With preparations underway for our imminent big move, my husband and I have been in a dedicated cycle of purging, packing, and clearing out. As it always does, this process has made me reflect upon the place of possessions in our life.

How did we accumulate this much?

We’ve moved 8 times in the past 12 years, and each of us moved a number of times with our respective families before we married. Each time, we’ve sorted through our things, held yard sales, posted to Ebay and Craigslist and Free Stuff boards, and dropped off boxes and bags at the nearest donation spot. I’ve felt we have a reasonable amount of things for a couple. (Whatever that means.)

Most recently, we halved our space from a 2,000 square foot house to a 1,000 square foot apartment. Our long-term desire is for a smaller place even than this. Maybe not a tiny house – but a right-size house. Each time we move, we come to better understand just what that right size will be, for us.

This time, though, perhaps because we are doing the entire move on our own, all at once, without movers or packers or a cross-town relocation that allows us to move our things in dribs and drabs and car loads – I’m experiencing it a bit differently.

It’s still early in 2017, and the January proclamations of fresh starts and clean closets and decluttering continue to pop up with frequency on the internet and my RSS feeds and instagram posts. Various experts praise the positive impact of clearing your clutter – reducing stress, increasing health, padding your pocketbook, and giving you a fresh mental outlook. And all of these things can be true.

But what happens to all of those items you declutter?

I stopped by our local Salvation Army earlier recently with the results of the previous week’s clearing out. This time, I had 2 bags full of lightly worn clothing, 2 boxes of assorted kitchen items and knickknacks, and 3 boxes of books.

A side note about books. Oh, the books. It’s so hard for me to give up my books. This time, I’ve made a valiant effort and was able to cull about 40% of my library – books I’ve read and no longer need, or books I finally admit no longer align with my reading goals. I always first try to give books to interested friends, or to sell my books online – Powell’s has an incredible buy-back interface that I can’t recommend enough – but then it’s to the library. And here was my first surprise. When I took my book boxes to the local branch, I was advised that they have a policy of accepting only one box a week, per person, of donated books. What an incredible luxury to live in a community where the library is in a position where it must turn away books! So it was off to the Salvation Army with the remaining two boxes.

I was shocked to find that the donation site was nearly overwhelmed, at 1 p.m., on a Wednesday in February. Cars snaked out of the parking lot and around the curve onto the street. The parking lot was full of cars with open trunks. While I waited to park, I saw only one customer walk into the store; everyone else was there to donate.

Once I navigated my way to drop off my items, dodging around embroidered chairs and sports team logo artwork and books piled on top of more books, I abashedly asked one of the volunteers for an extra box, so I could move my items from my reusable plastic tote.  After much searching, he found one, which he provided with a smile.

Apparently, what the Salvation Army needs most right now is empty boxes to hold their overflowing donated goods.

I can’t see into the inner workings of the Salvation Army, how they triage and prepare and resell some unknown percentage of the items they receive. And I’ve always known intellectually that donations don’t just disappear, moving seamlessly to the perfect match of an in-need recipient.

But on this February Wednesday, the reality and scope of the excess struck me in a new way.

I thought of the bags and boxes that I’ve added to piles like these across my life. Certainly, it is a privilege to live such a life, where I have excess and bounty to discard without great consideration. I certainly don’t intend to minimize the impact of donation centers like this one worldwide, centers that provide low-cost or free goods to individuals and families in need.

However, after this encounter, I’m focused on finding other solutions first, rather than piling my donations on top of this particular mountain where they may or may not bring use to anyone. Since that day, I’ve found other resale venues, posted much more on Craigslist and other Free boards, and have rarely been disappointed. In one instance, I even received a heartfelt thank-you email from a woman who picked up some free items I had listed. Her appreciation was a redeeming moment in this chapter of my uncluttering journey.

And I’ve resolved to myself that next time I make a purchase — in addition to considering whether I have the budget, and whether I have the physical space, and the mental space, and of course, the need for that item — I’m going to pause and think about where that item might end up the next time I move. Because if the answer is the trash bin, or the donation pile, then it’s entirely possible I don’t need it at all.

Resources

I’m not breaking any new internet ground here. Many blogs write about reducing waste and environmental impact, and I have turned there for insights and advice. A few that I’ve found particularly resonate with me include:

  • Carmella Rayone’s “With What You Have” series. Thoughtful and practical considerations of making do, rather than buying new.
  • Zero Waste Home. I’m not striving to have a single bag of waste each year. But, there is valuable insight and inspiration to be had here.
  • The Simple Year: A great, rotating memoir-in-action of how different families approach reducing their waste.
  • I found this somewhat dated article on Unclutterer about alternate donation suggestions. It’s helped me reframe and rethink what I do with our excess.

I’d love to hear your suggestions on other approaches to moving, downsizing, and handling excess.