Tidying Up’s Dirty Problem: Why The Decluttering Trend is Bad News For the Planet

Are you feeling inspired to purge everything that doesn’t spark joy? Tidying guru Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has triggered a tidal wave of decluttering – but there’s a big problem that no one is talking about: all the trash that decluttering creates. Decluttering once and committing to a more minimalist life is one thing, but so many of us clean out the closets only to fill them right back up with impulse Amazon purchases and fast-fashion buys. 

The UK alone throws away a horrifying 295 billion pieces of plastic per year, and £12.5 billion’s worth of clothing ends up in the bin each year. And Brits are far from the only wasters: Americans send 9.5 million tonnes of clothing to landfill every year.

This all begs the question: are our tidy homes coming at the expense of the planet? When listening to a guru who claims that if a button falls off a garment that means the garment has reached the end of its lifespan, it’s important to keep in mind the enormous strain that throwing away clothes has on our planet. When something doesn’t “spark joy”, maybe we should ask ourselves whether there is any way to make it spark joy again.

There is good news: you don’t have to choose between your earth-friendly values and a tidy home. If you want to get in on the KonMari craze sans the heaps of rubbish, here’s what you need to do.

Reduce

Your buying habits have a far greater impact on the tidiness of your home than any all-day decluttering spree. If you’re constantly buying stuff you don’t need, you’ll wind up in an endless cycle of accumulating and decluttering.

Overconsumption is expensive, stressful, and bad for the planet. You don’t have to start living like an ascetic monk, but you should examine your shopping habits. If you’re a habitual impulse shopper, Low Impact Movement has advice you need to read.

Reuse

Recycling is an easy option, but it’s not the best one. Recycling keeps trash out of the landfill, but it takes a lot of resources to transform recyclables into usable material — and that’s if they get recycled at all. Much of this plastic up in a landfill because it’s contaminated, not recyclable, or because the countries we used to send our recyclables to no longer want them.

Stop mindlessly tossing your old stuff in the bin and find opportunities for reuse. As Gumtree explains, rather than filling your home with bizarre DIY projects, get involved in the secondhand economy and sell old items for a bit of cash or donate them to people in need.

Recycle

Your trash isn’t always another person’s treasure. For things that are broken, damaged, or simply useless, recycling can be the best option. However, you need to recycle things correctly to keep them out of the landfill.

  • A small amount of contamination can send an entire bin to the landfill. Follow your city’s recycling rules to the letter and give recycling a rinse before tossing it.
  • Contact your city about recycling hazardous waste and large items like appliances. Most cities have special rules for bulky and hazardous materials.
  • Look for recycling programs for hard-to-recycle materials. TerraCycle is a great resource for information on recycling items like contact lenses and cosmetics packaging.
Rethink

You can’t avoid buying new things forever (and honestly, who wants to?). However, you can shrink your environmental impact by becoming a more conscious consumer. Instead of buying flimsy products that fall apart, buy things that will last a lifetime. Rather than the inexpensive non-stick pans, invest in cast iron. And instead of wasting money on a budget vacuum you’ll throw away in a few years, spend a bit more on a more powerful commercial vacuum that will last ages and make chores a breeze. 

Of course, this goes for fashion too. While standing in the fitting room, try and scan the wardrobe you have at home and imagine what you already have that will go with this new item. If you can make more than five outfits with it, go ahead and buy.

Another small switch with a big impact is going package-free. Shop in the bulk section at the grocery store, opt for bar shampoos and soaps over bottled options, and refill spray bottles with DIY cleaning products instead of buying new every time (DIY cleaners are safer too). These swaps might not seem like a big deal, but over time they add up to a lot less waste.

Marie Kondo has one thing right: Going from a home that’s cluttered with stuff you don’t need to a tidy, intentional space is indeed life-changing. However, we shouldn’t dive into decluttering without asking the question of where all our unwanted stuff ends up. If you want a clean home and a clean planet, don’t start with your kitchen cupboards — start with your relationship with stuff.

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Alice Robertson

Alice Robertson began her career in the home organization industry as a professional house cleaner. After cleaning and organizing her clients’ homes for years, she decided to open her own home organization business. Over the years, she has built an impressive client list, helping to make spaces in homes and businesses more functional. She recently created tidyhome.info as a place to share the great cleaning and organizing advice she has developed over the years.

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