A Planet-friendly Way to Declutter

heart in the middle of a shrubbery
Image by 2023852 from Pixabay

One of the “hot topics” in the professional organizing industry today is how to declutter in a planet-friendly manner. I’m pleased to say that professional organizers (and many junk haulers, for that matter) are focused on doing what we can to minimize the number of items going into landfills by providing alternatives for recycling, upcycling, and otherwise reusing. Today I’d like to offer one specific idea for reducing the amount of clutter in your home that is both free and green. Specifically, I am encouraging you to “use it up.”

By “use it up” I simply mean squeezing out the remaining portion of usefulness of items you own until they no longer have value. Exactly how this is done will depend on the item, but it many cases, doing so will have two benefits:

  1. It will ease any guilt you might have about letting go because the item will no longer have purpose and/or worth.
  • There will be physically less of the item to dispose of, minimizing the impact of its disposal.

You may think that there are few items in your space which might qualify for this approach, but I imagine there are more than quickly come to mind. Here is a list of candidates in your space that you might be able to “use up.”

Items to “Use Up”

Small portions of cereal in the bottom of large boxes. You might even be able to combine them into one serving, depending on their flavor.

Snack bags you have brought back from airplane flights, parties, or other events that have fallen to the back of a drawer or shelf. Pull them out and eat them up.

Leftovers that are crowding your refrigerator. Pull them all out one night and let family members “choose their own meal” from whatever is there.

Frozen food you can’t identify. Thaw it and figure out what it is. Then make a plan to cook it up. (If the food is no longer good, let it go.)

Bottles of wine and spirits that have accumulated in your liquor cabinet. Drink it yourself or have friends over for a cocktail party. If you uncork a bottle that tastes bad, dump it and recycle the bottle.

Frosting and other decorating supplies. While it is nice to have a few supplies on hand for that last minute need, most people have dribs and drabs of sprinkles, frostings, food coloring, and other food décor that is taking up space in the kitchen. Depending on how frequently you bake, these might hang around for years. Pull out your stash and do a little baking. Maybe a single batch of cookies or cupcakes will provide the perfect way to clear it out. Let the kids decorate to their hearts’ content, and then the containers will be empty and easy to recycle.

Paper plates, cups, napkins, chopsticks, and plastic cutlery from take-out or past events (e.g., holidays or birthday parties). We tend to hold onto items like these thinking we will use them in the future, but then we never do. One idea for using them up is to have a “mismatched” meal (or two, or three…) where you use the various pieces. Another strategy is to place these supplies in with your regular dishes so you will grab them – and hence use them – without having to think about it. I once used up an old box of plastic knives by simply putting one out each night to butter my toast the following morning. In two weeks, they were gone!

Candles, particularly those that have been burned but aren’t “finished.” Light candles at dinner (or breakfast, or at your desk, or around the bathtub…) until they have burned down to the point that they are garbage.

Half-read books. Many people start books, read a chapter or two, and then put the book on the shelf. Pull those books out and read them. Or, if you think, “I didn’t really like this book and don’t want to finish it,” then go ahead and donate it. You probably won’t like it more the second time around.

Bubble bath/bath bombs/bath oil/body wash/special lotion/fancy soap/special shaving cream. These items are often received as gifts, and our tendency is to stash them away for a “special” time. Then we forget about them. Dig through your bathroom and pull these out. Put them where you will use them. Haven’t taken a bath in years? Either indulge this week, or feel free to donate the ones that are unopened and still good.

Lipstick. I know we are all wearing masks, and as a result, lipstick may be piling up. Or, perhaps you got a “free sample” of lipstick (or other makeup) that you don’t really love. If you hate it, definitely pitch it. If it’s just ok, use it up when you are out and about for functional purposes (as opposed to a big date). It still moisturizes your lips, right?

Perfume and cologne. This is another item we tend to collect and keep for special occasions. Unfortunately, perfume has a shelf life (on average, around 3-5 years). Why not simply wear perfume every day? You can find scents you love for different kinds of settings, such as one for work and another for evenings out. There is even some evidence to suggest that scents can help us store and recall information, such as when studying for a test or presentation. Who know?

Tissue packets. Some people tend to have small, half-used tissue packets lying around. These are convenient and handy if you are using them, but sometimes they get forgotten and end up clogging up space. If you find an old packet in the bottom of a bag, in the seatback pocket of a car, or anywhere else, pull it out and use it. Put the whole packet on top of the tissue box if this helps you remember to use it up.

Mostly empty bags of yard and garden supplies. Have a bag with a little bit of grass seed lying around in the garage? Or maybe a large plastic bag with 3 cups of potting soil left? These bags are big, messy, and attract dust. While the weather is still nice, see if you can use them up and then pitch the bags. Pot up a few plants, sprinkle the grass seed or fertilizer in a space that is looking thin, or otherwise employ the products in your garden. Odds are you will need to buy more – and hence, new – come spring anyway, so why store that little bit in your garage all winter?

Notebooks, notepads, journals, coloring books, etc. Having a few backup supplies is a good idea. Having drawers full of paper that has been written in or colored on in the first few pages and then abandoned can create a lot of clutter. As with other hidden items, out of sight tends to mean out of mind. Pull these old items out and put them to use. If/when they are mostly used up, recycling the paper is easy.

Half-used craft kits. A new craft kit is exciting. The supplies are sitting there, organized in a tidy manner and to children they just spell “possibility.” Unfortunately, once the kit has been partially used, with the remaining contents sloppily stashed back in the box, they tend to be less appealing. Pull out any old kits and rescue supplies that can still be used. For example, take the markers and crayons out of the box and toss them in with your basket of markers or crayons. Add unused beads to a beading box that has a well-sealing lid. Salvage paper or other elements that are still usable, and put them with like items. Then go ahead and trash or recycle whatever is no longer useful.

Puzzles. Having puzzles on hand for a rainy day is a great idea. Having a closet full of puzzles that you never use is a space-clogger. If you like puzzles, pull one out and get it started. If you have a dining room table or other surface that is seldom used, spread the pieces out, face up. Get the party started by putting a few pieces together. Invite anyone else in your space to take a try when they have a few spare minutes. Puzzles are great magnets for people with a bit of down-time. Once the puzzle is completed, especially if it is a big one, you probably won’t work on it again, so disassemble it and donate it.

Disposable cameras. Today most people use their phones for taking photos, but I still find old film-style disposable cameras lying around in drawers and bins. If you find one, pull it out and get it developed. Does it still have unused film? Take some photos tonight! Then take it to a local retailer to get it processed. Don’t have a place nearby who will develop it? Try an online service.

Fancy dishes. Okay, this isn’t an item we actually “use up,” but it still kind of fits in this category. Many people have sets of dishes and china that they have received as gifts, purchased, or inherited. They store it, but don’t use it, because they don’t want to damage it. They want to keep it in good shape so that it can be handed down to future generations. Unfortunately, the future generation may be uninterested in receiving handed-down china, especially if it has a lot of flowers or feels “out of fashion.” You may be able to resell the dishes, so go ahead and find out what it is truly worth. Markets are fickle, and many sets that were expensive in the past have little value today.

If you are saving your pieces for a family member, now is the time to ask them if they want it. If they don’t, and if your set is not worth much in the resale marketplace, why not pull it out and start using it? Yes, you might chip a piece or two, and yes, the gold trim may come off in the dishwasher. But, if this happens, you will only find it easier to let go when the piece is no longer useful.

*     *     *

These are just a few ideas of ways to “use up” your clutter. Next time you run across an item that is jamming your drawer, closet, or shelf, ask yourself if maybe the best way to get rid of it is simply to “use it up.”

Can you think of an item that might qualify to be “used up?”

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31 thoughts on “A Planet-friendly Way to Declutter”

  1. I love your planet-saving ways to ‘use up the things we own, from combining the random cereal “crumbs” together to pulling out and reading (or donating) those half-read books. I’m guilty as charged when it comes to books. I tend to start a book, get at least halfway through, and then begin another one that looks interesting. The past few weeks, I’ve been on a mission to finish those partially read books. I’m happy to report that I completed two and donated the third (because I didn’t like it.) It feels good to gain space on my bedroom end table.

    We can get overly focused on disposing of things responsibly to the point of inaction. I see this with many of my clients. However, you’ve provided many easy and practical strategies, which I know will work for most people.

    1. Congratulations on bringing three books to completion! That must feel so good. 🙂 I figure this kind of decluttering is simple and yet still quite rewarding, right? The list could go on and go once you start looking for things to use up.

  2. I love these ideas to use up, repurpose and share. In Houston we have an amazing resource called Texas Art Asylum. As you might imagine, there are many of these items that are donated there. It is a way to share resources that make a difference.

    1. I love this Art Asylum idea. It is the “bits and pieces” that we often don’t know how to deal with. Perfect that this organization has found a way to connect supply with need. We are getting better and better with this I think!

  3. I love this post. It’s a non-waste kiss to the planet that makes so much sense and easily declutters our homes. Your suggestions are super. I also love how you describe it, “use it up” I simply mean squeezing out the remaining portion of usefulness of items you own until they no longer have value.
    I stand behind a no waste concept. Using up food isn’t always popular. I always check expiration dates first and then make meals using up what I already have on hand.
    Ronni Eisenberg recently posted…10 Genius Tips for Packing When it’s Time to Make that Super Dreaded MoveMy Profile

    1. I have a friend who, every Lent, conducted an intentional “pantry purge,” figuring out meals from what she had on hand, rather than running to the store for more ingredients. Very inspiring idea!

  4. These are wonderful ideas to use things up, Seana! Things get pushed to the back of cupboards and drawers when they are only partially used. Using them up now (before the holidays) lets us create space for new things to come in. My favorite idea here is to have a baking party! When my children were small that was one of my favorite things to do. It was so much fun to see the creations they came up with – in terms of decorating!

    1. I still have some random baking supplies in a box in my pantry and I’m hoping to “bake them up.” Even though I don’t have little kids, it will still be fun. 🙂

  5. Great suggestions! I love this idea of using the items up. I’m going to share this with my groups on Facebook.

    During the pandemic, I was able to use up the plastic forks/knives/spoons quickly. We would wrap the fork and knives/spoons together with a napkin, tie them with a ribbon or rope, and place them in plastic bags during parties. By doing this, the items were more germ-free. I pulled from these already assembled items when we have small gatherings during the year. It was super helpful, and I didn’t have to wash them after the gathering. =)
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…DIY Organizing Projects to Keep the Kitchen Running SmoothlyMy Profile

    1. That is a terrific idea, Sabrina! I’ll do the same next time I have a social gathering. Just feels safer during COVID, and uses up some odds and ends.

  6. I love how thorough this post is, Seana! You covered so much! I try really hard not to bring anything into my home that I won’t use, because I can’t stand the idea of it just sitting there, taking up space. I reject the plastic utensils (but give me ALL the chopsticks, because invariably I’ll forget to grab chopsticks when I buy sushi or one set will slide out of the paper sheath and tumble to the ground at least once a month or so) and I have a central place where all those notepads live so I’m sure to grab them for making grocery lists or writing reminder notes.

    I’ll admit though, I’m terrible about finishing up a loaf of bread. I hate putting bread in the freezer, and the bread I like usually reaches sub-par (or at least sub-perfect) status while there are at least half a dozen slices left. I know not to feed bread to the ducks or birds, but there must be another way to use it up without me having to eat it!

    1. Well, I suppose you could thoroughly dry it out and make your own breadcrumbs! If that’s your only challenge, though, I think you are doing very well. 🙂

  7. I love this. We hold onto so many things thinking we will use them and then we don’t. Committing to using things up is practical and easy and a great way to feel like you are making progress in your efforts to declutter. I also love anything that keeps stuff out of landfills.

  8. Hi Seana,
    I love using things up. Gives me a real sense of satisfaction. When it comes to books, I will take a couple down off my shelves and plan to read them again or for the first time. If I can’t get into them, off they go to the charity. Interesting post and one I am sure many clients can relate to.

  9. So many great ideas to keep thing moving, Seana! I’m a great one for frugally saving birthday candles, and the forgetting and running out for more anyway. Next time, I think we’ll just have a cake with all the forgotten birthday candles on it!

  10. I just reorganized by bathroom and had a bunch of bath bombs, face masks, and bubble bath. I made a “spa” box and hope to use up some of these items for a little weekly pampering!

  11. So many good suggestions. I do try to use up a lot of the categories you mentioned. I’m working on my gardening stuff right now before winter comes. I’ll be making some space in my garage instead of storing those small bits all winter.

    1. The garage is so precious in the winter that saving space by getting rid of those little bits is definitely worth it. I have a list of stuff to get rid of as well. Now I just need to get my husband on board.

  12. I am a big proponent of mixing cereals, ha! We recently decluttered the pantry and I was appalled at the frosting/baking sprinkles we have. I do like the idea of using those up. Sometimes I’m a “toss everything” person, but often, I channel my depression-era grandparents in finding awesome solutions, like the ones mentioned here. I just can’t bear to throw some things away, but yes, like with the bath stuff, I put it away for a rainy day. Well. It rained today! Who not take a spa bath.
    Tamara recently posted…Best Ever Caramel Apples For FallMy Profile

    1. I’ve been taking my own advice on this one and am using up a small contingent of red plastic ware we had in the pantry. It’s either a late Valentine’s Day party or an early Christmas around here LOL!

  13. I love all these suggestions! When we were a family of four, we often stored leftovers in the freezer, whether or not there was enough for another meal. Then every once in a while we’d take them all out and have a “special buffet.”

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