

Elizabeth B

Apartment Therapy to the rescue! They just a couple of days ago did a links round-up of desk decluttering jobs. You can get some good ideas for containers from the posts they chose, if nothing else.


Seriously, this is one of my favorite topics of conversation! I wrote this just for you:

You can do eet, Beth!!!


I know you said you didn't want any more "stuff", but I couldn't help myself, and did a little window shopping "for you" on etsy. (-; Maybe if you are crafty at all, it will inspire you to use up some fabric or something you already have around.

Most recent post on my blog:

Pure Mothers

I just recycled a Container Store catalog that came in the mail and was scanning through looking at all the plastic too! I can't help, Beth. My desk is a mess. My answer is to throw stuff away. I do file a lot. I have a good file cabinet and a shredder!


Why do you need the stuff? I have to keep financials for 6 years for Revenue Canada. My biggest brainwave was to put it in binders or boxes and then label with the year/mo of disposal (I really have trouble with figuring out if time's up!). Then I take the whole lot to work and shred it. I have a separate binder for assets & liabilites which may outlive the 6 yr rule. I may be a heretic I don't think scanning is the best option. 1. if your harddrive fails and you don't have a proper backup you're sunk.… Read more »

FB @

Just start tossing and shredding.

Scan every piece of paper that doesn't have to be a hard copy onto a secure hard drive.

And toss, toss toss.


I'm so excited that you're embarking on a decluttering spree… I can definitely use the inspiration! My fiance is extremely organized and so I thought I'd share his methods: he relies heavily on the GTD method that Laura previously mentioned, but he couples that methodology with an hPDA — a "hipster" PDA. Over the year's, he's customized his, but here's a basic idea: My own suggestion for decluttering is to make heavy use of tidy little boxes. If you have an old t-shirt or some scraps of fabric (I like to destroy old sheets from the Salvation Army) you… Read more »


I have trouble with organization myself so I have to say I am really thankful for this post and all the helpful comments!


On metal filing cabinets:
If you get a filing cabinet with the metal brace in the back. They usually have some sqeeze-this-together-and-move-into-place bit. Then you don't need hanging folders because the "back" of the filing cabinet moves where you need it according to how much in in the file drawer. This saves space, plastic label thingies and paper and you can file more stuff in the filing cabinet!
If you face one of sides toward your desk you have an instant magnet board!


Most people suffer from The Overwhelm of Declutter. If you're pressed for time, try working on one square foot or less of your clutter per declutter session. Every bit you do will eventually add up to a big difference. As you get started, store what you want to keep but don't know where to put in grocery bags, or Trader Joe's wine boxes that are marked with the subject you're putting tin them, such as de-clutter tips, business cards, receipts, insurance, taxes, to-do, etc. What causes clutter isn't lack of space to store it but the clutter, itself. Before you… Read more »


I am no example of organization perfection… but I found that file cabinets really helped. Legal sized, as there are so many things that don't fit in the standard sized files! Everything just gets dropped in a file as it arrives. You can probably find an old one on CL or Freecycle. None of ours have cost more than $5. The hanging folders will be harder to find without being wrapped in plastic OR without the plastic label taggy (easy to replace with a little cardstock cut to teh exact size)… you will have to look to make sure the… Read more »


I use these trays at work. The quickly create useful space for papers that would otherwise be a stack. I chop all nonconfidential waste paper with a blank side into roughly 2by3 slips of note paper and use that and jumbo paperclips instead of post it notes (which should not be recycled, because they cause regular paper to get sticky). Outlook task list in an ok place to dump all tasks. That saves lots of slips of paper. My boyfriend likes OmniFocus so far. It can take tasks from your cell too and route them into a tickler/filing system.… Read more »


Milk crates are also fantastic if you already have some or if you find some used. They're the perfect size to store binders, folders and loose paper. I try to file all of my insurance / bank / tax info (only the recent stuff, the older stuff I will scan or get an electronic copy of and keep on my computer) in binders and keep them in my milk crates. I actually made a desk by screwing a wooden board on top of two milk crates. But you can also easily stack milk crates, making a simple, narrow, shelving unit.… Read more »


I found that one of the things that I kept that took up a lot of filing/desk space are instruction manuals. You can find a lot of manuals online, just download the manual as a .pdf and file them in a folder on your computer. For other things that you have that you can't download, just scan it in and get rid of the actual manual. You can also file your bank statements on your computer the same way, if you get online statements. I agree with the previous paper free poster, there's a lot of things you can keep… Read more »


My husband bought a new scanner that's super quick and easy to use, and we're going paper free. It generates PDFs automatically. It does contain plastic and it is a purchase, but the long term payoff is worth it.

Also, I brutally purge whatever I can periodically. I have a tendency to hang on to things I don't really need, and getting rid of them is freeing as well as clutter-removing.


Another note: binders and a 3-hole punch are your friend. It seems like everyone has binders lying around. I get old binders from the local college, and I'm sure there are some on freecycle. Use these to organize fliers and other papers that you don't have a place for, but need accessible and organized. They're easy to label, you don't need plastic sleeves for them (although the binders themselves are usually plastic), and it's quick enough to sort through them if you have post-it-notes or some kind of tabs.


I say scan it all. When I have important papers I scan them into my computer and then shred/recycle the original. There are very few items that you need the original for. Digitize it all! For special receipts or documents like Car Titles or Birth Certificates, they shouldn't take up more then one or two folders. I'm sure you can find one of those buried somewhere in those. ;)


Beth, I didn't realize how serious you were when you said you needed help organizing your desk! Wow! You said you have to-do lists and things everywhere. I got rid of my small paper clutter by using a pocket notebook to keep track of lists, book names, phone numbers, etc. I use a lined moleskine, but you can use any notebook you have on hand. I keep mine in my purse. In addition to getting rid of to-do lists, I also use the moleskine to write down any confirmation numbers from bills I pay online, so that eliminates printing out… Read more »

Beth Terry

BPOD, thank you thank you thank you! I just checked the site. I was worried that Evernote was only for Mac, as Unclutter seems to suggest. But it's not. It's also for PC and Windows Mobile, both of which I have now. Holy cow. I can't wait to come home tonight and try it out. And I'm looking forward to reading other articles on that site. Thanks for linking to it. Great ideas, everyone else. Any instructions for creating these "easy" DIY systems? Pretend I'm not very smart because in this area, I'm not!


This is such a good question. I'm looking forward to reading more responses, but I'll share a couple of my 'fixes' with you. The biggest one is better use of that space (mostly, the height of it) with more shelving. It does mean you would have to purchase something, but living in the Bay Area you have several secondhand options. I've picked up some great pieces of furniture and cabinetry (and old paint!) at Habitat for Humanity's Re-Use store, and I've found raw wood and built shelves from Urban Ore or the St. Vincent store on San Leandro near 98th.… Read more »


I realize this is something new but it is cardboard and inexpensive…

I had tons of magazines that I wanted to keep. I purchased some cardboard magazine holders from IKEA and now they are all sitting upright on a shelf in their holders instead of spilling all over the place.

I presume this would work for any kind of paperwork/file folders that you had that you wanted to corral.


Re. business cards, I third the digital photo route — and here's an app that helps resolve what to do with the photos:

I first saw this idea on the Unclutter blog here:


I can't help on the business card thing other than to suggest a card scanner (inevitably plastic). As far as containers/organizing baskets, etc. You can EASILY repurpose boxes, cardboard of just about any kind into containers that you like. You can go all crafty and decorate them with whatever (I'm thinking fabric, but whatever works) or you can leave them plain. I am sure you can find patterns for them easily


If you did want to keep the cards, and organize the ones you have, you can punch a hole in the card and put them all on a large metal ring. Hang the ring on a nail on the wall near your computer. That will keep them all together and use your wall space instead of floor or desk space. As for the rest of your space, I think your first step is to really look at everything you have and then get rid of all you can. From there, you can totally repurpose items you have for storage. Shoe… Read more »

Beth Terry

Petra (and Jen because you were going to say it too) that's an AWESOME idea! This is why I need you guys. Here I was thinking about writing down the info when I'll totally have my camera with me. I wonder if there's a way to convert the images to PDFs that can be read by OCR software?

We have a business card scanner at work, but I'd love not to have to bring home the cards in the first place.


I was just going to say the same thing – take a picture of the card. Then I would just put the contact info in your fancy new phone :-P

I need to think longer about some of your other issues – but they do make metal versions of all that plastic stuff


i know you mentioned you did not want to purchase anything. if you have a digital camera you could take a picture of the cards and organize them on your computer. much faster are the card scanners you can purchase. might be worth it if you get tons and are interested in keeping them all. just google it and find one you like. otherwise the pictures would be inexpensive but a bit more time consuming. Petra/Germany