Clearing Out Clutter

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An important first step in cutting down waste is changing your attitude toward stuff, which may be harder than you think. Most people in developed countries own far more things than they actually use, need, or even want. If old clothes, kitchenware, knickknacks, magazines, and other items are crammed into your closets or piled up in the basement, it's time to give yourself a little breathing room. If you're storing perfectly good items that you'll never use (or use again), you're cluttering up your life and keeping other people from having those things. Sell, donate, or recycle stuff you're not using to free up space and simplify your life.

The best way to attack clutter is one area at a time, so you don't feel overwhelmed. Cleaning out one closet or one junk drawer will give you one more decluttered space—and a sense of accomplishment. To get started, grab four boxes (three if you aren't planning on selling any of your cast-offs), and label them:

• Give away. This box is for items you'll donate to charity, give to friends or relatives, or simply hand to the first person who wants them. (Page 99 has suggestions of where to donate stuff.)

• Recycle. Put recyclable stuff in here, and sort it later using the guidelines on page 105.

• Sell. Things you want to sell through a consignment shop or yard sale go here. Be sure to drop them off at the shop or hold the yard sale soon. You want to turn clutter into money—not just move it into a box that becomes clutter itself.

• Throw away. You'll undoubtedly find items you can't sell, recycle, or give away, like old cosmetics, expired medications, cleaning products you've replaced with green alternatives (page 15), and so on.

^^ If you're getting rid of household chemicals, old paint, fluorescent bulbs, or similar items, don't just toss them in the trash—they're hazardous waste. Check with your city to find out how to dispose of them properly. Or go to http://earth911.com and type in the kind of thing you're throwing out and your Zip to learn where to discard the item in your area.

As you look around your house, some clutter is obvious; start with that to make a difference everyone can see. You'll enjoy the new, streamlined look of your spiffed-up room. Then start tackling other areas. Here are some places where clutter tends to accumulate:

• Closets. Many people have clothes they haven't worn in years pushed to the back of closets, shelves, and dresser drawers. Anything that doesn't fit anymore or that you haven't worn in a year is a candidate for weeding out. That doesn't mean you have to toss your wedding dress or high-school varsity jacket—sentimental value counts for something. But so does making extra space for clothes you wear now.

• Under beds. All kinds of things can make their way under beds and other furniture. Pull out whatever's hiding among the dust bunnies, and then decide whether to keep it or get rid of it.

• Kitchen cupboards. Do you have expired food; pots, pans, or utensils you never use; or maybe a crock pot or toaster that you forgot about taking up space? Take a look at what's in your cupboards—going all the way to the back.

• Bathroom cabinets. Here, you're likely to find expired medications and cosmetics, past-their-prime sponges and cleaning products, and ratty old towels that would be more useful as cleaning rags.

^^ Decluttering is a perfect excuse to organize. For example, refill the medicine cabinet only with those items you use every day and need within easy reach.

• Basement, attic, and/or garage. It's not uncommon for these areas to hold stacks of boxes that you never unpacked the last time you moved. If that's the case, think about whether you'll ever to use what's in those boxes. Clear out any unused furniture, boxes of old kids' clothes or toys, half-empty cans of paint, and chemicals like insect spray, varnish, and cleaning products (and replace them with healthy, natural alternatives—see page 16).

• Junk drawers. They're called "junk drawers" for a reason: They accumulate years' worth of stuff—a lot of it useless. But you may find some useful stuff in there, along with things to throw out or donate.

^^ After you go through a junk drawer, organize it so it doesn't get jumbled again. An easy way to do that is to cut up old cereal boxes and other cardboard and create in-drawer storage containers from them.

• Home office. More than a third of the trash people throw out is paper (see page 78), so it's likely your office is getting buried under an avalanche of the stuff, much of which is recyclable. Shred anything with sensitive info that you wouldn't want in the wrong hands, like old credit card bills.

As you sort through your stuff, ask yourself:

• Realistically, will I use this again? (Don't say "could I," say "will I"!)

• If I think I might need this again, what would I use it for? (Be specific.)

• What's would be the worst consequence if I never saw this item again?

Keep this list of questions at hand as you work, so you won't forget them.

Answering them honestly will help you decide which things truly help you or enrich your life and which are just taking up space.

^^ If you've got lots of clutter, clearing out even one small area may feel too big to handle. In that case, try setting a timer for 15 minutes, and then do as much as you can in that time. When the timer goes off, you'll have made progress, and you may even be inspired to keep going.

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