The difficulties of decluttering and eco-living amid a Marie Kondo-craze

  • Jan. 17, 2019 3:20 p.m.

TORONTO — A decluttering craze fuelled by Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show is sparking joy for adherents, but also highlighting the hurdles and unspoken practices of what it takes to live with less.

There is a dark side to a minimalist movement in which a good chunk of unwanted belongings ends up in the trash despite good intentions, say garbage, recycling and donation collectors who are ramping up publicity efforts to make sure useful items don’t end up in landfill.

While the Salvation Army’s national donation manager is buoyed by what Kondo-fever could do for the non-profit’s chain of thrift stores, she bemoans the ongoing belief by some that single socks and stained towels are at the end of their lifespan.

Tonny Colyn urges declutterers to add those to the donation pile, noting they can be recycled into industrial rags, or shredded for stuffing.

“It’s terrible when people have a ripped pair of jeans that they throw in the trash,” says Colyn, adding that while they accept such items, not all charities do.

“We can actually get value out of that for local communities that help people in need, even if it’s only a few cents or a few dollars because we recycle it. It’s still worth it and it’s much better for the environment.”

Colyn says there’s been a seasonal spike in used goods donations, which she attributes to annual patterns rather than a Kondo-craze. She says data in mid-February could shed light on whether “Tidying Up“‘s Jan. 1 debut might have inspired more castoffs.

Other observers note that downsizing is only half the battle — the real issue is resisting the powerful cultural and advertising forces that drive consumption ever-higher.

For those unwilling to also address their own excessive shopping habits, austere living will simply be temporary, says marketing professor Monica LaBarge.

“If you’re not treating the underlying issue then it’s unlikely that once you get rid of all that stuff that you’re just not going to acquire more stuff,” says LaBarge, who researches consumer behaviour at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Tiny house advocate Kenton Zerbin says he and his wife happily downsized to a 260-square-foot abode just outside Edmonton two years ago but acknowledges there are challenges.

The little-known secret is that many tiny house residents rely on outside storage to manage all their stuff, he reveals.

“Most people will have somewhere to back up, just a little bit, whether that’s a shop on the site, a relative’s (place) close by, or a tool trailer,” says Zerbin, who uses a tool trailer to cope.

“I’m not going to put my gigantic-by-tiny-house-standards suitcase that I go on all my travel trips with in my tiny house, there’s no spot for it. So I chuck it in there and it’s an auxiliary storage area.”

Zerbin detects “a Hollywood extremist side” to the popular Kondo series, which in recent weeks has inspired people to post social media photos of their bagged belongings as they apply her teaching to rid households of things that don’t “spark joy.”

The former school-teacher says tiny living in particular has been romanticized by TV shows and online spreads that gloss over some of the details.

“They show you a pretty house, they show you Pinterest pictures,” says Zerbin, who runs classes for those considering a drastic downsize.

“Anyone can build themselves a poster child tiny house but you’re still going to have to face the reality.”

Those just trying to cull their closet for a thrift-store donation should be aware that it, too, be less eco-friendly than it appears, says Karen Storry, Metro Vancouver’s senior project engineer in solid waste services.

“A lot of people know about donating their clothes but then I think where the story starts to fall apart is what happens after,” explains Storry, whose research in 2017 suggested only 20 to 25 per cent of charity donations in Metro Vancouver are resold.

The rest is sent to agencies known as sorter-graders that recycle half the material and send the other half to global markets, such as Africa.

And what isn’t sold overseas ends up in their landfill, says LaBarge.

“In some cases, you might be better repurposing it within your house,” says LaBarge. “Instead of giving a T-shirt to somebody where it’s going to get thrown in the landfill because everybody’s giving their T-shirts, maybe you turn it into a rag.”

She says similar problems arise with donation drives for survivors of natural disasters.

“The motivation is positive but you’re sending this to these people who have nowhere to put all this stuff for one thing, and they’re traumatized by being part of this hurricane and losing all of their things and now they have to manage all your crap that you didn’t want to deal with.”

Meanwhile, Storry says much more can be done to keep clothes from going directly to landfills, noting that in 2016, Metro Vancouver threw out nearly eight kilograms of clothing per person, equivalent to the weight of 44 T-shirts.

She recalls the discovery of baskets of laundered clothing amid the garbage at one transfer station. While not frequent, she says things like that do happen and so Metro Vancouver is launching a publicity campaign in February to cut down textile waste, which accounts for roughly five per cent of total waste.

“Textiles is kind of the new frontier for communities to look at,” Storry says of one of the fastest-growing garbage streams.

Colyn says about 75 per cent of Salvation Army donations is put in stores or given to those in need, with the rest recycled. But those sale items only sit on the floor for four weeks before they’re cleared out for new inventory.

Buying used clothes is the other key to combating textile waste, she says, adding that the overall quality of clothing donations has improved in general.

“(Clothing that is) new with tags is something that we run across so often, which is surprising but a lot of people just buy it, hang it and don’t end up using it or wearing it,” says Colyn.

“But we’re happy to receive those items.”

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