Decluttering in a Time of COVID-19

Decluttering has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic; we look at the why and how of it all.

Organizing book shelf in residential building
Kemal Yildirim / Getty Images

When terms like “shelter-in-place” and “lockdown” first started circulating in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the reaction of many was to start stockpiling things. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer flew off the shelves, followed by dried beans, yeast, and other newly covetable items. People flaunted towers of pandemic provisions like trophies; their yeast-risen breads like works of art. There were even murmurs of praise for maximalism, with people expressing gratitude for their homes filled with stuff.

But after the initial rush, something else started happening: People began unloading their belongings. Not their toilet paper or dried beans, but the accursed clutter that creeps into our homes like an invasive species.

The Great Pandemic Clutter Purge

Sharon Lowenheim, Certified Professional Organizer and owner of Organizing Goddess, Inc. in New York City told Treehugger that since February, sign-ups for her mailing list more than doubled compared to the same period last year; and her requests for media appearances have gone up as well.

Likewise, the junk removal service 1-800-Got-Junk? saw a surge in business in April when customers cited decluttering as 77% of the reason for needing junk removal services. “Since then, the uptick has increased to 79% as we’re seeing the desire to declutter is on the rise with people still spending the majority of their time at home,” a representative from the company told Treehugger.

In a period of such uncertainty, logic might suggest a desire to hold on to one’s things. But with many of us spending so much time at home, it seems to have unleashed a decluttering frenzy. 

“I think people’s interest in getting organized is twofold,” says Lowenheim, confirming Got-Junk’s observation. “One is that they have more time on their hands. This gives them the opportunity to tackle some long-delayed projects. The other is that they are spending more time at home and are noticing and/or being inconvenienced by clutter and inconveniently-placed items.”

Another factor at play, either consciously or unconsciously, might be that uncluttered spaces are easier to clean. The modern, minimalist movement was started as a way of dealing with tuberculosis, after all – a simplified space is simply much easier to disinfect. (Dedication to a simplified space is also Treehugger-approved, as it discourages the consumption of resource-intensive stuff that will likely end up in the landfill.)

And lest we forget the emotionally palliative effect of decluttering. Not only does it create less chaotic vistas in the home (bonus points for Zoom meetings), but it is a great project to distract from the news. And it feels productive and effective at a time when the world feels out of control.

How to Declutter During a Pandemic?

Now the question is: What is everyone doing with all their stuff? Many second-hand shops have been closed for months and are not accepting donations. But the pandemic has brought out our ability to adapt and there have been some resourceful workarounds.

1-800-Got-Junk? has been offering a “No Contact Junk Removal” service, which allows for a completely socially-distanced process. And if you’re wondering about where that junk goes, the company tells Treehugger that environmental responsibility is important to them. “Whenever possible, we donate and recycle items in an effort to divert as much junk from landfills as we can and we’re always committed to improving our environmental standards and improving our environmental impacts.”

If high-end clothes and home items are in your “does not spark joy” pile, the luxury consignment shop TheRealReal has amped up their offering of virtual consignment appointments. A representative of the company told Treehugger that interest in consignment has remained strong throughout the pandemic.  

"While social distancing prevents in-person White Glove appointments, we have increased focus on the digital experience," Julie Wainwright, CEO and Founder of The RealReal, writes in a shareholder letter. "We’ve turned to virtual appointments to continue delivering personalized consignment consultations and support people monetizing the assets in their homes during these uncertain times. We have conducted thousands of virtual appointments since launching the service, which is delivering comparable per-consignment results vs. in-home appointments. 

In August, Wainwright noted that the company conducted approximately 25,000 virtual appointments in Q2, which delivered “comparable per-consignment results vs. in-home appointments.” 

Lowenheim, the professional organizer, says that she was able to work with clients virtually. “For some of them, we used FaceTime on our iPhones or iPads. That was helpful because I could see what they were seeing, and could ask questions and give suggestions,” she explains. Lowenheim has been suggesting that clients put unwanted items in shopping bags and wait until thrift shops were open. 

“Just yesterday, I took several bags of books and movies over to my local Goodwill, which is now open and accepting donations,” she adds. 

A sign that things are looking up, for New Yorkers at least, who will be among the many Americans who get to the other side of this pandemic with serene and less-cluttered homes … that can be more easily disinfected against future plagues.