Getting rid of stuff is easy. (Relatively.) It’s when you start figuring out what to do with everything you don’t want that the zero waste aspect becomes tricky. Remember, zero waste is about keeping everything out of the landfill, so when that old [random item] leaves your house – where does it go if not the landfill? Avoiding the landfill while minimizing is possible, but takes some mindfulness during the process.
Avoid the impulse to simply dump everything into a box and toss it in the dumpster. There are two reasons for this: first, caving to the fresh desire of GETTING RID OF EVERYTHING pretty much ensures you’re going to have regret at some point. Needing to re-buy something because you impulsively tossed your last item in the trash is so not zero waste!
Secondly, it’s totally anti-zero waste to just toss items that are still functional. Sure, it’s easy to just throw everything in the bin, but finding good homes/uses for those items are key to staying zero waste while minimizing. Doing that effectively is trickier.
Let’s dive in further.
Why minimalism and zero waste go together
Fitting zero waste and minimalism together can seem impossible. As someone living a zero waste and minimal life as best I can, I absolutely disagree. After all, isn’t the first R of zero waste refuse? And one of the main tenets of a circular mindset simplicity?
The opposition of zero waste and minimalism seems true at first. That is, if you subscribe to the type of minimalism that encourages a willy-nilly discard of everything non-essential. But in fact there are ways to gracefully, non-wastefully give away your items… and after that, use zero waste practices to reduce your consumption. Both philosophies espouse having a conscious connection with your things; because when you value your items, you’re less likely to over-consume without thought.
As one of my favorite minimalism books – New Minimalism – states:
Minimalism is inherently a form of environmental activism… you choose to buy less overall with a focus on purchasing quality, long-lasting goods… when you refine your consumption habits to support your pure needs and selected wants, you are, in a small but significant way, decreasing your demand for the manufacture of new items.
This is not to say you need an empty white house with one plate and a fork in your kitchen. Zero waste and minimalism look different for everyone. Some people like investing in one very expensive item. Others (like me) enjoy finding a few solid items in the thrift store. Neither philosophy necessitates negating the very real experiences of poverty (ie. we can’t just replace our one expensive item if it breaks), there’s just a way to practice both wherever you’re at.
So whether you have 1 shirt or 100, you’re a minimalist if you find value and function in the items you own. Zero waste leads naturally from that practice as you become more aware of things and their life before they reach your home.
Tips for avoiding the landfill while minimizing
First: have a dedicated spot for items you want to get rid of but aren’t totally sure about letting go of. When you decide to get rid of them, let them sit in that spot for a certain amount of time (mine is about a month). If you haven’t brought out the items to use again, you can safely donate them without fear you’ll need them later.
Next: let’s talk about where items can go once you’ve decided they don’t have a home with you anymore. While I’ve got tons of options based on more specific categories, the first steps I’d recommend are:
- Try getting rid of items on your local Freecycle group. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a group to post items you want to get rid of (or want to get) to the local community. No money involved, just a community trying to share goods.
- Head to Charity Navigator and check out local organizations. This organization rates charities based on financial health, accountability & transparency, and results reporting. Basically, figure out if your donation is going to a cause you really want to support!
Where to send specific items
- Clothing: local thrift stores or charity shops like Goodwill are always a safe bet, although whether they actually go into a store is questionable and I’d save these as a last resort. (Here’s a pretty sobering 2016 article about where Goodwill’s clothing donations actually go.) Homeless shelters or safe spaces for victims of domestic violence are also constantly looking for women’s and children’s clothing. (I personally prefer non-religious organizations aside from a few tolerant ones, but many churches also have periodic clothing drives or ongoing ‘closets’ for people in need.)
- Electronics: if you have good, working electronics, there are plenty of organizations that are happy to take them off your hands! Locally, consider thrift stores or organizations helping people to get back on their feet or find a job. The National Network for Ending Domestic Violence is also always soliciting phones. NB: if your electronics are not in working order, there are also options to recycle. Find the nearest location here and get those electronics safely taken care of!
- Office Supplies: I can’t be the only one that has about a million pens rattling around random boxes in my apartment! I took mine to work (I worked for a local non-profit that is in constant need of supplies) but there are plenty of places more than happy to take pens, markers, notebooks, staplers, paper clips, etc. Consider hooking up with a local teacher, a dedicated organization for providing kids with supplies, or any local non-profit that may just need some bulk items for their own use.
- Toiletries/Makeup: have a bit of a problem with hoarding lotions, shampoos, and all those bathroom items you’ll never actually get to using? Women’s shelters or homeless shelters are constantly in need of toiletries. Also, if you live in a low-income area, reach out to a local teacher – many would appreciate having supplies on-hand for kids in need.
- Home Goods: by home goods, I mean kitchen items (bowls, cutlery, etc), storage, decor, etc. Local thrift stores or charity shops like Goodwill will always take home goods. Also look into community help organizations; many groups that provide parenting or education services to under-served communities also collect items to disperse to their clients. Any non-governmental programs that work with resettlement/housing help are also a good bet.
- Food: if you have non-perishable goods you just won’t be using for whatever reason, send them on to someone in need. Food pantries are an obvious answer, but any organization facilitating programs for at-risk populations is a pretty good bet. For a list of food pantries accepting donations, head to this site and find something local.
- Furniture (Large Items): if you’re downsizing to a smaller space or simply feel like your current space is too full of furniture, there are plenty of organizations that will take your gently used furniture – and even pick it up! Larger organizations like Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity will be more likely to pick up just about anything you have. Do consider reaching out to smaller, local organizations that help people find housing or get back on their feet but be sure to check in with them about what they can/can’t accept. Be mindful that smaller organizations may have limited storage space so may be looking for only specific items.
Minimizing Mindfully is Zone 6 of The Essential Zero Waste Blueprint.