Trash is an ethical quandary. Americans produce a shocking amount of it – 4.4 lbs per person per day, or about 260 million tons of trash in 2014. Thankfully, the per capita trash production has leveled off in the last two decades, with about 34% of our municipal solid waste now going into recycling or composting. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year trying to minimize my own possessions, and with the death of a parent this past summer, minimize my family’s possessions as well. It’s tempting, at times, to call in a dumpster like they do on Hoarders and just start shoveling crap in there. However, I also know that a lot of our stuff can be reused by another person and escape the landfill (at least for a little while longer). Several other writers have pointed out the problematic nature of minimalism/decluttering in that it can generate a lot of trash. So today, I want to talk about the strategies I’ve been pursuing in attempt to minimize my possessions while mitigating the environmental impacts of downsizing.
You may read all of this and come to the conclusion that getting rid of your stuff without throwing it away seems like a lot of work. (Friend: “I admire the insane effort you put forth to avoid throwing away your stuff.” He’s not wrong. Ha.) Minimizing is a process, and it takes a lot of emotional and physical energy to deal with all of that stuff. However, it’s very satisfying to pass along neglected items to people who could use them, and to me, it is freeing to reduce the burden of possessions in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever be KonMari (nor do I want to), but seriously, we have way too much stuff.
Clothes, clothes, clothes. OH. EM. GEE. There’s been a robust conversation in the US in the last few years surrounding the economic and environmental impacts of fast fashion. Simply put, Americans buy A LOT of clothes and their tastes change rapidly, resulting in the disposal of A LOT of clothes. Clothing in the US is cheap, and you get a free t-shirt with just about every charity event or consumer promotion that exists. When we were cleaning out clothes from my Deceased Parent (DP), there were decades upon decades of old t-shirts from events, tourist destinations, concert tours – the list goes on. I think we cleared out 12 garbage bags full of clothing and that wasn’t even all of it. So what to do?
- Goodwill and Other Charitable Resellers. I know discussions surrounding Goodwill have been politically fraught over the years, but they are pretty good about re-selling clothes that are in good condition and sending stuff that doesn’t sell to textile recyclers. (This can present an ethical quandary in developing nations that receive about 60% of the US donations, but, in my opinion, it’s still better than textiles ending up in a landfill.) Goodwill and other organizations that receive a lot of clothing donations are usually pretty transparent with how they deal with clothing that won’t sell or isn’t reusable, so don’t be afraid to do a little research and make sure an organization deals with textile waste in an ethical manner. Other organizations such as St. Vincent De Paul or local charity “clothing closets” may focus more on giving away items to those seriously in need. I know the clothing closet in my area takes a limited selection of items, and tends to focus on seasonally appropriate clothing.
- Retro thrift/consignment shops. Got any paisley shirts or plaid pants? These items are as good as gold in a college town thrift shop for Halloween costumes. And if it’s a consignment shop, you may even make a few bucks.
- Traditional consignment. If you have modern clothes that are in good condition, a local consignment shop may take these items off your hands. Consignment stores usually take a percentage of the earnings as their fee for facilitating the sale of your items, and your payment may come as cash or store credit. Kids consignment is a BIG deal in my community, and it’s a great way to recycle clothing if you don’t have anyone in your family that needs the hand-me-downs.
- Poshmark. More like traditional consignment, but online! I’ve had modest success with selling a few nicer items on Poshmark, and it feels good to make a few dollars on items that are in really good condition but didn’t quite work in my wardrobe. It’s more time and hassle for me to photograph items and generate a listing, but the cut of the profits is larger than for a brick-and-mortar consignment shop. It’s more convenient in eBay in that they generate a pre-paid shipping label for the item you’re shipping, and it’s very clothing focused. eBay fees are much lower, but shipping is a much more DIY operation.
- ThredUP and Online Resellers. ThredUP isn’t really consignment, in that you don’t get paid per item. Instead, you get paid a small lump sum of store credit for the items you send in. I’ve heard from Penny and others that the payback is quite small, but it’s a lot less effort than selling clothes via Poshmark or eBay, and worth a shot if you like shopping with the service.
- Professional/work clothing drives. There are a lot small organizations that will take clothes that are appropriate for work to help low income people dress professionally for job interviews or employment. Many of these places want things along the lines of khakis/slacks, polo shirts, button down shirts, scrubs, nice shoes with non-slip soles (for food service work), etc. More along the lines of business casual, for people that are working in an office environmental, nursing homes, retail, or food service. There are a few organizations that will take your suits and other formal business clothes – check out Men’s Wearhouse National Suit Drive and Dress For Success.
Furniture, dishes, small appliances, knick-knacks, picture frames, etc. Whether you’re combining households or just decluttering, these items are typically in high demand if they’re in good and working condition.
- Goodwill. Goodwill is a goldmine for cheap furnishings in a college town. Check their list of accepted items here.
- Traditional Consignment. I tend to find that consignment shops will focus on clothing OR “stuff.” But the idea is the same – they’ll put your item on their sales floor, and give you a cut of the proceeds when it sells. I think this route is worthwhile if you have some nice furniture or household items that are desirable in the used market. (China and crystal is extremely NOT desirable, but a used KitchenAid mixer might fetch a decent profit.)
- Habitat ReStore. I tend to think of Habitat ReStore for donating extra construction materials or old cabinetry from a renovation, but they also take furniture.
Wedding Dresses. This is a bit of a tough one, since most consignment stores want you to clean your dress before reselling, and they only want modern styles manufactured within the last few years. So, unfortunately, the best option for a lot of older wedding dresses is a regular old thrift store. While trying to figure out how to donate a relative’s wedding dress, we stumbled upon the organization Adorned in Grace, which operates used wedding dress shops in Portland and donates the proceeds to victims of sex trafficking. We didn’t want to get the gown cleaned ahead of time, so we made a $50 donation to them to help cover the cost of cleaning.
Medical Equipment. When someone passes away, there is often medical equipment that is still usable but no longer needed. I know our local American Legion will take things like walkers, crutches, and canes, and there are a lot of other resources for donating gently used medical equipment around the country.
Construction Materials. Unused paint, leftover boxes of tile, extra trim, cabinet knobs that you replaced, old cabinetry, etc. Probably the best option for this, that I know of, is the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. This organization sells these items to the general public in order to fund Habitat for Humanity housing projects. A great way to get that old bathroom sink and those 2x4s out of your garage and help fund affordable housing in your community.
Books. This is something I haven’t totally figured out yet, as my DP had A LOT of books. However, there are a few options:
- Charity book sales. Libraries and charities often have large book sales as fundraisers for their organizations. Our library, for example, has an annual sale to liquidate volumes they no longer want in their collection in addition to donated books.
- Little Free Libraries. If you’ve got just a handful of books and want to make sure they get recycled into the community, Little Free Libraries are a great option. There was an internet kerfuffle this summer about these libraries distracting from the greater mission of large public libraries, and serving limited, higher-income neighborhoods, but I don’t find that to be an issue in my community. LFLs are everywhere here – outside schools, churches, the free community kitchen, shops, on campus, and in parks. They’re definitely accessible to people of all socioeconomic levels, and people will often go out of their way to deliver books to empty libraries or underserved areas.
- Teacher friends. If you have a children’s, young adult, or literary fiction books that you’re looking to get rid of, talk to your teacher friends! My friends are always trying to expand their classroom libraries, and I’ve been able to get rid of quite a few books this way.
- Used Book Stores. If you’re looking to get a little money back from your books, used book stores are a good option. Unfortunately, we no longer have one in my city, but it might be worth the drive to a bigger city if we can get rid of several boxes. Some friends of mine that recently relocated overseas took a carload of academic texts to a used bookstore in Chicago – they didn’t make a ton of money, but the were able to offload a lot of books and get an ok return for their efforts.
Buy Nothing Project. One of the best things I’ve discovered via Frugalwoods is the existence of the Buy Nothing Project. One formed in my community a few years ago. Our page isn’t super active, and for a time this fall it was the “Little Green Gives Away Her Junk Project.” However, I’ve learned that good photos and a little honesty mean you will be able to give away almost anything. For example, I gave away a couple of pieces of foam core board that we used for family photos at my DP’s memorial service (even though I was honest and said they had photo tape stickies on one side), and we have given away a vast, vast array of junk that lingered in our basement and garage for years. Dust it off, wipe it down, take a photo, and give that stuff away. This is often much easier on my psyche then trying to negotiate with someone for hours in order to extract $3 for something that’s been sitting in a closet for 10 years. Give it away, give it away, give it away NOW.
FB Marketplace, LetGo, Craigslist. I used to be a committed Craigslister, but the site has fallen out of my favor as Facebook sales sites have gained prominence. Integrated chat features with FB Marketplace and LetGo are particularly useful when communicating with a potential buyer. Most people have their real names on their FB accounts, and I think it reduces the likelihood of getting scammed. I’ve had good luck on Marketplace and ok luck on LetGo, but it’s probably fairly region-specific. I’ll also give things away on Marketplace if no one is interested in the Buy Nothing group, since the posting will reach a broader audience. When selling things to strangers, be smart and meet them in a well-lit public area, or near a police station, or bring a friend or a mean-looking dog.
Rummage sales/yard sales are GREAT, and we had one this summer. The caveats with rummage sales are that they take a lot of preparation, and they also require you to have a garage and/or yard where it can be accommodated. Here are a few things I learned:
- I listed big-ticket items on Facebook Marketplace or LetGo to reach a broader audience. Committed rummage salers are often looking for super great deals on anything that looks interesting, and don’t necessarily want to pay $50+ for a large piece of furniture. By combining online postings with the rummage, I could elevate the visibility of these large specialty items, and communicate with interested buyers about holding items until they were able get to our house to take a look. I wouldn’t do this for all items, but it helped me get full price for the big items.
- Inventory is important. If you are thinking about having a rummage sale, I would highly recommend recruiting several of your closest friends to 1) sell their junk at your rummage so you have a larger and more diverse inventory and 2) help out with the rummage as their schedule allows. A good friend of mine has had a “friends & family rummage” for the last several years, and it’s a great way to get rid of a few items and make a few bucks without putting in a zillion hours of effort.
- Price stuff to move. Don’t try to extract $5 out of the twenty year old fax machine that literally no one wants. Reduce prices on the second day and be generous when people try to talk you down a few dollars. This is as much about getting rid of stuff as it is about making a few bucks.
- If your neighborhood has a “rummage weekend,” be sure to plan accordingly. You’ll get a lot more traffic through your neighborhood, and you may be able to purchase advertising as a group.
- Weather can totally rain on your cash parade, so plan accordingly.
Some other great options are charity or city rummages. Much like the charity book sales I mentioned above, you’re typically donating your items to an organization and the proceeds will go towards funding the organization’s programs. A local church has a huge rummage a few times a year, and it’s a veritable sea of deals. A+ way to get rid of stuff if you don’t care about making money.
Getting Rid of Everything At Once
Sometimes the only remedy that makes sense is to get rid of everything at once – after the death of a family member, when moving a loved one into a nursing home, or prior to a long-distance move. This is when an auction or estate sale becomes necessary. I don’t know that much about estate sales (other than I’ve been to a bunch of them), but I do know that someone comes into your house, empties your closets and cupboards, arranges your knick-knacks, and opens your house to total strangers to come in and buy your stuff. (Of course, you and your relatives will have the opportunity to take things that are meaningful or useful in your lives prior to the sale.) They have staff, they have cash register, they charge sales tax, the whole shebang. And, of course, they take a decent cut of the proceeds. Unless you’re trying to extract every dollar from your family’s possessions, estate sales seem like a reasonable route to keep yourself sane while liquidating a household. Several estate sales I’ve attended also include the sale of the house or property. Auctions, I find, are more common for farms or acreages where there are large amounts of tools and machinery that need to be liquidated.
Old And Busted
Sometimes no one wants your junk, it’s too worn out, or it’s straight up broken, or it’s actual garbage. However, there are still a lot of opportunities to recycle your junk instead of having it go to a landfill.
Textiles, Bedding and Towels. As I’ve mentioned above, Goodwill continues to be the best option in many communities for textile recycling. Old towels and bedding items are usually in high demand from animal shelters and rescue organizations, especially those that regularly deal with litters of puppies and kittens. Towels and t-shirts cut up into smaller sections also make great rags. (But you only need so many rags!)
Appliances. Check with your garbage handler or municipality on the best way to dispose of appliances. You probably have a scrap metal recycler in your community that may also take them. It’s very important to recycle things like refrigerators, window air conditioners, and dehumidifiers – appliances that contain coolant that can be hazardous to the environment if it leaks out in a landfill. Your trash handler or recycler will often come pick up these items for a small fee.
Electronics. Your community may have specific electronics recycling options, but in a lot of places, the best options are Best Buy or Staples. (Staples took the aforementioned fax machine that no one bought off our rummage.) If it’s a cell phone or computer that you’re recycling, be sure to wipe the memory (reset to factory settings) or remove the hard drive, if possible. There are also some non-intuitive places that will buy back your working electronics, such as Half Price Books, and Best Buy also has a buy back program.
Sensitive Documents. If you have a lot of documents you need to shred, you might look around your community to see if your bank will accept documents for shredding, or if you have a “community shred day.”
Phew. Well, that’s almost 3000 words on a zillion resources for getting rid of your stuff. Did I miss anything? Do you have questions about getting rid of your stuff?