Jump-start your green living with spring cleaning
How much unused “stuff” do you have hiding in your closets and garages? Is it adding value to your life? When thinking about green living, we often think about adding more efficient devices to our stockpile of possessions. New technology such as solar panels, energy-saving appliances or highly efficient cars can surely help us cut energy use and carbon emissions, but without bottom-up behavioral changes we may be just adding more trash to our personal landfills.
Let’s take a look at the “stuff” we have jammed away in the crevasses of our homes, garages and storage units.
The World Bank reports that developed countries like the United States create nearly half of the world’s waste. According to the EPA, Americans produce the highest rate of household waste, more than 250 million tons of trash annually (92 million dump trucks worth of trash). That amounts to 4.6 pounds per person, every day.
The astronomical amount of people, energy and resources involved in transporting and managing this waste, not to mention the land use and environmental impact of our landfills, generates a slow-building pressure on our physical and economic systems. Most of us don’t want to think about this.
What about our landfills? Many of us live in homes big enough to hold more than we need or use. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting dumping more waste into our already overflowing and leaking 13,000 landfills.
I am suggesting re-evaluating and repurposing our stuff, whether it is selling, recycling, gifting or donating. I’ve heard it said a business that takes no regular inventory usually goes broke. A thoughtful inventory could not only give us more space, clarity and resources but also less stress.
My brother once sent me a cartoon of a Japanese couple returning to their one-room home furnished with only a futon; a pair of bowls and chopsticks were in disarray on the tatami mat floor. The caption reads, “Oh no, the place has been ransacked!”
This somewhat describes the living conditions of my husband and I through the years. My family and others have often poked fun at our minimalist surroundings. An old classmate once visited our Las Vegas home that we had lived in for more than five years and commented as she scanned our large pictureless living room, “Did you just move in?”
We had two Japanese kotos, a rug and one chair. That house, at first, had way more space than our possessions required.
My Japanese husband and I have moved several times across the Pacific and each time with only a few suitcases. We have been the recipients of paying it forward by inheriting others’ unused household items. We have also enjoyed paying it forward by taking time to find useful homes for our possessions.
It is similar to the concept of eating locally. Use things that are near you, then leave it for someone else nearby to use.
We have learned to live with less and evaluate what “things” we really need, love and want in our lives. The move out of that big house in Las Vegas was the hardest. With more space, comes the temptation to fill the void and that we did.
I have been inspired through the years by many friends who have lived with the stress of too much stuff (not mentioning any names). I, too, have a hard time letting go of things, partly due to that nagging question, “What if I need this someday?” The answer is more than likely, you won’t.
When it came time to vacate that big house, it occurred to me that if I hadn’t worn it, played it, read it, listened to it or used it in years, there’s a good chance I never would. The mere thought of the chore of letting go can be overwhelming, but it can also be fun and invigorating.
It’s quite simple once you get started. Here are some steps:
- Divide your items into groups: for sale, reuse, repurpose, regift, recycle and donate.
- Distribute the piles. Sell valuable items and clothing to vintage retailers, at garage sales or on Craigslist. Some recyclable items can also be sold or donated. Reuse, repurpose, recycle, regift or donate the rest.
Electronics are big inventory items. Recent studies say that the average American owns 24 electronic devices. The Blind Center of Nevada will accept any electronic waste and will either repurpose it or disassemble and recycle it. Although Nevada has no e-waste laws, many companies, such as Apple, will accept your used goods to dispose responsibly.
On our most recent move, we were able to give away most all of our possessions that we would not need anymore. Granted, we had much less to dispose of this time from our 250-square-foot home in Japan than we did in the five-bedroom home in Las Vegas.
I took the lead from one friend who told me about her efforts to pass on warm blankets this winter to the homeless. Another friend made a commitment this year to read all the books she owns first, before looking at another book. She has read over a dozen already.
There are a multitude of places to share, exchange or sell books. Social media is also a great tool, and it was gratifying as well to see a grateful friend post a thank-you photo of his new kotatsu (low heated table) and the warm quilted lap cover my husband had made out of old futons.
The purpose of this exercise, of course, is not to make room for more stuff but to shed some light on our spending and collecting habits, and consider more sustainable behavior. Many of us grew up in a generation where resources appeared infinite and affordable. This generation will have to fend with more limited and costly resources.
Encourage your children, family members and friends to help each other. It can be contagious.
In upcoming columns, I will write more about economical and behavioral changes and adaptations you can make in your homes. My husband and I will be starting anew in Las Vegas and we will share our green living practices for your home and garden.
Mary Beth Horiai has split her adult life between Japan and Southern Nevada. In Las Vegas, Horiai worked for the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council of Nevada. A graduated of UNLV, she was trained as a speaker for The Climate Reality Project. Currently in Japan, she has continued to give environmental presentations and has written on environment issues for a number of English-based publications.