Tidying up can be life-changing. Reusing can be world-changing.
In 2014, Marie Kondo’s best-selling book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" sparked a worldwide decluttering movement.
Her overall message is simple and elegant: When items in our homes have lost their utility or their ability to "spark joy," we thank them for their service and cast them away.
Beautiful, right? Well, kinda.
For many people in a fit of Kondo-inspired decluttering, casting away the things we no longer need means throwing them in the garbage. Instead of our homes, they're resigned to the landfill, where they live out their days decomposing along with old Smash Mouth cassette tapes, tie-dye parachute pants, and Someone With Tiny Hands University diplomas.
But if we’re really committed to thanking the items we once treasured for their service, can we, in good conscience, simply throw them away?
If we’re being real here, the answer is no.
A new report from Savers is all about this challenge. The thrift retailer polled 3,000 Americans and Canadians about their habits around waste, reuse, and recycling.
What they found isn't completely discouraging, but there's lots of room for improvement in how we collectively deal with the things we don't want or need anymore.
First up, the not-so-great stuff. It turns out that Americans are not great with recognizing just how much stuff they're sending to landfills each year.
Respondents to Savers' online survey estimated they're throwing out about 4.7 bags worth of waste a year. The actual amount is 8.1 bags — nearly double.
That's a problem because North American landfills are already pretty jam-packed. Last year, researchers from Yale University added up the actual weight of trash sent to landfills in 2012. Their total — 262 million tons — is more than double what the Environmental Protection Agency estimated we threw out. All of that trash piles up, making our landfills and our carbon emissions bigger every year at a time when we've promised the world we'll try to cut back.
When it comes to clothes and textiles, we can really do better.
Savers' study found that the #1 reason people donate their unwanted clothing is because of "overflowing closets." To make space, we're throwing away a shocking amount of clothing and textiles every year — about 26 billion pounds in total, or 81 pounds per person per year. That's almost an entire Ariana Grande! Or a large labrador retriever! Both of whom are still very good and useful.
That's where the Kondo method comes back into play. While we may be done with jeans that don’t fit anymore, outdated tops, or sneakers with scuffs in the wrong places, it's wrong to assume that they don't still have further work to do. They might spark joy for someone else who finds them in a thrift store. Or, if certain clothes have been loved too much to pass on to another person, their fabrics can be recycled into other things, like carpet padding, playground mats, or even simple cleaning cloths.
Fortunately, we're open to changing our ways.
Of the people who responded to the survey, more than half said they'd reuse clothing once they learned how much textile manufacturing affects our environment. 94% of respondents also thought that children should be taught about reuse along with recycling in schools so they build lifelong habits around sustainability.
We're also eager to be charitable! According to the survey, half of us are willing to donate even more if it helps a nonprofit organization we support.
In a landfill, things disintegrate. In thrift stores, they have a chance to thrive.
If we think about the things we buy and the things we love, they should really overlap as often as possible. We should buy only what we need. We should find noncommercial ways to spark joy and find purpose in our lives. We should reuse, repurpose, and recycle everything we can.
Realistically, our landfills can't grow forever — and Elon Musk hasn't built that Mars rocket yet. The sooner we start thinking about the future life of the stuff we don't want — and how we can give it the best chance to spark joy for other people — the better off we'll all be.