Eco-Friendly Decluttering

Guest post by Rachel Papworth – decluttering coach and blogger. First of a series on eco-decluttering

I’m Rachel Papworth, from Green and Tidy. I help people with WAY too much stuff, declutter and create homes they love, homes that support them to live the lives they want to live.

Reducing clutter simplifies life. Plus regularly and frequently reviewing your stuff, and moving stuff on, helps you  let go of the past, mentally as well as physically.

Decluttering and organising saves time and money. You can find anything you own quickly and easily, you don’t buy duplicates because you know what you’ve got, and you can fit everything you own in the space you have so you don’t have to pay for off-site storage.

And decluttering reduces your environmental impact. By decluttering, you keep stuff in circulation, rather than hoarding and storing it. So other people can use it rather than buying new. Plus you need less space because you’ve got less stuff. And you consume less because you don’t buy duplicates.

For me, decluttering and organising are a key element to living a low impact life.

Yet, at the same time, being green-minded can be a disincentive to declutter. Green-minded people can struggle to part with things before they’ve totally worn them out. Even more so if it seems unlikely an item will get reused by someone else.

We end up hoarding things because we can’t bear to send them to landfill and we don’t know what else we can do with them.

I’ve collated some ways to reuse and recycle goods in general, and ways to move on specific things. This post covers general approaches. Next week, I’ll cover some specifics.


In the reduce, reuse, recycle waste hierarchy, reuse comes before recycle.

If you’re committed to being as eco-friendly as possible, of course you only recycle goods that no-one is able/willing to reuse.

So the first thing to consider when moving something on is whether it can be used by someone else. Ways to get stuff to people who might use it include:

  • Giving to family/friends. This could be as birthday gifts or gifts for other special occasions (regifting), or just passing them on for no particular reason (check they actually want the items though. They may feel cluttered too!
  • Donating goods to charity shops. You can find out where there are charity shops near you and get information on the sort of goods they accept here. Don’t leave goods outside charity shops while they’re closed as your bags may get torn open and the goods end up all over the street and/or stolen. If you’re in the US, you can deduct the value of goods you donate to charity from your tax. Click here for details.
  • Selling through, for example, ebay, Gumtree, Amazon, local classified ads or a car boot/tabletop sale.
  • Websites for trading goods, such as Swapshop.
  • Websites for giving stuff away, including Freecycle, Freegle, AnyGoodToYou, EcoBees, JunkSniper. You can give away a wider range of goods on these sites than charity shops can sell. For example, through my local networks, I’ve either given away or accepted:
  • - Broken jewellery
  • - Corks from wine bottles
  • - Empty jam jars
  • - Opened cosmetics/toiletries
  • - Food
  • - Broken electrical items
  • - Empty plastic yoghurt pots
  • - Empty cardboard shuttlecock tubes
  • - Empty plastic thread reels
  • - Candle wax.

You can find more advice on Freecycling here.

Some people leave their unwanted goods outside their home, perhaps with a ‘please take’ notice on them. Bear in mind that, though this can be a quick and easy way to move stuff on, technically it’s fly-tipping. Plus, if it rains or the goods stay outside for several days, they can deteriorate beyond use. Not to mention be unsightly for your neighbours.


Different Councils collect different materials for recycling. Find out what your Council collects, and what you can take to local recycling sites by visiting Recycle Now and entering your postcode.

Recycle Now also tell you how your goods are recycled so, if (like me) you’re a recycling geek, have a nose around it.

Recycle This has been running since 2006 with the aim of finding and sharing ways to recycle things.

Photo by Kodomut

The Brighton Earthship

An earthship is a house made from recycled materials and soil, that exists entirely off-grid, ie: generating its own electricity, purifying its own water and treating its own sewage. The name earthship comes from the idea that these structures ‘sail effortlessly’ on the surface of the Earth.

The photo shows the first earthship to be built in England, at Stanmer House in Brighton. It was built in 2003 and is now managed by the Low Carbon Trust.

The original concept for earthships was developed by American architect Michael Reynolds, who has championed sustainable construction ideas and biotecture for several decades. His original concept was for a home that could be self or community built, thus avoiding the need for a mortgage, with a low environmental footprint, and negligible ongoing utility costs.

Comprising non-standard building techniques, reuse of waste and site managed water, power and sewerage, obtaining official approval to construct earthships has proved difficult in many Western countries. The film Garbage Warrior documents Michael’s fight against the New Mexico planning authorities in building earthships, and his successes in building them in the developing world.

Photo by Dominic Alves

Dead Albatross Chicks

In 2009 the photographer and artist Chris Jordan travelled to the Pacific atoll of Midway. In his work Midway: Message from the Gyre he photographed the effects of widespread oceanic plastic pollution.

Some of the most disturbing images are of dead decayed albatross chicks, all with numerous plastic objects in their stomachs, that they had unwittingly swallowed after mistaking them for food.

Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Pacific garbage patch, his presentation to TED is below.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Last time you went to the supermarket how did you carry your shopping home ?

Your own fabric bags, durable PVC bags-for-life from the checkout, or did you take the free disposable plastic bags ? Perhaps you’re so image-confident that you used an oldschool wheeled shopping trolley, like grandmother used to – perhaps not !

This one really should be straightforward shouldn’t it?

We’re all aware of the issues: disposable plastic bags take energy to manufacture and transport, they cause litter, and many end-up as oceanic debris or lasting for hundreds of years in landfills. Reusing our own bags costs us nothing and causes us hardly any inconvenience. We’re even reminded and encouraged by the supermarkets, nudging us to do the right thing, by offering us loyalty points for reusing our bags.

So how are we doing ?

Not that well it turns out – around 10 billion lightweight disposable bags are handed free to UK shoppers every year. That’s about 200 each!

Obviously the ‘problem of carrier bags’ is a bit more wicked than we thought.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that we find changing our habits quite a struggle. We’re able to go shopping 24/7, and as a result it’s just not that big a deal any more. We drop-in to the supermarket for ‘top-up-shops’ more frequently than we ever used to – no planning, no lists.

Having our own bags with us when we go requires preparedness, and the reality is that all too often we’ve left them at home because we were too tired/busy to put them straight back in the car after the last time. We’re frequently rushing – either to get home, get to work, or get somewhere else, and have usually got a lot more on our minds than remembering to take our bags. We seem to have collective amnesia.

Having forgotten the bags we then may experience something psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

We know we should reuse our bags, but have forgotten to, so to stop feeling bad and guilty we create mental excuses to justify ourselves – our time is too valuable to worry about something as trivial as carrier bags, besides we do plenty of other things for the environment, and it’s really an issue for the supermarkets or the government to sort out, and anyway what difference will a couple of carrier bags really make – we also promise ourselves we’ll reuse these bags next time.

Not using plastic bags might not save the world alone, but it’s possibly more important than you think, not just because of the energy footprint and plastic pollution, it’s also important for another reason. The problem of plastic bags is representative of a lot of other mass behaviour issues, from transport to food, where similar factors apply – relationships between convenience, cost, personal choice, responsibility, what everyone else is doing and how well we understand and accept the facts all play a part in determining our collective behaviour. Can good motives and gentle policy nudges make us all ‘do the right thing’, or is something else required ?

Breaking bad habits, like constantly forgetting to reuse bags, is hard – but we can make things easier for ourselves if rather than focussing only on the things we want to stop doing, we try to focus more on the things we want to start doing. It’s hard to say NO to something, until we’ve already said YES to something we want more.

If we cultivate a habit of returning our empty bags to the car after we unpack them, we’d have more chance of breaking our bad habit of taking new bags at the checkout.

So problem solved ?

Well, yes and no . . . how damaging are plastic bags anyway ?

Clearly manufacturing and transporting 10 billion bags a year in the UK alone, then giving them away free so they can be used once and then almost immediately thrown away  - causing local litter, filling landfills, and some ending up in the worlds oceans, isn’t going to win any environmental awards. The question is what are the alternatives ?

In February the UK Environment Agency published a report on the Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags. It suggests that a typical cotton ‘bag-for-life’ must be reused 171 times before it has a lower carbon footprint than a typical HDPE disposable bag, assuming the disposable bag is used once and then disposed of as a bin-liner for kitchen waste going to landfill. Crucially the report also states that cotton bags-for-life are, on average, actually only reused 51 times before being thrown away – making disposable HDPE bags much more environmentally friendly, at least in terms of carbon footprint !

Needless to say this has proved very controversial. In fact the report was quickly removed from the Environment Agency website, but with a bit of snooping around you can find copies elsewhere on the web if you’re interested – try here.

So things are more complex than they first appeared, and there are strong opinions on both sides – the same can be said of many other environmental issues. Sometimes we need to try to see things more simply.

It’s easy to get distracted by complexity and uncertainty, but unless we make a living from research or devising policy, the question that really matters is  - what should my own personal response be?

In the case of plastic bags, I’d suggest we simply keep reusing whatever bags we already have whenever we go shopping, keep doing so for as long as possible, and when we do eventually have to get new bags, choose them carefully based largely on durability.

In my own case I’ll also try to make sure I return my used bags to the car !

I’ll let Kermit have the last word.


Photo by Iragerich