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The many costs of too much stuff (and some lessons for decluttering)

Over time, we accumulate stuff. Maybe we buy it, maybe it’s given to us, maybe we find it. Eventually our space becomes too full and too cluttered, and we need to do something about it.

One solution is to find some more space. There are a few options here. We can move to a bigger house or apartment, we can rent self-storage or a garage, or if we have amenable parents or friends, we can stash our stuff at theirs.

Getting more space costs us – time, money, or both. A bigger house or flat will mean higher costs, or if we decide to live further away in a cheaper neighbourhood then we spend more time travelling (and on fuel). Plus we have to spend time sorting and boxing our stuff and lugging it across town. If we’ve left our stuff with our amenable friends, there’s also the fear factor – the fear that they’ll appear on our doorstep in a few months with all of our stuff because they’re sick of tripping over it.

Plus this stuff cost us in the first place. If we took the time to look for it, and buy it, it cost us. If it was a gift, it cost someone else their time and money. Also, if our stuff was brand-new, there’s an environmental cost too. The raw materials needed to be mined or harvested, transported, processed, assembled, packaged, shipped, displayed and sold in order for us to have it.

Too much stuff also affects us in other ways, too. Clutter can affect our health. Clutter harbours dust and mould, which we breathe in. It makes us stressed and drains our energy. It can be a fire or trip hazard. Having a messy house that’s too full of stuff can be embarrassing, and make us ashamed to invite friends or family over, meaning we can become more isolated. In extreme cases, people have literally been killed by having too much stuff (I’m not going to provide any links but if you don’t believe me, google it.)

We can become slaves to our stuff. The more we have, the more it demands of us, and we end up trying to make our stuff happy. We spend time cleaning and dusting, rearranging and polishing. We buy more stuff to improve our stuff (a new display cabinet to show off our stuff, a bigger wardrobe so our clothes aren’t so squashed, a new addition to our ‘shiny things’ collection that makes it just that little bit more splendid). It is all consuming.

Of course, there’s another way to deal with having too much stuff.

Getting rid of some of it.

It sounds fairly simple, but it’s something I struggle with. Stuff can have a pretty tight grip on us. Living with my boyfriend in our one-bedroom flat – the smallest place I’ve ever lived in – for the last 18 months has been a great experience in living with less. Slowly but surely though, the amount of stuff has built up and the flat is currently feeling less than zen.

We did think about moving into a two-bedroom place, but it would cost us an extra $3000 a year. That’s a lot of money to spend on an extra room to keep all our stuff in. That money could be spent on a pretty amazing holiday. There was no contest. We’re going to stay where we are and I am going to learn how to declutter.

We’ve had a couple of attempts at decluttering so far, with mixed success, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons. Our first attempt was dedicating a weekend to decluttering, where I mostly just got impatient that our flat wasn’t decluttered already. In reality I didn’t really do much to assist the process. We got rid of one box of things. After reflecting, I decided to try a different approach.

Lesson 1: It’s not enough to want to declutter, no matter how much you desperately want it. You have to put in the physical work too.

Lesson 2: Don’t expect miracles. If you’re new to decluttering, or you’ve been a hoarder all your life, you’re not going to change in one weekend. Change takes time.

Lesson 3: If one method doesn’t work for you, try something else until you find something that does.

My next idea was to try to get rid of 100 things by taking smaller steps, and getting rid of 5 things a day. We gathered together a few bits and pieces for the charity shops and Gumtree, and we recycled some glass and cardboard that we’d been keeping (sorry, that I’d insisted we keep) in case they turned out to be useful. Excluding the rubbish and recycling, we got rid of 36 things. Not the 100 I wanted, but we did clear some more stuff.

Lesson 4: Focus on what you did achieve, not what you didn’t, and celebrate your successes, however small they may seem.

Lesson 5: If it all gets too much, take a step back. Come back to it when you feel ready again.

I decided to take some time out, and now I’m feeling re-energised and ready for another attempt. I’ve decided that this time I’m going to focus on clutter. All the stuff that seems transient, and really should have a permanent home, yet somehow doesn’t actually seem to.

I’m going to tackle the clutter from the other side. I’m going to have a major thorough spring clean, one section of the flat at a time. Rather than imagining a clutter-free space, the idea is that I’ll actually create it. Rather than being a conscious thought, it’ll be a physical manifestation. Maybe if I can see it with my own eyes, then my conscious mind will know what’s going on, can let my subconscious mind in on the plan and we’ll all be on the same page. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I don’t have all the answers to successful decluttering, but I’m learning all the time, and I’m hopeful that if I keep at it, it will get easier!

The JOCO cup: a reuseable coffee cup made from glass

It’s not often that I see a product that I think is worth raving about. After all, we can’t save the planet by buying more stuff, no matter how great the eco credentials claim to be. But when I came across the JOCO cup I thought it was worth sharing.

I’ve talked before about how takeaway coffee cups are made from fossil fuels (yep, that’s where plastic comes from) and are creating a huge landfill problem. The same goes for those biodegradeable ones that actually need commercial composters to biodegrade (you can read that post here).

The way I see it, there’s two simple solutions. Dine in, or bring your own reuseable cup.

I bought a KeepCup, which is made of durable plastic. I’ve used it countless times. I was torn between buying the KeepCup, which appealed to me because its cups are standardised sizes (8oz, 12oz and 16oz, the same as disposable coffee cups), and buying a non-plastic alternative. I would rather have purchased a stainless steel one (or even ceramic) but they all seemed to come in bizarre and impractical sizes. (If your takeaway coffee cup is too tall to fit underneath an expresso machine, it rather defeats the point of having it, don’t you think?!)

The downside of the plastic KeepCup is that it does retain the taste and smell of the previous drink. No matter how many times I wash it out. Soaking overnight with a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate does a pretty good job of removing it, but wouldn’t it be better if I could wash it once and be done with it? The plastics used in the KeepCup are polypropylene for the cup (type 5) and LDPE (type 4) for the lid, which are both considered safer types of plastic. They thought that about plastic with BPA and phthalates once though. This type of plastic isn’t easily recycled either, so disposal will be an issue at the end of its life. Reuseable plastic is better than disposable plastic, but the best would be no plastic at all.

So I’ve been quietly waiting for KeepCup to bring out a stainless steel alternative.

It seems like JOCO have beaten them to it. Not with stainless steel, but another non-toxic material – glass. I wish the JOCO cup had been around when I was in the market for one. It truly seems to be the best of both worlds. The JOCO cup is made out of glass, with a silicone band so your fingers don’t get scalded. It’s the only glass coffee cup I’ve ever seen. Plus they come in proper barista sizes: 8oz and 12oz. And they’re easy on the eye, if stylishness is your thing.

JOCO cupThe other thing I love is that they sell replacement glass, bands and lids so if you lose any of the bits (or the glass breaks) you can replace them without having to buy a whole new one. This may seem obvious, but often companies make it very hard to buy replacement parts. If you’ve ever broken the glass in a coffee plunger and tried to buy a replacement you’ll know exactly what I mean.

I don’t have a JOCO cup, and I haven’t tried using one. I won’t be getting one either, because my KeepCup still has plenty of life left and to get rid of it would be wasteful. Discarding old products to buy new ones, however green they may be, is not the sustainable option.

But I know there’s a few people out there who are taking part in Plastic Free July, and maybe haven’t got round to buying a reusable coffee cup of their own yet. In which case, here’s another option for you to consider.

The humble teabag: maybe not so innocent?

I’ve always used teabags. I like their convenience. That’s the thing, though. Convenience is a word that I’ve come to be suspicious of. After all, convenience is what created the plastic pollution problem that we have today. In particular, convenience foods and all its unnecessary plastic packaging. Like pre-peeled bananas on Styrofoam trays and cling wrapped with more plastic to save us all the ‘hassle’ of peeling them. (Think I’m joking?! Check out the Time magazine article about it here.)

I was very pleased when I found out that Twining teabags do not come in a cellophane wrapped box, nor do they come with that plastic-disguised-as-foil inner packaging inside the box. Most other brands have one (or both) of these. Even those ‘silk’ teabags are actually made of plastic. But Twinings offer me plastic-free teabags, hurrah!

I’d been using these plastic free teabags for a while, and I noticed that the thread is held together by a tiny metal staple. Have you ever noticed that? My box of 100 teabags has 100 staples. How are they stapled together? Is there a person sitting in a dark room somewhere stapling teabags together? Has someone invented a machine that can staple the stringy bit to the tea bag with no physical labour required?

Let’s think about this. Metal comes out of the ground. It’s mined. It’s then got to be made into a staple. It’s got to be transported to the teabag factory. Then, somehow, it’s got to be attached to the teabag along with the stringy bit. And all of this occurs to save me the inconvenience of having to remove the teabag from my cup with a spoon. Is that not a tiny bit ridiculous?

Before you point out that other teabag brands do not have staples, or even strings, whilst I know that’s true, I am yet to find any that don’t have plastic cellophane packaging, or plastic ‘foil’ wrapping, or some other unnecessary packaging.

There’s a simple solution of course. Switch to loose leaf tea.

 

teajpgOver the last few months I’ve slowly been using up my teabag stash, and replacing them with loose leaf tea. The other great thing about this is that loose leaf tea tastes far better. There are a number of grades of tea and the lowest is called dust (or fannings) – it’s this stuff that usually ends up in teabags. If you buy loose leaf tea you’re buying a better quality product.

Switching from teabags to loose leaf tea may not save the planet, but it reduces packaging, prevents plastic-rage (when you get home to discover that the item you were so sure was plastic-free was hiding it all along), and makes a far better brew. What’s not to love?

I was on the radio for Plastic Free July!

plastic-free-july-logo-banner-lgeWhen I spoke at the Plastic Free July launch back in April (I wrote about it here) about my experience of Plastic Free July in 2012, I was also asked to record a brief interview with radio station RTR FM.

Well, this week my interview was aired!

Quite exciting, as I’ve never been on the radio before.

I have no idea how to add media files to the blog – or if it’s even possible – so I’m just going to share the link. If you’re interested, click here to hear the Understorey Plastic Free July programme recorded by RTR FM.

Happy listening!

A month without.

Today is the 1st July. I quite like that it also happens to be a Monday. It feels like an even better day for the start of new things. Plastic Free July has started, so it’s a month without plastic. As we don’t buy anything much in plastic these days, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, but it’ll be good to keep us on our toes and keep track of anything that does come our way, which we will put in the dilemma bag. The dilemma bag is for all the plastic we just can’t do without, or the sneaky plastic that thwarts our attempts to buy plastic-free. When we first gave up plastic, we kept everything in a dilemma bag but we had nowhere to keep it so after a few months we decided to stop. But we’ll resume it for the month and see how much (hopefully none!) we accumulate. Read more

My latest shower accessory

Last week my boyfriend and I went to a Water Smart workshop, which was about both the issues Perth is facing with water demand and supply, and how to use water sustainably. On the way home, my boyfriend commented that he wasn’t really motivated to make any changes to our lives, because water didn’t seem as important as other things, like power or transport. I was inclined to agree. I think greywater systems and rainwater tanks are fantastic, but we don’t own our own house, so this is something for the future. It is something I’d definitely do in the future, but it’s probably a long way off, and not relevant to us now. Read more

My new minimalist living space (the confessions of a hoarder)

I decided to take a week off from writing the blog in order to clear some space in my life (both the tiny flat that I live in, and also my schedule) and create some order. Now I would like to return triumphantly with reports of dazzling success, a new minimalist living space and feelings of serenity and calm.

Alas, that isn’t exactly what happened.

Last week I set myself the challenge of ridding myself of 100 things I no longer wanted/needed/used by the end of the month. I was committed. I was willing. I hadn’t decided what 100 things, but that was just a minor detail. To make it even easier, the weekend was a long weekend with a public holiday, so an extra day for sorting.

But despite my best efforts to sit on the sofa whilst willing the decluttering to miraculously begin, berating the general lack of action, and chastising my boyfriend every time he settled down to read a book/magazine for not helping, we didn’t manage to clear out anywhere near as much as I’d hoped.

We managed to fill a box with stuff to take to the charity shop. We also managed to get rid of two wastepaper baskets of recycling. I wish I could say it was a commendable effort, and a good first attempt, but in three days, I think I should have managed a bit more. I think I should have managed a LOT more. I like the idea of the stuff being gone, but actually doing the tasks that make it happen is another thing altogether.

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This one box was the result of three days of sorting. I think it demonstrates quite well how most of the ‘sorting’ actually consisted of (me) moaning about the sorting, and (me) talking about how great it would be once the sorting was actually done, rather than actual genuine sorting. We (actually, no, my boyfriend did that) did put an additional couple of things on eBay and Gumtree, but actually, they’d fit inside this box too, so no extra points for those.

And that’s the thing. It’s me that’s stopping the process. I just can’t get rid of anything! Every time my boyfriend threw something in the bin I scurried over and fished it back out. He tested a drawer full of pens and threw the ones in the bin that didn’t work, but even then I was tempted to get them back out and test them myself just in case one of them could be saved. Why?! We have a million other biros that work and we don’t need those either.

And then on Monday evening when we went to bed, I said that I wished we’d got it all finished, and he looked at me in amazement, and said “but it’s not a job that’ll be finished and then you’re done. It’s a job that you’ll always need to keep coming back to.”

What?!?!?!? How can that be true?! Surely I can spend three days sorting out my things and then I will rejoice in my clutter-free space and will never need to declutter again? What if I declare never to buy or acquire anything ever again? What does he mean, I’m going to have to go through this all over again in a few months time?!

Of course, he’s right. Maybe some people could do it, but I am never going to be a true minimalist. I’m probably never going to be close! I hate waste too much. I have three pairs of shoes in my closet that I haven’t worn for over a year – in fact two of them I haven’t worn in two or three years. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of them.

I think when people accumulate stuff, and the stuff starts to get in the way of their lives, they have two choices. They either get a bigger house, or more storage, in order to assimilate their possessions and not have to really think about them. Or they decide to have a clear-out, in which case they have to face up to the money they’ve wasted, the dreams that never quite came true (even though you bought the book on paper maché crafts or the home candle-making kit or whatever new hobby, you just never quite got round to it), and the emotions which come with that (be it guilt, anger, resentment, or simply frustration at having too much stuff). Maybe some people really don’t care, they happily just chuck it all in the bin and head back to the shops to get a load more shiny new stuff, but for me, I find this second option really confronting.

What it means, though, is that on the public holiday weekend, whilst friends of mine are spending a few days relaxing in the beautiful Margaret River region down south and having a glorious time, I am at home fishing things out of the dustbin. That is the consequence of my having too much stuff. And it’s rubbish – literally.

So I’ve decided I need to rethink my challenge in order to actually make some progress. I think it’s going to be easier for me if I break my goal of 100 things down into bite-size chunks. I’m going to commit to getting rid of 5 things every day for the next 20 days. That will take me to the 24th June. Hopefully if I’m on a bit of a roll, I’ll be able to keep going until the end of the month.

I think spending a few minutes every day is a much better option than dedicating three days to achieving greatness, and then feeling miserable about my lack of achievement. And as that didn’t work anyway, I’m not going to spend another weekend floundering.

So, small steps. I’m off to find my five things to get rid of today. Wish me luck!

My 100 Things Challenge

I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed this week. It started with the washing. But it’s been a busy week too. I’ve had meetings, I’m currently participating in a course, I’m working with a couple of organisations on two different projects, I’m presenting next week on sustainable transport, all on top of all the regular stuff I need to do and all the things I want to do. I like to fill my time, get involved and keep busy, but then sometimes I stop and look at everything I’m planning to do, and I get that ‘whoah!‘ feeling where I don’t even know where to start.

And if my schedule is feeling cluttered, so is the physical place of my life, my tiny flat. I think, maybe, that when one aspect of your life is busy or cluttered you look for solace in the other parts. Well there’s no solace in the tiny flat! I talked a bit on Monday about how slowly I’ve been accumulating clothes, but it’s not just clothes. Yesterday we picked up our new sofa. It’s not actually new, but a bargain find from the Salvation Army charity shop, and we’d needed a new sofa since we sold the old one. (The old one had to go as it took up half the flat, literally, which I hadn’t realised when I bid on it on eBay because I didn’t actually bother to check the dimensions.) The new sofa allows us to seat people whilst leaving enough space in the tiny flat to fit in some storage so we no longer need to keep piles of things on the floor. Since losing the old sofa we got also got a set of drawers to put all the stuff in. Which is great…

Except the piles of stuff are still sitting around the place, or shoved in the drawers. They’ve not been sorted. I have that uneasy feeling that comes with not being entirely sure where any of your stuff is.

And the other thing that makes me uneasy, is this word ‘need’. We ‘needed’ the sofa. We ‘needed’ the drawers. We ‘needed’ the glass pyrex storage containers that I bought last week because we don’t have enough food storage. I feel like I’ve been spending like crazy and accumulating stuff, and when I look around the flat and in the cupboards I see too much stuff. It’s so easy to justify everything, to think it will make your life better, or easier. But all that stuff needs sorting, and tidying, and cleaning, and finding again when I’ve tidied it away and don’t remember where away actually is. And for all the new stuff that I ‘need’, there’s plenty of stuff that is no longer useful.

I love the idea of simplicity, but I am a natural hoarder. It’s a constant battle. I want to believe that those things will become useful again. Something has to tip me over the edge and push me into action. Well this week, that has happened. So whilst I’m still in the moment I’ve made a pledge. I’m going to get rid of 100 things.

I have no idea which 100 things. I have no idea if that’s a lot, or once I get started I’ll be able to get rid of 300 things. (Wouldn’t that be nice?!) All that stuff in the kitchen cupboards that I haven’t used since we moved in? That’s going. The clothes I haven’t worn since arriving in Australia? Out. The stuff in the bottom of the boxes that never got entirely emptied when we moved in? It’s not staying.

I’m going to give myself a month. And I’m putting it out here in a public forum because it should motivate me to actually go through with it! I’m hopeful that less clutter will mean a more positive environment, less stress, fewer chores (more time!) and more freedom.

Remember the film Fight Club? My friend and I were obsessed with it in school, particularly because of all the great quotes (there are many). Even now, I can remember many of them. I wanted to finish with one because I think it’s so true. It’s another reason to de-clutter your life.

“The things you own end up owning you.”

Recycled sculpture: the Castaways sculpture awards at Rockingham

This weekend I went to Rockingham for the last day of the Castaways Sculpture Awards 2013. The exhibition runs for 9 days on the Rockingham foreshore and aims to raise the profile of recycling and environmental sustainability through art. All exhibits must have a recycled component. Read more

Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

Plastic is rubbish: why waste valuable resources on single-use throwaway items?

I don’t like plastic. I avoid buying it and I talk a lot about plastic-free living on the blog, so I thought it might be useful to provide some background information on plastic, and some of the reasons why I decided to give it up in the first place. There’s so many reasons why plastic is bad (for our health, for the environment, for our sanity) and I’m not going to talk about them all now. I’ll stick to just one – waste.

Plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, either oil or natural gas. It doesn’t just come from the magic ‘plastic factory’. And the problem with this is that once the non-renewable fossil fuels run out, we don’t have any more. But it’s not even the running out that matters. The problems will begin when production hits its maximum rate, because after this oil prices will increase and production of oil-based industries (transport, agriculture, production) will begin to decline, and continue to do so. And if you think that’s way in the future, think again. It’s happening now. Some people think it may have already happened (in 2006). Have you noticed the prices of fuel at the petrol pumps seem to be on an ever-upward spiral?

oil production

This graph shows the discovery of oil deposits and oil production over time. I found it on Wikipedia but if you search the internet for ‘oil production’ images you’ll find hundreds of similar graphs.

There are, of course, people who claim that peak oil (which is what it’s called, by the way – the point of maximum production) will never happen, or at least for a long long time. But whether they’re wrong or right isn’t the point. Both sides agree that oil and fossil fuels in general are a valuable resource that we rely on to keep civilization going. In fact, we are completely dependent on them.

So if oil is such a valuable commodity, why are we using it to make cheap, single-use, disposable and throwaway items?

There’s no doubt that plastic can be useful, for example in healthcare, medicine and construction. The problem is that it’s become totally ubiquitous and is used for everything – and a lot of these uses are completely unnecessary and a waste of a valuable resource.

The other important thing to remember is that every little bit of plastic ever produced since that first piece is still around. This stuff doesn’t decompose, instead it creates huge amounts of landfill – or worse, makes its way to the oceans where it’s unwittingly ingested by unsuspecting sea life.

So why not cut down the amount of rubbish we sent to landfill and save the fossil fuels for the stuff that we actually need like fuel? Why not stop using fossil fuels so wastefully to make disposable items that we’re just gonna throw away?

But what about plastic recycling?

Plastic recycling is a bit of a con. It makes us feel better about our consumption, because we can put our empty plastic containers in the recycling bin and feel that they will be magically transformed into new plastic containers. But that isn’t what happens. Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled. This means it’s made into a product with inferior quality or functionality. Secondly, not all plastic is equal, and different plastics are processed differently. For some types it is very difficult to make back into useful products. Thirdly, just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it. What happens to your plastic depends on the number on the bottom, written inside what is thought of, ironically, as the recycling arrow.

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Some of the numbers you find on the bottom of plastic containers, which tell us what type of plastic the container is made of and whether/how it will be recycled.

There are 7 types of plastic, which are numbered 1 – 7, and not all are commonly recycled. (Technically 1 – 6 are different specific types, whereas 7 is a collection called ‘other’.) It’s easy to assume that if there’s a recycling arrow on the bottom of a container then it will be recycled, but actually only types 1 and 2 are commonly recycled. My local council collects types 1,2, 3 and 5. Any other type of plastic collected in my area is heading to landfill. You can check with your local authority to find out which types they will recycle.

Think it’s not too much of an issue? Here’s some figures for you.

  • In the USA in 2010, 31 million tons of plastic waste was generated and only 8% of plastic was recycled. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Just under half of this plastic (14 million tons) was food containers and food packaging. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • In Australia in 2007, almost 4 billion lightweight single use plastic bags were used. Almost 3 billion of these came from supermarkets. Source: Australian Government
  • In Australia in 2002, 50-80 million of these bags became litter in the environment. Source: Australian Government
  • The amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag could drive a car 11 metres. Source: Australian Government
  • In the UK, 3 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year. 11% of household waste is plastic, and 40% of this is plastic drinks bottles. Source: University of Cambridge
  • In the UK in 2005, 414,000 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled (around 20% of total plastic waste). Of this, 324,000 tonnes of plastic was exported to China, over 8000km away, for recycling. Source: WRAP UK

So a large part of this plastic problem comes from food and drink packaging, which has been driven by our desire for ‘convenience’ and made us into a ‘throwaway society’. But it doesn’t need to be like this – a lot of this packaging is avoidable, and with very little effort. Whilst I don’t want to list of all the things you can do (it would triple the size of this post! – so I’ll save it for another time), most of the solutions are really quite simple. Taking your own bags to the supermarket reduces the need for disposable plastic bags; using tap water (you can treat it with a water filter to remove the chemicals) and carrying a water bottle from home stops the need to buy bottled water; and buying your fruit and vegetables loose rather than prepackaged in cellophane wrap and polystyrene trays cuts out heaps of wasteful and unnecessary packaging. And just refusing to buy things that are ridiculously over-packaged.

Let’s face it. Plastic is rubbish.

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Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr