The time to get organized is now – but don’t get over eager and sidestep these ethics of decluttering.


When unwanted stuff is taking over and you’re itching to start tossing, it’s tempting to aim straight for the trash can.

Resist the urge. Filling garbage bins should be the last resort, not the first, according to Micaela Preston, a sustainability advocate in Minneapolis, Minn.  “I try to avoid the trash until all other options are gone,” says Preston, author of “Practically Green: Your Guide to Ecofriendly Decision-Making”  (Betterway Home, 2009).

Alternatives such as selling, donating, or recycling belongings can benefit others while avoiding harm to the environment, sustainability proponents say.

Of course, not all possessions have value to someone else; it’s not helpful to pass along pillows infested with bedbugs. Decide how to ethically eliminate clutter with a few basic questions.

“Ask whether the items can be reused or recycled, or if they are hazardous,” says Nathan Engstrom, regional sustainability coordinator at Northland College, Ashland, Wis.  “Depending on the answer, find ways to get rid of unwanted goods,” Engstrom says.

Business writer Kimberly Palmer has a different approach: “My test is whether I’d give [the discard] to my younger sister,” says Palmer, of Washington, D.C.  If the answer is yes, there is a wide range of opportunities, from selling to donating to creating something new from the discards.

Here are some options:

Sell or trade: A local resale or consignment shop may be interested in better-brand clothing, dishes, and small appliances that are in good condition.  Clothing should be appropriate for the beginning of each season.  Check first to see what the store is accepting.

Host a swap with friends: Get together a group of like-minded friends and host a clothes-swapping party (or any other tradeable item).  Not only is it a trendy idea now; it’s a good way to get what you need while whittling down your wardrobe.

Donate: Opt for nearby establishments, such as a neighborhood thrift shop, if available. “If the local shop isn’t taking merchandise, check nonprofit organizations, which may be able to redistribute the goods,” says Palmer. Used books and magazines can have a second life in a senior center or shelter.

Don’t forget to do a little research about the organization. “Look for reviews online to see whether it’s legitimate. Get a sense of how they use the items,” says Palmer, also author of “Generation Earn” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Getting a receipt for your donation is a good sign.

Recycle or repurpose: It’s true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and the Internet makes it much easier to find that man (or woman, or group). The Freecycle Network ( and similar services can help get goods into grateful hands. Preston, for example, found a taker for a box full of packing materials.

Perhaps unused items can evolve into tools for organizing the home.  For example, stitch pockets onto an old towel and add hooks to the top.  Add a rod and attach to a wall in the kitchen. Fill the pockets with small kitchen gadgets.

Lend or borrow: Community groups are springing up that allow members to lend goods to each other. They can help pare down possessions more than you thought possible.  Instead of buying a roasting pan that’s only used once a year, borrow it.

Discard: Get rid of things that are irrevocably soiled, broken, or hazardous, but do so in a way that doesn’t damage your surroundings or put anyone at risk, say the experts.

Stained, torn clothing won’t be accepted by a resale store, but it has more life to it.  Call the local animal shelter to see if they’ll take scraps for bedding. Visit the website to find nearby organizations that accept rags.

Although it’s tempting to dump metal discards on the side of the alley for scrap dealers to pick up, most municipalities frown on the practice. Check first.

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