The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 1, 2015

Hoarding for the Environment? Zero Waste Experts Bea Johnson and Deb Baida Respond.

Do you have a hard time letting go of things because they might be useful one day? Are you reluctant to give away your old plastic kitchenware for fear that someone else will be harmed by it? Or that they won’t dispose of it properly when they’re done with it? Do you resist tossing things into the recycle bin because you know the truth about what happens to most of our plastic recycling, and it’s not pretty? Do you feel compelled to bring home items left on the street even if you have no immediate use for them?

Are you turning your own home into a landfill?

The plastic in my attic.
The plastic in my attic.

These are questions many environmentalists deal with. Ever since June of 2007 when I put a bag under my kitchen table and vowed to acquire no new plastic, I’ve been collecting my plastic waste. And one day, a friend of mine looked at my boxes of years of collected plastic and said, “You know Beth, they have a word for this behavior, and it starts with an H.”

But I have an excuse!  I’m collecting this plastic for educational purposes.  I take it to events to display.  I made a plastic sea monster costume out of some of it.  Maybe one day I’ll create a big art piece.  Or at least find a use for some of it.

It’s other people who have a problem, not me.  But the truth is that while I might have a legitimate reason to hold onto this stuff, I have my own challenges with clutter and collecting.

A few weeks ago, I met up with Carrie Bennett, from the Ecology Center in Berkeley, and this topic came up.  Carrie told me that she also has a hard time letting things go.

Sometimes our desire to conserve resources can lead to excess clutter in our homes. I experience this in my personal life, and know of many others who do as well. Unused and leftover materials have potential value, and can inspire creative ideas and projects. But we don’t always have the time or energy to follow through on these projects, so we can end up stock-piling items that are not of immediate use to us. As the stock pile grows, we can become overwhelmed by all the “potential” — all the unfinished projects and physical clutter.

I think what inspires us to recycle, or to create a nice “free pile” on the curb, or give things away (rather than throwing them in the garbage), is to find a good home for the materials we know have value. In an over-packaged, over-consuming culture, this can feel like a burden. If products and packaging were designed with product end-of-life in mind, and if we shopped mindfully for durable, useful products with minimal packaging, this could help alleviate some of the guilt and clutter that can result from our consumption habits.

Personal Organizers to the Rescue

Deb Baida of Liberated Spaces
Deb Baida of Liberated Spaces

In 2009, after a personal cry for help on my blog, I met Deb Baida, eco warrior and anti-clutter guru extraordinaire.  Back then, I needed help organizing my desk and home office space, which had become a pile of papers and products to be reviewed on my blog.  I felt overwhelmed, and Deb’s advice was encouraging.  (That picture below?  Not even half as bad as it was at its worst.)

Beth's cluttered office in 2009
Beth’s cluttered office in 2009

Thanks to Deb, I realized that the things I was holding onto in my 3-dimensional “to do list” were actually holding me back.  I felt so overwhelmed by the stuff, that I was paralyzed to do anything about it and instead avoided going into that room.

In the years since, I have actually downsized my office to one small bookshelf and a folding table in the living room.  I don’t even HAVE an office anymore!  But yes, it did take 6 years to get to this point.

Beth's "office" in 2015
Beth’s “office” in 2015

I asked Deb the questions with which I started this post, and here is what she said:

The phenomenon of which you write is one I see all too often. There are many reasons. Mostly, clients tell me they’ve been holding onto certain things because they may be useful to themselves or someone they know. And yes, whether they’ve held onto those things for one, three, twelve, or more years, those things are still filled with the same potential as the moment they came into their lives. People wish to be responsible stewards and keep what they’ve been holding on to out of landfill. Sometimes, this can be to their own detriment and that of those around them.

Too much of anything can be overwhelming and physically and emotionally paralyzing. The larger the collection of something, the more perceived value it gains, and the more difficult it is to let go of. This can be true of truly utilitarian items like plastic kitchenware or empty yogurt containers to, well, you know, the sky’s the limit.

The creative, aspirational, and ultimately environmental clients have dreams and goals of making art. I have a collector artist client right now who is making amazing progress letting go of vast and diverse collections of seemingly mundane items: large bags filled with filmy plastic newspaper bags she was going to crochet into something, boxes of blue bottles she’s collected because they are beautiful and were going to be used in her garden, a box of bottle caps because, well bottle caps can make awesome art, etc.

In her situation, as is the case with anyone who is holding onto things, the most helpful tools I can offer are actual tangible resources and venues where things can go and be useful. I’ve shown them websites, my own blog posts with firsthand experience/visits, and have directed them to these venues themselves. More often than not, knowing there’s a destination and trusting in me, I’ve been handed items that they are confident will be delivered to the right place.

We’re so fortunate in the Bay Area to have an incredible array of creative reuse centers, nonprofits, and active Freecycle and Craigslist communities, that I am able to work with my clients to divert most of their belongings back into circulation.

Zero Clutter from the Zero Waste Expert

Bea Johnson of The Zero Waste Home
Bea Johnson of The Zero Waste Home

Bea Johnson is the author of The Zero Waste Home.  She lives just across the bridge from me in Marin County, but until this month, we had never met in person.  And then we did.  And I have to say, she rocks!  We had lunch at a cafe near my job in San Francisco, and both of us gave the server a run for his money.  “No little plastic condiment container for my salad dressing.” “No toothpick in my sandwich.” “No napkin.” “Nothing except the food itself!”

In addition to being a zero waste consultant, Bea is also a personal organizer and de-clutterer.  In an email before meeting, I asked her if I could bring her a signed copy of my book, and she not surprisingly declined and said they didn’t actually own any books.  I kind of knew she would say that. In the month that followed, I was motivated to step up my own reducing game by selling half of my book collection (I’m not willing to let them all go just yet), my entire CD collection (When was the last time I actually played a CD? All my music is in mp3 form now), and giving away all of my stemware on Nextdoor after realizing that I don’t even like drinking out of wine glasses because they always get knocked over.  (Clumsy kitties and all.)

I put the same questions to Bea that I had discussed with Deb and Carrie.  Here’s what she wrote:

It does not help anyone or the environment to keep things that you do not truly use or need. 

To me, hoarding hurts the environment because it keeps objects (which are valuable resources themselves) from being useful to someone in their original form (best case scenario) or from being recycled (a broken plastic spoon for example is more useful having a chance at being recycled than taking up room in a cupboard because of the what-if). If you don’t do something about those items, people after you will anyways (and will probably throw them in a landfill), but you have the power to give them the best home (put them to a good use) now.

When donating it is important to find the best destination for your item. Biking gear to The Re-Cyclery for example, since it supports Trips for Kids. Art materials to schools or art programs. Books to local libraries, etc. And please don’t shun Salvation Army or Goodwill, their large selection allows people, who like us have vouched to only buy secondhand, to have access to a nice choice of clothes and shoes: It’s the only place where I’ve had luck finding sneakers for my teenagers.

Also, don’t underestimate the usefulness of your items: A few years back, I pulled a 6′ long piece of fencing off my yard (it was there when we bought our house). I did not think anyone would have a use for it but I posted it on Craigslist for free anyways… someone picked it up within 15min. She thanked me, all happy, because it was exactly what she needed to keep her dog in her yard. If I had not posted it, she would have had to buy a new one… And that’s just one example. I have dozen more like this.

Of course, giving things away is only a good solution if you’re reducing the amount of stuff you acquire in the first place.  Giving things away shouldn’t just be a way to make ourselves feel better about continuing to consume.

To achieve a Zero Waste lifestyle, my family follows 5 rules in order. The second one being: Reduce what we do need.

But what if that thing in the attic DOES end up being useful?

So here I am congratulating myself for being able to let things go.  But then a situation arose that wasn’t so easy.

For years, Michael and I have been sleeping on a saggy full-size futon and waking up in the morning with aching backs.  So we saved our pennies and finally were able to afford the mattress of our dreams:  A queen-sized Bliss mattress from Earthsake in Berkeley.  It’s made from natural latex (no synthetics or petro-foams); organic cotton; and local, PureGrow, certified humane wool from Sonoma County.  There are no pesticides or flame retardants in this mattress.  We love it.

But… we didn’t love the huge plastic mattress cover it came wrapped in.

Mattresses covered in plastic.
(The mattresses in this picture are NOT Earthsake mattresses, but the plastic covers look similar to what we received.)

So, what to do?  Earthsake told us we could bring it back to them for recycling.  Well, that meant finding the time to schlep it back to Berkeley with no guarantee it would actually be reused, so we stuck the plastic in the attic (with the rest of my plastic collection) and added it to our mental “to do list.”  Every time I went up into the attic, that plastic case taunted me.  “You think you’re so plastic-free, but you can’t even get rid of me.”

And then, months later, I ran across this local request via the Nextdoor app:


A woman who was moving was looking for a used mattress cover because she’d rather recycle than buy one new.  Hurray! I don’t have to look for the least bad way to dispose of the mattress cover because someone actually WANTS IT!  (By the way, these days I like Nextdoor better than Freecycle or Craigslist for giving things away.)

But… um… Is this an argument for holding onto things for months?  Maybe the rules are not so clear.  Maybe there aren’t fixed rules to begin with.

So what do you think?

On the one hand, it feels really good to let go of the things that you never use and probably never will use.  It makes room in your life for the things that are truly important (as long as you don’t fill up all that empty space with more stuff!)  And it allows someone else to actually use those things that you were only theoretically going to use “some day.”

On the other hand, if I had taken that mattress cover back to Earthsake, it might have been downcycled into a secondary product, rather than being reused for its original purpose.

Where’s the balance between being a responsible earth steward and turning your home into a dump?

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5 years ago

Thank you! The guilt I feel about the environmental impact of getting rid of things is my biggest hurdle when it comes to downsizing yet no where else have I seen anyone talk about it. This was really helpful.

7 years ago

Bea Johnson doesn’t own books but yet she’s willing to profit off of selling books. ?? I have to question the integrity of some of these “gurus.” Johnson has been spotted hanging out at Google functions with the executives. How committed are those people to giving up their wasteful lifestyles, let alone their plastic forks and water bottles? There’s a cognitive disconnect there and it undermines her integrity.

How do anti-plastic and no-waste gurus square their “values” with capitalism? I’ve never read Bea Johnson criticizing capitalism, a system which by definition means a non-plastic society or zero-waste society will never happen since profit is the end point in the game. Has anybody ever asked these people how they feel about abolishing capitalism? Johnson obviously benefits from capitalism – she lives in one of the most expensive areas in the country in a home that looks like everything in it is top of the line. How does she square that with her supposed values?

7 years ago

Helpful information that shed some light on the zero waste I’m striving to! As a representative of the waste removal industry I do think that we should turn this into a lifestyle, not just a momentum state. But first, we should start thinking rather than consuming! Greetings, Rubbish Removal Uxbridge Ltd.

8 years ago

This was so reassuring! I thought I was the only one who thought about my recyclable bits this way… Thank you for covering this topic. Now I will go through my collection with a new perception.

8 years ago

Please check to see if there is a Buy Nothing group in your area. You will love it!

8 years ago

I would love a list of places to donate! The top 10 or more places. Sometimes it’s hard to know the best place to move something to.

eimear greaney
8 years ago

i think anyone who makes things will always have a hoarding instinct. I sew and anything I am keeping, I will use shoe boxes and label, ie bias binding end pieces, buttons, zips,etc, if its organised its easy to keep track of and stop holding onto too much. i remake charity shop buys, but last jan had to do a rethink as i was buying more than i could sew, so i stopped until i have worked through what i have. but the hoarding instinct is always there………….

8 years ago

And here is my secondary issue with giving to someone else …. will they recycle it properly after I give it to them? I feel so responsible for the end of life of all the items that pass through my life – ugh!

8 years ago

Thank you! This is timely and I appreciate going deeper into the issues of us in the “know” about the dangers of stuff.

8 years ago

Great information here. Just an FYI though: copying your CDs is fine BUT then selling them is illegal. You can sell them if you don’t keep a copy.

8 years ago

Thanks for this insightful post. As an artist who works exclusively from 2nd life materials, I see the value inherent in every scrap I find on the street. I don’t bring them (all) home, but make an effort to put them in the best place–recycle, etc.
I feel burdened by the responsibility for all the “things” I possess, as if I owe an obligation to ensure the raw material, energy, water, human labor that it comprises are not wasted. You have given me a lot to think about.

8 years ago

I could not agree more with these posts, de cluttering is liberating, challenging and sometimes frustrating. I absolutely love this lifestyle and although I was considering myself a minimalist before, I reached another level after reading Beth Terry and Bea Johsons’ books. (Beth, I checked out your book at the library and it had a protective plastic covered the ultimate irony!!:-)
Not only I have saved a lot of money but I feel so much more resourceful, creative and confident. When I need something I no longer purchase but used to have, I always seem to find alternatives and it’s really rewarding, sometimes magical when you happen to see something from a totally different perspective.
I find that more often than not I simply did not need it, like aluminum foil, parchment paper, zip locks…except for one closet where I keep my clothes, (which almost fit in a single suitcase..I’m almost there Bea but I have to deal with 4 seasons !) all my other closets are empty! This is interesting because it seems to make my friends uncomfortable and one of them even said “I have a problem” . De cluttering does makes people reevaluate their life because it strips away the layers of the ego, I realized it when I gave away hundreds of my books to a charity, it was hard and I was thinking people who come over my house won’t see how much I have read in my life (ie smart :-
))…stripping away the material stuff leaves space for new dreams and freedom.

8 years ago

You are describing me – yes I am turning my home into a landfill. I am so glad its not just me!
I don’t want to face up to the waste I am creating, so I squirrel it hoping I can somehow find a use for it. I hang onto stuff because I don’t feel there is a satisfactory way to dispose of it. I feel really guilty about it. I am playing The Minimalist Game this month. Its difficult but I am hoping a good declutter will help me to reset. I am sharing my experience here:

8 years ago

This is the theme of my Week 2 round up of The Minimalist Game – Help! I’m hoarding for the environment –
Thanks for the inspiration. I found some mesh reusable produce bags in the process of my decluttering, and I have already put them to good use.

8 years ago

i save lots of stuff for art products and one of my grandchilren who is 12 has been creating things since he was 8 from robots to warrior costumes. He is amazing and I think the plastic, cardboard tubes and aluminum foil left overs has really paid off.

Catherine N.
8 years ago

Larger pieces of plastic are also appreciated by ceramic studios, just FYI. They are used to slow the drying of pieces. You can also drop off boxes with them too…

7 years ago
Reply to  Catherine N.

Good one!

Dad called dibs on the plastic cover before I even bought my new mattress. Used it in the veg garden for a green house/ roof over the tomatoes. No permanent greenhouse there bco cost and crop rotation so he always has an eye out for large sheets to repursose.

I’d love a go-to-list of suggestions like these, believe it would be a huge help for declutterers/ zero-wasters, but have only found tips scattered over various blogs etc so far.

Hannah Ransom
8 years ago

I can totally relate with this post! I try not to bring anything that isn’t super useful and easy to dispose of (compostable or recyclable) into my home, but my husband isn’t so good at refusing free stuff. And then when people come over, bring stuff, and leave it (even after I tell them to take it with them)… Erg! It’s so hard to get rid of the stuff. I guess it’s all just a process (so far this process has been over 4 years for me and I still can’t figure out how to prevent these things involving other people!).

Sophie Wunderlich
8 years ago

Thanks for your post! You have some really good ideas about how to avoid clutter when you’re trying to be more environmentally conscious! It’s always tough to manage everyday life if you’re trying to always be on the lookout for plastics. :-)

8 years ago

i found that when I get seriously fed up with old furniture and exercise equipments, etc, I ask my grown kids if they need it and if no, then I put it at the end of my driveway with a free sign on it and by the next morning it is all gone…makes me happy!

8 years ago

Long before really looking at my plastic consumption I adopted a minimalistic lifestyle (back in 2010) and went on quite a journey with that. It started with choosing to no longer celebrate Christmas, after getting fed up with the attached consumerism it brings with it. Then it led to donating everything in my room including my bed. Then it led to selling and donating 85-90% of our things to live small in an RV. Now in a one bedroom apartment in the Portland, OR area, with few things, I’ve learned so much on this journey. Number one being that minimalism isn’t about the number of things it’s about allowing in ONLY that which provides true value to you. And that is something I think applies to so many things I’ve done with my life. Even my diet, living and eating vegan for reasons of compassion, environment, health – but, like with minimalism, allowing only the foods in that provide value not detract from it. Minimalism can even be applied to friends – keep only those adding value to your life, those who encourage not point out your flaws. It’s about cutting down to only what matters. It’s amazing how much it applies to and benefits.

And after reading Zero Waste Home about a year ago my eyes were opened further to another way to minimize. Because of that I no longer have to clean all that often, because I don’t have much to clean. I’m not wasting time spending money on stuff I don’t need or thinking about stuff I think I want. I live with little to no trash living zero waste, very few possessions, eat and live in a way that only provides good in my life and, because of that, I have never been happier than I am now.

I thank you for bringing this topic up because it’s about making the connection. The more we can connect the dots of what relates and where we play a role, the more we can do. :)

8 years ago
Reply to  Aubrey

“it’s about allowing in ONLY that which provides true value to you”

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”
-Wm Morris

Also, the Zero Waste Chef recently said, (to paraphrase) As in calculus, although you can never attain zero you can constantly approach/aspire to it.

Annemieke @ Plastic-Free Tuesday
8 years ago

Great post! I really like Bea’s rule: Reduce what you need. Over the last year or so I have been critically reviewing what stuff I really need and what not. I think key is to try minimize the stuff you get.

The case of your mattress plastic cover teaches us that if we somehow end up with unwanted stuff, we should actively search for people who need the particular thing.

I often set a deadline for stuff to be adopted by a new owner. For example, we’ll probably be moving houses again before the end of the year. I have already started giving away, selling, and donating a lot of my stuff (including most of my books!). What is not gone before we move, I will donate to second hand shops or through online groups. You could do the same for items such as the mattress plastic wrap. If you don’t come across anyone who needs the particular item in, let’s say, 6 months, you bring it to the recycle station.

8 years ago

Wow! Have you hit the nail on the head! It has felt, for me, that being one who abhors waste has driven me into a world of hoarding. As much as I have tried to limit the amount of stuff coming in, it oozes in -mostly with other family members- and thus I end up dealing with the residual waste (candy wrappers, etc) I examine each piece and sweat over how to handle it. Not always successfully. So aside from occasional trash, I’ve accumulated a hoard of “perfectly usable” containers, etc. Luckily we have an annual Block Sale, and I’ll be setting out a bunch of freebies– but it’s a BURDEN! I *hate* the clutter from keeping this STUFF.
What to do? Hoard (aka “hope to find a use”) or toss??? Argh

I do agree, though, that Freecycle, Craigslist, Goodwill, etc are great resources. The street corner works really well around here, too, for many a thing I thought totally useless!

8 years ago
Reply to  Jonnie

Ha! I have a similar container affliction, though I am getting better. For some reason I always think about the Coke bottle in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and how valuable it became, and how everybody fought over it. At the moment I have 4 wine bottles sitting on my counter waiting to be scrubbed & sanitized so I can fill them with water for emergencies. I don’t know if the gods are crazy or not, but I sure am!!!

Mary Katherine`
8 years ago

I end up hoarding things all the time. When I packed up my dorm room at the end of the school year it was amazing how much stuff I had acquired throughout the course of the year because I thought I would use it someday. My dad called me a hoarder and made me throw a lot of it away instead of packing it up for the storage unit I rented (I go to school out of the country and can’t bring everything home). I was upset about all the things I threw away/donated/recycled, but I realized that my dad had a point. So I told myself that when I open up my storage unit in the fall I’m going to get rid of a bunch more stuff. There’s no sense in filling a small dorm room with a bunch of junk.

I’ve been thinking about designating a single box for things that might be useful someday. Then I can still save things, but I won’t collect too much since I’ve put a limit on how much I’m allowing myself to hoard. Some things really can come in handy for you or somebody else someday, like your mattress cover did. I think it’s okay to keep some things but filling up your entire house with clutter is going overboard. There’s definitely a balance – I think setting a limit on how much you allow yourself to hoard could help you get there.

8 years ago

Um… were you looking at my garage when you wrote this? Seriously, I suffer from this affliction BIG TIME! It’s gotten a bit better since the city removed the dumpsters from the alley and issued everyone their own private trash can, at least I’m not adding as much stuff to the pile, but honestly, on large item pickup day, I really have to use discipline with myself.

Here’s the deal – one could easily make a full time job out of rescuing crap from the garbage. And just because some neighbor decided to trash something, it does not therefore follow that it’s my responsibility to save it. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

My biggest problem at the moment is cardboard. I know this is a terrible eco-sin, but I shop online quite a bit. In my defense, the reason I do it is because I often need specialty items for my bike or cats that are difficult to find locally – at least without spending hours in a car driving all over town. I’m not sure how to balance the waste of online purchasing vs. the waste of spending several hours burning gas in traffic, but all else being equal, I’d rather stay out of the car. But this leaves me with cardboard, and I always feel guilty just tossing it in the recycling – I’m picturing it on a barge being shipped to China. I have no good strategy for dealing with it – other than the old “suck it up, toss it in the recycling, and deal with it” one. I suppose I could save it up and post it on Craigslist – people who are moving are always looking for boxes, but I dunno… perhaps I’m just lazy.

8 years ago
Reply to  EcoCatLady

EcoCatLady, cardboard on a barge being shipped to China can be a good thing. When I learned that our China-bound paper recycling can be turned into something like these,, it eased my mind about helping my clients trim down their cardboard supplies. Sometimes our waste/recyclables can be used for good!

8 years ago
Reply to  deb

you can also make your own cat scratcher out of cardboard! We have one (ummm- store bought) and our two kitties love it.

8 years ago
Reply to  jonnie

That’s an interesting idea. I’ve got a few of those store bought ones hanging around. Not sure if I’m ambitious enough to try making one, but maybe some day when I have nothing better to do… Maybe somebody out there could start a home based business making cat scratchers from recycled cardboard!

8 years ago
Reply to  deb

Thanks Deb, that helps assuage my guilt a little bit.