What Should You Do With the Discarded Items From Spring Cleaning?

A response from Treehugger's Lloyd Alter to questions from journalists.

recycling bins
Overloaded recycling in London.

Chris Gorman/ Getty Images

Having written a book on living a sufficient and sustainable lifestyle, and teaching sustainable design, I was asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to be on their morning radio programs from coast to coast, from Goose Bay, Labrador to Victoria, British Columbia. After doing it 10 times I think I got the story straight enough that I could share it with Treehugger readers. I searched for Canadian data for the audience, but much of this applies anywhere across the globe.

Spring cleaning often starts in the closet with clothing. What happens to it and what is the best way to deal with it?

According to the Recycling Council of Canada, 15% of all unwanted garments are collected while the vast majority, 85%, end up in landfills. But let's say we are being responsible here and taking it to the donation bins placed by various charities.

According to a 2021 study by Fashion Takes Action, companies that sell used clothing take about half of what comes out of the bins and sell the rest by the pound to a company that sorts and grades it. Of the stuff they take, about half will sell and the other half will go back to the grader, only about 30% will be resold to consumers and 70% will end up with the grader who bundles it and often sells it to dealers in developing countries in Africa and South America.

But it doesn't all end well there. Anika Kozlowski of Toronto Metropolitan University notes, "The narrative that African countries are only provided with clothing they need is utterly false. It has become a dumping ground, as one only needs to visit to see the vast amount of apparel waste accumulating at a rate far greater than any African country can effectively deal with.”

So the charity bins are better than just landfilling, but they are not perfect. There are other options; my daughter uses about 10 different local Facebook groups to trade and share baby clothing, equipment, and even cloth diapers. She belongs to Buy Nothing groups where the motto is: "Buy less and share more. It makes us all richer and the planet cleaner."

Where to Donate Stuff You Don't Want

  • Reach out to your local library or school system to donate computers
  • Facebook Groups and Craiglist are great for local swaps and donations
  • The Furniture Bank Network collects gently used furniture to give to people in need
  • Habitat for Humanity accepts kitchen appliances
  • Freecycle is a nonprofit movement with a network of people giving and getting stuff for free in their local towns, all in an effort to keep stuff out of landfills
  • Access Books accepts books for relief shelters
  • Vietnam Veterans of Americas for clothes

Another big category is just “stuff," like household items, kitchen items, etc. How does our recycling system deal with these things?

Fundamentally, it doesn't. It wasn't designed to. Recycling was invented to deal with single-use packaging and simple materials such as bottles and cans, and most of it was a fantasy. It was never meant to handle "stuff" which is why our garages and basements are so full of it.

There is more of it too. Things are made differently now, with embedded electronics that die long before the rest of the appliance, so they are impossible to repair. My mom's Sunbeam toaster lasted 40 years because it didn't have a chip in it. My daughter's kitchen stove lasted less than five because the electronics burned out and cost more to replace than the entire stove.

How would you categorize the state of the Canadian waste system as a whole?

Waste proportions
Composition of waste.

National Waste Characterization Report

It's pretty deplorable, given that according to the National Waste Characterization Report, 73% of everything collected goes straight to landfills. But the problem is we shouldn't think of it as a separate waste system; it is actually part of a consumption system where everything is designed for disposability, for our culture of convenience.

We are encouraged to buy stuff that's cheap or disposable and then throw it away, and not worry about it because it supposedly going to be recycled.

In many cities—Vancouver is an example—almost all of the waste in trash bins are coffee cups. add in plastic bottles and takeout containers so really it is not a waste system. It is the tail end of a coffee system, a water system, and a hamburger system. We cannot look at the waste in isolation but as part of the bigger economic picture.

What solutions can we work on as individuals?

Buy less stuff in the first place. When you buy, pay a little more for quality, maintain it well, and make it last. Then when you want to get rid of it, it will still have some value. This goes for clothing or anything.

What is the solution to fixing the system overall?

Nighthawks is a 1942 oil on canvas painting by Edward Hopper that portrays four people in a downtown diner late at night as viewed through the diner's large glass window.
Nighthawks is a 1942 oil on canvas painting by Edward Hopper.

Edward Hopper

The problem is the front end: the culture of convenience. In our grandparents' era, you got your milk in bottles, you sat down in a diner for a coffee in a porcelain cup, and we didn't have a waste problem. The solution is to refill, repair, and reuse. 

Now that we are in the middle of a carbon crisis, it is important to recognize that everything we make has a big carbon footprint from its manufacture—what we call embodied or upfront carbon—even if it just sits there on a shelf. Plastics are solid fossil fuels, so we need to use more natural, renewable materials.

In the end, we don't have a waste problem; we have a purchasing problem. Don't buy more than you need, buy quality, and next year spring cleaning will be a breeze.

My colleague Mary Jo DiLonardo had something to say about this in "3 Questions to Ask Before You Buy Anything," as did Katherine Martinko in "Forget Cheap Disposables, They're Never Worth It." This appears to be a Treehugger consensus.

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