When is it Okay to Throw Things Away?
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How do you start living a waste-free or minimalistic lifestyle? If you live on Instagram (P.S. I’m not on Instagram anymore, long story, just FYI), you are probably bombarded with pictures of gorgeous homes where everything is perfectly curated and intentionally placed “just so.”
And it might be tempting to just throw away everything you own and start over.
I was actually just listening to a recent episode of Jenna Kutcher’s Goal Digger Podcast, where she interviewed Manuela Baron (aka, The Girl Gone Green) and they were talking about this phenomenon. How as influencers, part of our job is to show our readers the cool things that are out there that are designed to help us live better lives – which inadvertently advocates for consumerism.
It’s all a delicate balance.
Ironically, as I was listening to this episode, I was deep cleaning our kitchen. My husband and I are committed to living a simple, sustainable lifestyle, and this weekend as we looked around our home, we felt anything but minimalistic.
Our kitchen is smaller than some, and we don’t have a pantry. As I’ve collected my basic kitchen appliances that I love, I seemed to have run out of room in my cabinets for things like food. Which, you know, is just as important to keep in a kitchen.
As I was ruthlessly decluttering and reorganizing, I had to do some thinking about how to actually get rid of unwanted items. The sustainable hippie in me battled the overwhelmed minimalist in me as I asked myself the question: When is it okay to throw things away?
Honestly, this is a question that I think gets overlooked in the Zero Waste community, especially the more hardcore purists who might answer “never!” Their answer is understandable, because trash is a huge problem, especially in North America.
How is Trash a Problem?
Landfills are nothing more than where we humans bury our trash as a cat buries its dung. Except our trash doesn’t decompose. Some of it might, thanks to bacteria and bugs that might help break down more natural compounds, but things like plastic toys, old vacuums, and plastic grocery bags don’t. If you throw away liquids or powders, those don’t just stay neatly in the confines of your plastic trash bag, they seep out and get into the soil, which can run off into the water system during a hard rain.
Our landfills are packed with waste, as is expected from a world with over seven billion people, with many countries fostering a consumeristic mindset.
Because I know better, I want to do better, so I had to put some thought into what it would take for me to intentionally throw something away.
I finally narrowed it down to a few key questions to use as screening tools for when to throw something away.
When to Throw Away Waste?
Is it still functional?
If it is still functional, like kitchen utensils or toys or clothes, consider donating to a worthy cause or a nearby thrift store. Donate anything you want to get rid of that is still in good condition. Please don’t donate things like used hair brushes or used underwear. Just….just no.
Would you find it functional after a quick fix?
Do you have clutter that is just sitting there because you need to do a basic repair?
Do you not wear a nice shirt simply because it’s missing a button? Sew it back on!
Do those shoes just need to have the mud washed off them before you wear them again? Brush them off!
Get your things back in solid working order, if you can do so quickly.
Can you recycle it?
Not everything can be recycled, but a lot of items can. Check for a recycling symbol on the items and make sure you recycle appropriately! If you aren’t sure what you can and can’t recycle, check your county’s website – they will often have a list of acceptable items.
Can you compost it?
Did you find a box of cereal that you’re pretty sure you opened a year ago? Did you forget about that bag of brussel sprouts in your refrigerator drawer? Throw them in the compost bin! Food scraps in landfills release methane gas, which is one of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. Compost as many food scraps as you can (plant based only, no dairy, eggs – except shells -, or meats), as well as paper napkins, popsicle sticks, toothpicks, and stale breads).
Have your standards changed?
Maybe you decided that you are going vegetarian, but you have leftover steak in the fridge. If it’s open, probably best to pitch it. If you have a frozen package still in your freezer, you can always post on your local buy/sell/trade site that you have free food available to whoever comes to pick it up first.
Yesterday as part of my Great Kitchen Clean Out, I took out boxes of Hamburger Helper, a box of cake mix, and a coffee cake crumble mix that had milk and eggs in the mixes, and gave them to a coworker friend who is not vegetarian or vegan. This ensures that they will be eaten and not go to waste, and they will not be sitting in my cabinets, wasting valuable “pantry” space.
So, when is it actually okay to throw things away?
I think there are three basic reasons:
1. It is broken beyond repair.
I have two boys. They break things. A lot of things. And there are some toys that just cannot be repaired, are not recyclable, and should not be donated (please don’t donate broken items). With these things, the only thing you can do is throw them away.
2. It is inappropriate to donate
Things like used underwear, used hair brushes, dried out nail polished, and old bed pillows should not be donated. However, things like (clean, unstained) bed linens can be donated.
3. It is not recyclable
Did you know that not all plastic packaging can be recycled? Check the recycling label prior to purchasing your disposable or packaged food items, you might be surprised at what unfortunately has to be thrown in the trash. This is why it’s so important to be a mindful consumer, even when it comes to packaging!
Be sure to check out Terra Cycle for what non-recyclable packages you can recycle through their free programs. So far I have joined the squeezable fruit pouches, contacts packages, and lentil crisps programs to recycle these previously un-recyclable items.
And while we are on the topic of limiting waste, here are three quick tips for reducing trash as a mindful consumer:
Easy Ways to Reduce the Waste:
- Buy items in eco friendly (compostable or recyclable) packaging. I will literally not buy certain treats for myself if the packaging cannot be recycled. The less waste you bring into your home, the less waste has to flow out of it. Waste is an unfortunate part of life, but it can be limited with a little dedication.
- Buy in true bulk. This needs to be talked about more than it is. Buying in bulk means one package for a larger amount of product. It does not mean going to Sam’s and buying 10 boxes of razors. It might mean buying a 10b bag of brown rice instead of 10-1lb bags, or getting a 90 day supply of your medicines instead of 30 days. The point is to limit packaging.
- Switch to reusable products. Instead of disposable items like ziploc bags and paper towels, switch to reusable items that you are able to use for years to come. Not sure how to live without your regular Bounty sheets? Check out this list of 5 eco friendly alternatives to paper towels.
Does this make you question how much you throw away? Do you have other ideas for how you limit waste in your home? I would love to hear them in the comments!
Be sure to share this for future reference!