The inevitable result of almost any spring cleaning, life change, move, or discovery of chemical allergies is that you will come across things that you no longer want around. Sometimes the item is worn out, sometimes it’s obsolete, sometimes it’s no longer suitable for the way you choose to live your life, and sometimes it’s been outgrown.
As much as I hate getting rid of things I once had a use for, sometimes there really is no point in keeping something around. Throwing things away sends them to the landfill, where insufficient oxygen, light, and moisture levels reduce breakdown and even biodegradation to extremely low levels. Things that do eventually break down tend contaminate the environment. What other options do you have?
- Repurpose the item: Use old clay roof tiles or broken plant pots to build a reservoir at the bottom of a self-irrigating planter. Use yogurt containers as plant pots. Turn a metal bowl into a colander by drilling and filing holes. Use VHS or cassette tapes to weave or crochet yourself a new wallet or bag, and use the box from a Disney VHS to make a purse. Upcycle an old shirt into any number of different items, like a new dress for yourself or a child, a bracelet, a skirt, a grocery or produce bag, or even a bracelet. Use old food containers to store small craft supplies. Clean and trim an old shower curtain and use it to create a waterproof barrier for dining room chairs, or on the back of a tablecloth or bib. Turn old blankets and sheets into quilt batting, ironing board covers, tablecloths, and curtains. Turn old towels into new kitchen hand towels. Sew baby blankets together to make new, larger blankets. Cut worn out clothing into rags. Use CDs as coasters. Old tires can make new planters. You can even make furniture out of unwanted books . The possibilities are endless; just search for “upcycle X” or “alternative uses for X” into Google (X being whatever you want to change into something new). Sometimes a little creativity will solve a problem by preventing you from having to buy something new AND stopping you from throwing something away.
- Sell the item: If the object still has value to someone else, meaning that someone would go to the store and buy something just like it, chances are there’s a market for it as a used item. There’s a market out there for your child’s old toys, your old electronics, used video games, clothing and outerwear in good condition, camping gear, sports equipment, and so much more. Check into Facebook groups, sale sites like eBay, Kijiji, and Craigslist, garage sales, and flea markets.
- Give/trade it away locally: Before going for a mass run to Goodwill or Value Village, offer the items on a local Freecycle group (through Yahoo Groups or Facebook), offer them to your friends, give them to your neighbours, or trade them for something more suitable. You’d be surprised what people need and want – from used plastic grocery bags to old magazines. I passed on old dishes, knives, small appliances, toys, colouring books, and crayons to people in need before beginning to sell anything. I knew that their resale value would be low, and I wouldn’t miss the few dollars their sale could bring. My half-empty cleaning supplies and toiletries like hairspray went to friends who still use those things, rather than down the drain or into the trash.
- Give to a local charity or business: The women’s shelter in my town collects household items, women’s and children’s clothing, unused toiletries, and more for the use of women starting again in the community. It’s only after the items have been thoroughly picked over by people who need them that the remainder is sent to Goodwill. Some charities collect unused toys, and some fire stations collect unused stuffed animals to give to children on their calls. Animal shelters are always in need of pet items like food, beds, leashes, food dishes, towels, and litter. Daycares go through toys like crazy and are always grateful for your gently used ones. Even eyeglass stores and other places like WalMart accept old eyeglasses for recycling to the less fortunate locally or in other countries.Habitat for Humanity ReStores will accept reusable building materials to sell again. The proceeds are used to fund new building projects. There’s a local Christian charity in my town that sells great items for small profits (we bought an antique dinner table and chairs for $200). They send everything they accept and don’t sell overseas to give to the needy. This includes mattresses – they have a heated trailer in which they can heat the items hot enough and long enough to kill any parasites or bugs. This is an excellent option for some hard-to-donate items. Dress for Success is another wonderful charity which accepts old, gently used work clothing. The clothing is given to local people in need to provide them appropriate work and interview attire. The charity will only accept items suitable for use, so little is wasted.
- Recycle it: Recycling takes old products, breaks them down into useable raw materials, and then sells them for reuse by manufacturers. Plastic items with recycling symbols and numbers on them can often be recycled by your local pickup service (check your community’s guidelines for which numbers they accept). Metal and glass items are also usually recyclable through your community’s curbside program. It may be possible to disassemble something into its component parts to recycle the pieces rather than throw out the whole thing. Used plastic films and grocery bags are often collected for recycling by supermarkets, if your local recycling program doesn’t accept them. Old electronics and printer cartridges are often accepted by stores such as Staples or Best Buy, and tires and oil are often accepted by garages (you may have to pay a small fee, depending on whether you regularly use their services).For more hard to recycle items, your community likely has some form of hazardous waste recycling program (might be a day once or twice a year) that will allow you to safely dispose of things like aerosol cans, paint, batteries, fluorescent lightbulbs, and more. Many communities have some form of composting program for branches, leaves, and chipped wood, and some nurseries with the right facilities will accept old sod for making screened topsoil.
- Give it to a large charity like Goodwill: Why do I list this option lower on the list than recycling? Organizations like Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and Value Village sell donated items for profit. Goodwill and the Salvation Army are nonprofit, registered charities, running charitable programs with the proceeds. I’m not quite sure what Value Village does – their website claims only that they “help local charities.” Unlike the other two organizations, they are a for-profit business, not a charity. The problem with donating to these organizations is that what is sold in the stores is only a small portion of what they receive in donations. Value Village may be a great source of clothing and household items by those who can’t or choose not to buy retail, but the unsold or unsuitable items are sent on large pallets overseas to people in developing countries.
Why is this a bad thing? People in these countries buy clothing by the large box or pallet. Not too bad yet, other than the cost and pollution of shipping the clothing that came from overseas all the way back over there. The problem lies in the treatment of unsold clothing sent overseas. In many cases, volume vastly outstrips need. The items sent to these charities may not end up in a dump in North America, but that’s exactly where they end up if no one buys them at their overseas destination. That means that a clothing donation to one of these charities/businesses is no guarantee of diverting the object from landfill. It may not be your landfill, but a dump’s a dump, and the end result is the same. Donating worn out clothing is just as bad, because instead of being useful to you as rags, the clothing will be immediately trashed.
The “charity donation” boxes in parking lots are even worse. Many do the same thing as the organizations above, sending things overseas, but usually entirely for profit, with nothing being given back to the community. You can usually scope out the collecting organization by calling the phone number written on the box.
If all else fails, you may have no choice but to throw things away. If you work through the other choices on this list, you can at least be assured that you have done everything you can to divert your stuff from landfill.
In the future, you can try to avoid purchasing items similar to the ones you had to send to the landfill. That way they won’t enter your house in the first place and thus never need to be thrown away again. Careful purchases will save you from wasting money and having to re-buy or throw things out in the future. Consider buying things used yourself, or repurposing other peoples’ items for your needs. For example, dentists go through all sorts of dental tools and eventually discard them in batches. These tools, though damaged and unsuitable for dental use, make excellent clay carving and glass working implements. I got a whole box, and all I had to do was ask.
A little patience, thought, and creativity will go a long way towards reducing the amount you throw away. What other avenues have you found to avoid trashing your unwanted things?