Donate, Reuse, Recycle: A Call for Help When Downsizing

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Which are the hard-to-recycle-or-reuse items in this photo?

There are many reasons why some people have trouble getting rid of things when downsizing the home, or moving. Two of the best reasons are wanting to maximize the benefit to others by donating things that can still be used, and to minimize damage to the earth by keeping things that should be recycled out of landfills.

We’ve written a fair amount about both topics on this blog, and in many of our posts have provided tips and suggestions about ways you can go about doing both of these things. But some items are just harder to deal with responsibly, especially if the downsizing (or moving) has to be done in a hurry.

The photo above provides a clear example of the kinds of things that are fairly easy to get rid of responsibly, and the kinds of things that aren’t. Clearly, if the beautiful pot is not going along in the move, it could be easily donated (or, depending on the value, perhaps sold). Thrift stores would probably be happy to have the hangers. But what about the not-so-gently-used shoes, and the CDs? (Only a couple of CDs are shown here, but most homes would a fairly big pile of them ready to dispose of…)

This post will provide some guidance in finding ecological ways to dispense with these items. But the main purpose is to draw attention to the types of items that are unlikely to be properly disposed of when people have to move or empty a home in a hurry. And a plea that the powers that be–from shoe retailers to government agencies–help us find ways to make these things easier to recycle.

  1. Shoes. A couple of years ago my coauthor wrote a very helpful post about how to recycle or donate shoes here. And while I think it’s great that there are organizations that are helping with this process, I can’t help but wish that more shoe stores would step up (no pun intended!) and make it even easier. Why couldn’t the big chains have a program similar to Best Buy’s electronics recycling program for example? So that people in a hurry to empty a home would be able to take big bags of shoes that are no longer usable directly to the nearest store and just drop them off? Payless? DSW? Your thoughts?
  2. CDs and tapes. Earth 911 has a very helpful page on various options for dealing with CDs and videotapes you no longer want, but the fact is, most people are not going to do the right thing when it comes to old CDs and tapes if it isn’t made easier for them to do. And most people are not going to want to pay to recycle anything. Call me a dreamer, but it seems to me that if we know that having these items go en masse into our landfills is harmful to the environment (and future generations) it would seem an appropriate matter for collective action. In other words, Help! Isn’t there some way our local governments–or the state or federal government, someone, anyone!–can help make it easier for us all to do the right thing?
  3. Prescription Drugs. I didn’t realize the importance of proper disposal of prescription drugs until a cousin who is a doctor grimaced when someone suggested at a family gathering to just throw them into the trash. “No, no, no!” she said. “It goes into our water supply. That is not a good idea.” But here again the problem is the difficulty of doing the right thing. (Just take a look at these FDA guidelines and you’ll see what I mean.) So here again, I think we need help, and probably in this case pharmacies are the most likely source of assistance. Why couldn’t people bring unused/unwanted drugs back to pharmacies to be properly disposed of? Certainly they would know how to do it, right? The only option for me to properly dispose of the expired prescriptions in our home when I looked into this last summer was to drive several miles to a government office in an area with very little available parking to turn them in. It has to be made easier if we want people to do it.

I think most people understand the importance of protecting our earth from contamination. But if it’s too difficult to do things the right way, they will be tempted or forced into doing them the wrong way.

Are there other categories of items that you’ve found difficult to reuse, donate, or recycle when downsizing, or information about programs that make recycling shoes/CDs/prescription drugs easier? If so, I hope you’ll add them to the comment box below, so we can help spread the word.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Introducing “Ask Linda & Janet”

Linda Hetzer responding to questions about downsizing at a “Keep the Memories, Get Rid of the Stuff” talk.

In the 10-plus years since our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home first came out, we’ve had the opportunity to talk about the pros and cons, the ins and outs, the ups and downs of downsizing the family home with so many wonderful people—from radio call-in show hosts, to newspaper and magazine reporters, to the people who’ve attended the events in libraries, community centers, retirement communities, and a host of other venues we’ve been invited to speak at across the country.

It’s been a pleasure to meet folks who have been through, or who are contemplating going through, this experience. It’s been great to be able to share what we’ve learned with our audiences, and equally rewarding to continue to hear new stories and learn new tips, strategies, resources, and ideas from them as well.

We have been writing our blog for five years now. And while it hasn’t been exactly surprising to discover how much there is to know about this process (that is, after all, why we realized there was a need for our book in the first place), it has been very interesting to see how many ways there are to make it go better—logistically, organizationally, ecologically, emotionally. And of course, as we’ve written our posts and talked to people—both experts and regular folks—it has been a continual learning process for us.

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Janet Hulstrand discusses a follow-up question with a member of the audience following a “Decluttering for Spring” talk.

We thought at this point it made some sense to create a post (this one) where people could pose their questions about downsizing and we could share the knowledge we’ve gained in our responses. We think this will help people find their way to some of the helpful posts on our blog more easily.

Also, by having one place for readers to pose questions—in the comment box below—it will also give others an idea of what kinds of things there are to consider when downsizing.

So, we are hereby inviting you to send your questions our way!

There is of course, no guarantee that we will have answers for all of them, but we will do our best to direct you to a post we’ve written on the subject, or guide you toward experts who may be able to help you better than we can.

We think this is a fine way to enter the back-to-school season. So…what questions do you have about downsizing? We’re all ears!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are coauthors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Homenow available as an e-book.

Downsizing Chronicles: My Downsizing Report Card

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Downsizing Day 1: Pulling the Books Off the Shelves

When Ed Koch was Mayor of New York, he was known for his habit of asking New Yorkers, “How’m I doin’?” I found that habit endearing, even though a big part of me knew that a big part of him probably wasn’t really listening to the answers. (Because, let’s face it, most politicians are not really great listeners.)

Last month, as someone who has become known as a “downsizing expert” in connection with my extensive writing and sometimes speaking on the topic, as I was going through my own downsizing-the-home-(in-a-hurry) experience last month, a part of me was also observing the process, and thinking, “So, how’m I doin’?”

For of course, writing about downsizing and actually doing it are two very different things.

Now, with a few weeks after my big downsizing move to think about “how I did,” I thought I would give myself a Downsizing Report Card. Since as far as I know, no such report card has ever been done before, I had to first think up the categories. It is my hope that having defined some of the elements involved in successful downsizing may prove helpful for others going through, or planning for, a downsizing move.

Success In Significantly Reducing Number (and Volume) of Possessions: A

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Downsizing Day 5: Dad’s Dresser. I would rather have kept this dresser but a rational decision-making process led me to the unavoidable conclusion that it didn’t make sense to do so anymore. (See “Fitting My Lifestyle to My Life.”)

I really did get rid of a lot of my stuff! I sold and donated LOTS of clothing, furniture, books, equipment of various kinds, and shredded pounds and pounds and pounds of paper. I feel I was particularly successful in this category, since some of the things I sold were things I never thought I would sell, and things I really would rather not have gotten rid of. (For example, beautiful old furniture that had been in my family for some time; and some of my work files, which contained interesting, though not essential, material of various kinds.) In my case, having made the decision to NOT move from one house to another (or even from my house to an apartment), but to put all my stuff in storage for an unforeseen length of time helped me realize that it was probably a good time to let go of these things, that I just couldn’t keep them anymore, or at least that it didn’t really make sense to do so. (There will be more on this decision-making process in another post.)

General Organization: C

In the first three weeks of my 27-day downsizing marathon, my organizational skills were pretty good. I had a lot to do in a very short time, and it all went pretty well. I held three days of moving sales: early in the process I scheduled pick-ups of furniture, and dropped about 30 boxes of books at our county library’s used book store; I filled our recycling barrels every week with tons of shredded paper; what I couldn’t sell I put out as “curb alerts” for my neighbors to come and pick up; I identified, and rented, the best self-storage unit I could find near my home; and scheduled a cleaning service to come in a couple of days before my move. So I would say that overall, I deserve at least a B+, maybe even an A for those weeks. But the last week? Honestly, I would have to give the last week an “F,” or at least a D-. The last week, predictably, slid into pure chaos. This is because my decision to try to do such a big downsizing job in such a short period of time flew in the face of probably the most valuable piece of advice in our book. Take Your Time! So I knew from the start it was inevitable that the job was not going to be done perfectly.

On the other hand, with those “take your time” and “the time to start is now” lessons firmly in my mind ever since we first published our book, I really had been working on the task for months and even years before those last 27 days. If I had not been proactively downsizing all along, it definitely could have been worse!

Yard sales can be a good way to start the process of downsizing gradually. You'll probably find that it gets easier to get rid of things the more you do it. Practice makes perfect! :-)

Downsizing Day 8: The first of three moving sales in less than a month.

Safeguarding of Important Things: A

I think! Although I did get rid of a lot of things that had sentimental and other kinds of value, I didn’t have time to go through pictures, letters, etc, etc., etc. in detail. So what I couldn’t go through, I just kept, for now. As far as I know, I didn’t lose anything of importance, though the verdict will be out on that for a while, since I am currently in another country and won’t have the chance to go through everything and really know what I still have for some time.

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Downsizing Day 22: Keeping the Things That Bring You the Most Joy, Even When Impractical

Sharing With Others: A  

For me, as for many “keepers,” being able to give things to people who can use them rather than just throw them in a dumpster or the garbage is very important. In this regard, I think I did quite well. As soon as I knew I was going to move out of my home I scheduled a pick-up from a local charity that gives furniture and clothing to families in need. (Scheduling such pick-ups well ahead of time is crucial, I found.)  And the yard sales and curb-alerts I did proved over and over again the truth of the adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Many people took delight in acquiring items that other people (I won’t point any fingers here 🙂 ) had declared “junk,” and walked away happy with their treasures.

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Downsizing Day 19: The Cowboy Hat. My son didn’t want it anymore. This man was delighted to find it on our curb 🙂

Environmental Awareness and Respect for the Earth: B

Here again, not just throwing everything I didn’t need into the trash was important to me. I think I did pretty well in this regard, but again the speed of the move plus the inconvenient nature of recycling or properly disposing of certain kinds of items (for example, CDs and videotapes) made it impossible for me to have an entirely earth-friendly move. I think my county is exceptionally earth-friendly in its approach to recycling, and I did manage to get most of the toxic materials to the county’s toxic waste disposal center. But I do wish it were easier to properly dispose of these items, and am hoping my county will become even more “green” in this regard in the future, and that these practices will become more widely established across the country. (There will be more this later, too.)

Maintaining an Upbeat Attitude: A+

 I believe that maintaining an upbeat attitude is an essential skill in downsizing. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re depressed! And I did manage to maintain an upbeat attitude throughout the process. On the last frantic day, when it was extremely hard to be upbeat, as thunderstorms and my imminent transatlantic flight made an extremely difficult and stressful process even worse, a neighbor who I have come to think of as an angel helped me stay upbeat despite it all. (Which reminds me of another important piece of advice in our book: Get Help!)

Maintenance of Health, Safety, and Sanity: A

This may not seem like it has anything to do with successful downsizing, but in fact it is probably the most important thing of all. (And actually, maintaining an upbeat attitude is related to this one too.) Downsizing is mentally, physically, and emotionally very stressful, and rife with abundant opportunities to become injured or dangerously exhausted. A couple of times I had to willfully slow myself down and take a short break to lie down and meditate, because I knew if I didn’t do so I would be endangering my health, and that ending up in the hospital would definitely be counterproductive to the process, not to mention my life! So: in those last few days when I was giving myself an “F” for organization, I was also giving myself an “A” for maintaining my health. (“You didn’t have a stroke!” I told myself. “You didn’t break any bones. You didn’t end up in the hospital. You’re doin’ great!!!” 🙂 )

I was exhausted after 27 days of intense downsizing, but I was alive, more or less well, and able to get myself to a beautiful place for a few days of R&R. I call that some sort of success! 🙂

Fitting My Lifestyle to My Life: A

Coming up with this category has been kind of a revelation to me. But I believe it is of essential importance in downsizing, and that failure to do it can be one of the main impediments to proceeding with the task. A good friend has reminded me that the life I have been living is not very similar at all to the life my parents lived. My parents moved all their household goods exactly twice in 40 years of their adult lives, and both times the move was paid for by my dad’s employer. My husband and I moved five times in the space of 15 years, and only one of those moves was funded by someone else. Our parents lived in sprawling suburban homes near the places they had grown up, with attics, basements, and plenty of storage space, while I have lived much of my life halfway across the country from where I grew up, in small apartments in urban areas, and have spent a lot time abroad. With the decision to put all my stuff into storage while I figure out where my gypsy nature will take me next, I have finally realized that my life is not a life that allows for hanging onto things in the same way my parents did. I do appreciate the “keeper” instincts that kept so many special things in my family for several generations, and even as I have reluctantly let some of those special things go, I have held onto others (mostly the ones that don’t take up too much space!

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I kept these pictures where I could see them until the last minute. It was helpful in always remembering what’s most important….

So, all in all I didn’t do so badly, really. What is that? A B-? C+? I’ve never been too good at grading. But I do give myself an A for honest self-analysis, and I look forward to doing better next time. Hopefully on a longer timeline. 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Downsizing Chronicles Part 1: A 27-Day Marathon

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Downsizing Day 1: The Decision Is Made, Starting to Pull Books Off the Shelves. Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

Several weeks ago, I made a bold, fateful, and possibly slightly insane decision.

I decided to move out of my home; sell, donate, throw out, and otherwise get rid of much of my stuff; and put whatever was left into storage.

All in 27 days.

The home I had been living in for the past eight years was the place where I had raised my sons through their teen years, and was also the home in which several treasured pieces of furniture, many boxes of letters, photographs and other memorabilia, as well as many other things that came both from my family and my husband’s, which we had inherited in the 30 years we were together, not to mention our own accumulated letters, photos, files, mementos and various other things. Also, of course, all of our clothes and books, musical instruments and sports equipment, games, puzzles and, and, and…The kitchen stuff. The bathroom stuff. (You get it, you know, or you can imagine.) It was also the location of my home office, and as such there were files, office supplies and equipment, and books of the trade to deal with. So this was neither an easy, nor a small task.

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Downsizing Day 8: Moving Sale Photo by Janet Hulstrand

Much of it was important. Much of it was not. Much of it was in that in-between gray area. All of it required decision-making. To keep or not to keep? To store or not to store? How to prepare for storage? To recycle, or haul to the dump? And so on.

Given all the time I have devoted to thinking, writing and talking about the process of downsizing a family home for more than a decade now, I knew from the beginning that dealing with such large task on such a short timetable was an essentially impossible task.

So why did I try to do it?

Let’s just say that a rental situation which had never been a very good one became bad enough that I decided I had had enough, and the time to cut my losses and make a change was now.

How did it go? Well, it was an incredible experience, probably most accurately described as “a wild ride.” There were many sweet and poignant moments, more than I would have imagined there could be, in mostly small ways, on an almost daily basis. I made new friends, got to know my neighbors better, benefited from the help of friends and “the kindness of strangers” in numerous ways. I was able to savor the experience of passing on a lot of things that were just cluttering up my home, and now also my life’s forward path, to people who would really appreciate having them, some of whom I knew, others I would never meet. And of course there were many moments of appreciation, smiles, chuckles, a few tears, as I discovered sweet notes written in childish scrawls, and old school projects–my children’s and even some of mine (yes! because my mom was “a keeper” par excellence!)

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Downsizing Day 12: Souvenirs From My Childhood. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

It was also worse than I had allowed myself to envision, especially during the dreadful last few days when my need to board a transatlantic flight and report for a teaching assignment abroad exerted a pressure and anxiety on me that was almost unbearable. If it had not been for the intervention of kind friends and friendly strangers, it might have been an unmitigated disaster rather than just a highly chaotic and upsetting scramble at the end.

Once I had made the decision to do it, I decided I would try to be as conscious of this process as I possibly could be every step of the way, so that I could share any new insights/perspectives/stories/observations I might be able to capture, for the benefit of our blog readers.

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Downsizing Day 17: A Wider Circle helps Washington-DC area families by supplying them with donated furniture and household goods. Here they are loading up a couch, a mattress, an ironing board, some tables and chairs from our house. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

And so even in the mad scramble to beat the clock I kept notes and took pictures, as best I could. And I began sharing some of those moments on Twitter and Facebook, live, during the process. Some of you may have followed along with that day-to-day reporting of the experience. You can find the trail here, and here.

In the weeks and months to come I will be looking back on this experience and sharing with you what I learned in this latest round of downsizing, some of the thoughts I had in going through a major downsizing project—this time my own—without being able to follow our number-one piece of advice when it comes to projects such as these: namely,

Take Your Time!!

Did the advice in our book help me anyway? You bet it did!

Did I get ideas for new things to write about on this blog? I certainly did!

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Downsizing Day 22: Keep the things that bring you the most joy, even if it’s impractical to do so. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

So, stay tuned for more fresh-from-the-downsizing-front posts to come, going forward.

In the meantime, have a Happy Fourth of July, and a great summer ahead.

And don’t forget to use up those sparklers sitting, forgotten, on a high shelf in the pantry, now! You won’t want to have to deal with them at the last minute in your next move 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Learning to Live with Less

Book & yarn
©Michael Ginsburg

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago we had a flood in our apartment—a pipe broke several floors above us and flooded our bedroom closets and the linen closet. Of course, we threw out things that were soaked and, fortunately, we didn’t lose anything of great value, monetary or sentimental value. But everything that came out of the closets is now in piles in our living room, not a pretty sight.

We have too much stuff and we have to deal with that. We have decisions to make. We need to find places for the stuff we no longer need to keep. I remind myself that I co-wrote a book about downsizing and I try to apply the suggestions in the book.

My mother kept a scrapbook of the high school years and her early twenties, a document of a life lived many decades ago. The book is filled with dance programs, theater ticket stubs, memorabilia from sports events, newspaper clippings—ephemera of another era. I have contacted the historical society where she grew up and they are interested in the scrapbook. Reminder from our book: Some of the things I have may be of interest to museums and historical societies.

Yarn and fabric and other needlework supplies, materials from the many crafts books I have worked on and from hobbies I no longer pursue, have been donated to a reuse center that provides materials to nonprofit organizations with arts programming and to public schools. Reminder from our book: Artists and art teachers can use all sorts of materials as well as odds and ends—and the items don’t end up in a landfill.

We donated books (yes, again!) to an organization that collects books for hospitals. Reminder from our book: For those of us who live with too many books, it’s a good idea to purge at least once a year (but, one hopes, in a calmer manner than when forced to so by a flood).

None of this is easy. It’s hard, really hard, and I needed some moral support.

Where did I find help?

In a New York Times article about wealthy people who are “Frugal When They Don’t Have to Be” a financial adviser says “It’s about paying attention to what makes you happy and not just doing what our society tells us to do.” It’s about not accumulating stuff but about spending money on something that matters.

I’ve always spent money on experiences, not material things, but, still, stuff accumulates and I have to deal with that.

Ryan Nicodemus, one half of The Minimalists, who write about living a meaningful life with less stuff, wrote a poem called “The Cycle of Letting Go.” In it, he traces the cycle of owing stuff from I want it to It owns me to I am happier with little and ends the poem with I was transformed with little.

The poem is guidepost for me.

Joshua Becker, in his blog Becoming Minimalist, asks “What if there is actually more joy in owning less?” and then walks the reader through a tour of the house focusing on seven areas, from clothes to toys to cooking utensils, with suggestions for ways to live with less.

Becker presents a challenge, one I accept, to live life with less stuff.

As always, the mantra of our book provides a helpful guide: “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…”

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

More Spring Decluttering: Cleaning Out Your Garage

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With the warmer weather finally here, spring cleaning is unavoidable (as much as some of us would like to avoid it!) and that means cleaning out the garage, too.

We know that there is a life beyond for the things we no longer need. Our trash can be someone else’s treasure if we take the time to get the items we would like to discard to the right places.

Here are some suggestions for recycling certain items in your garage.

Tires

According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, in 2013 more than 95 percent by weight of the scrap tires generated in the United States were reused: as tire-derived fuel, in ground rubber applications such as playground surfaces, and for engineering and construction uses.

Regulations for recycling tires vary by state. To locate a place to recycle tires in your area, search online under “local tire recycling.”

Motor Oil

Used motor oil can be recycled. Many service stations and repair facilities will accept used oil and used oil filters. Local recycling centers may accept motor oil or be able to steer you to a place that does. The best way to locate a collection center is to visit Earth911 and search by ZIP code.

Bicycles

For places to donate your bike and for places that help recycle/reuse bicycle parts, check out Ibike.

There are programs that provide bikes to developing countries, such as Bicycles for Humanity and World Bicycle Relief; you won’t get rid of your bike but you will help others to obtain a bike that is “an engine for economic and cultural empowerment” as they say on one of the sites. What could be better than that!

Sports Equipment

Play It Again Sports will buy back used sports equipment and this blog post on houzz offers suggestions for getting rid of sports equipment in an eco-friendly way.

Sometimes an organization like the Boy Scouts or a church youth group will sponsor a drive for gently used sports equipment. Check out organizations in your area to see if they are interested in your used items.

Tennis Balls

ReBounces has suggestions for recycling large numbers of tennis balls and check out “How to Recycle Tennis Balls” at 1-800-Recycling.com.

Shoes and Sneakers

And if you have worn-out or outgrown sneakers and sports shoes lying around, check out our post on where to recycle shoes.

Keep the memories of you and your kids playing sports or enjoying a bike ride in the park, but get rid of all the stuff you no longer need. The result? A more organized garage, a grateful recipient of the donated items, and a healthier environment.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

The Poetry of Downsizing…

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand

 

Is there poetry in downsizing?

We think there can be, given enough time and a sensitive approach to this process, which most of us go through not just once but several times during our lives.

In fact many writers have written quite sensitively and beautifully about downsizing. Last year the New York Times published a lovely blog series by Olivia Judson, in which she describes the process of going through the massive amount of accumulated “stuff” in her parents’ home after their death. Her writing about it is quite poetic, and so were many of the hundreds (thousands?) of comments from readers. And that’s just one example: along with the appendices in our e-book that help direct readers to information about how they can preserve, donate, sell, or otherwise get rid of “stuff,” we’ve provided one with links to other essays on downsizing, some of them also quite poetic.

“Rummage Sale,” a poem by Jennifer Maier, lightheartedly but sensitively evokes the poignancy and bittersweet quality of decluttering a home full of objects laden with memories. “Forgive me, Aunt Phyllis, for rejecting the cut-glass dishes…” it begins. You can read the rest of the poem here.

When we take the time to say goodbye to the things we’re getting rid of, and to remember the people who brought them into our lives, we’re saying goodbye to the past. But by the very act of savoring the connections they evoke, we’re also finding a way to “keep the memories, while getting rid of the stuff…” (our mantra!) And to keep the memories, at least, alive into the future.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.