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The Recyclist: A clutter buster's vow to stop living
such a disposable life

I realized I had a problem when I set my clock for 5:30 a.m. on trash day. I wanted it to be dark out when I skulked over to my neighbor's house and deposited my garbage in his garbage bin.

You see, once again I found myself with too much garbage and not enough garbage bin. My container was already jam-packed, and the trash in the kitchen was starting to stink up the place. Worse, our recycling bin also was overflowing. Boxes from Costco. Magazines that had stacked up, unread, until I admitted defeat and tossed them all. Junk mail, a bunch of catalogs and, of course, a week's worth of newspapers.

It's just me and my husband and two dogs. How could we possibly produce this much trash in one week?

Granted, part of the problem was a post-Christmas, clean-out-the-garage, clean-out-the-fridge spree. There were also items that charities won't take, such as two tattered throw rugs. I can come up with all kinds of justifications. But the reality is, I live a largely disposable life. I like to think of myself as an environmentalist who is down with the whole "reuse, recycle, reduce" thing. But I drive an SUV, I rarely use my cloth shopping bags, I have yet to consider packaging when I make a purchase, and, frankly, I'm kinda lazy, so if it involves a lot of work -- like professionally cleaning and repairing those rugs -- I'm just not going to do it. Hey, I didn't say I was proud of that. I'm just saying it's the truth. It's also true that this certainly wasn't the first time I had to avail myself of my neighbors' garbage cans.

But I'm determined that it will be the last. 

I'm not about to get extreme: I won't be turning those Costco boxes into furniture worthy of Frank Gehry. (Although, wouldn't that be cool!) Instead, I've resolved in 2010 to take small, reasonable steps toward reducing the amount of stuff that comes in the front door and the stuff that goes out to the garbage. Bonus: less clutter. I can't tell you how many times we've opted to sit on the couch and eat with our plates perched on our laps because it would otherwise mean tackling the piles of mail, newspapers, magazines, tools (!), CDs, DVDs, laptops, cellphones, keys and more that have taken up residence on the kitchen table. And all that stuff is there because our respective desks are also buried beneath clutter. 

Ugh. Just thinking about it makes my blood pressure rise.

So here's my first teeny tiny step: I've placed a sign over the garbage and recycling canisters in my kitchen. It says: "What am I throwing out?" It's reminding me to pause and look at what I'm about to deposit into the landfill. Can it be recycled instead of thrown into the trash? Cleaned and reused a second time? Can we change our household purchasing habits to cut back?

I'll chronicle my efforts -- and your responses -- here on this blog. Am I the only one filling up the landfills? Or do you struggle with similar clutter issues? If so, do you have any advice for me? My neighbor would really appreciate it.

-- Rene Lynch
On Twitter @renelynch

Photo: This is just part of the recyclables my household has produced in one week. Credit: Rene Lynch / Los Angeles Times

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Paper took over my home a couple of years ago, when I was going out of town for weekends, to work, and not staying on top of it everyday. I'm still recovering because it's one of the things I hate doing, but if I were actually doing it, it'd be done by now.

Still, I am diligent about recycling, shredding, and composting, but I end up taking out a few bags of real garbage a week. [By the way, at the gourmet food show in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, there were *BioBags* -- recyclable "plastic" bags, good for containing your garbage if it's messy and can't use paper. The bag's plasticy but biodegradable and compostable, made from corn. It's time we demand our storekeepers use them if they're using plastic at all.]

Back to my place: The stuff that comes in by itself just sort of takes over -- I mean mail, mostly. Which I shred. It's lovely to fill up a recycling bin with flattened boxes and some shredding, but you can also compost some of your shredding, and certainly compost most of your food garbage, which reuse a big chunk in the garbage category.

I have a kitchen composter which I love, though I know not everyone loves them (according to a review some months ago in the LA Times) -- it's a NatureMill Pro. It turns the compost and heats it to a pretty warm temperature, so it breaks down pretty fast. Mine jammed a few days ago, and I realized its contents (in the top section) were way too dry. Who knew? Anyway, when I added some water to it a few times until the thing that turns it finally could again, the contents became loamy very, very fast. Honestly, I don't care what I end up doing with it -- hopefully it will go into my houseplant pots when I repot the plants, probably in the near future. The rest of it can go outside under the trees. It's garbage being reused. I'm shrinking my garbage output significantly.

If you have kids, it's a great lesson. Separate your garbage, reuse what you can however that happens (recycling, composting). Choose your containers at the take-out counter and tell the proprietor you're not happy with their choice of containers or bags. Practice decreasing your footprint on our planet. Eventually after redoing and redoing, clearing clutter, etc., we realize before buying something that it will just take up space, and don't buy it. That's an amazing feeling.

stop whining and do something about it

first of all - NO NEWSPAPERS
print is dead- deal with it.


third- stop all the junk mail. fill out one form and that 90% of it

fourth- when you DO get junk mail stalk it down and kill it. call the 800 number. get aggressive. yell. keep notes

come back when you are done and I'll tell you what to do next

I'm so glad you've started this process!!! I find that another question to examine when you're getting rid of something is, "Who might need this?"

I'm ashamed to remember that when I was younger, I would just throw old clothes away, or toss out rickety tables that had been given to me years ago! Now, I'll donate clothes that no longer fit and are still very wearable to a charity. (By the way, there are WONDERFUL ones seeking clothes for tweens/teens, too -- which is a great way to get your kids realizing how they can pass on their things, and keep their own closets, backpacks, toys, etc., pared down.)

Anything I think might not be easily used/resold by a charity goes in an email to my local Freecycle group (www.freecycle.org). Members post what they're getting rid of, and their general location.......and are then contacted by other members, who come and pick up the items. It's all free and can be as anonymous as you wish. (I've picked up office supplies from an ad stating "will be left at the end of the driveway" and never met the party offering it, but I've also shared my number and met someone at my home, who then gratefully took an old couch off my hands (and saved our landfill!). Even if busted or wrecked, it seems SOMEONE can find a use for it:)

I believe that our releasing so many things to others (we continue to edit regularly, as we have a teeny house) and having only what we truly LOVE in our closets and homes truly has improved our quality of life. Additionally, it feels great to reduce waste, and even better to drop something off to a charity and have them excited at the quality of what we've given. (And usually, this ends up being something I've known that I've held on to for too long.)

Best of luck to you and your family on this journey!!!

In addition to what the others have said, there's the problem of stuff being sold to us that just isn't recyclable, from product packaging to the product itself. Until we demand that our consumables have only recyclable or no packaging, and that our stuff is recyclable past its normal lifespan, we'll still be filling up landfills.

So, are you going to support legislation requiring recyclability, including the establishment of recycling drop-off centers and plants? Are you going to write to companies that are most flagrantly putting out non-recyclable stuff and demand that they change their practices? Will you start making purchasing decisions more on the basis of whether or not the stuff can be safely recycled or disposed of?

I agree with starchy, now that you're aware, get aggressive.

Don't toss out the magazines! Give them away for free on Craigslist. That's what I do with the magazines I read and don't want to keep. You can just leave it on your driveway or the curb - someone will come to pick it up. Hey, if they were home magazines, I would totally pick them up except I don't live in LA anymore.

Don't toss out the magazines! Give them away for free on Craigslist. That's what I do with the magazines I read and don't want to keep. You can just leave it on your driveway or the curb - someone will come to pick it up. Hey, if they were home magazines, I would totally pick them up except I don't live in LA anymore.

You should compost! I started composting in September and my garbage levels have drastically decreased to about half of a bag of garbage per week (I recycle all plastics, foil and cardboard). I have a compost bin in my backyard for all veg/fruit food scraps and lawn waste. I fill the bin about once a month when I get the energy to do some major landscaping and the waste simply decompresses over a week and eventually turns to dirt. If you really want to reduce your recycling, shred your paper trash and throw them into compost, along with red worms. I'm not there yet, but these two simple things would make a significant impact on your weekly garbage output.

I find that most of my garbage is the packaging that my everyday purchases are in. I do my best to make better purchasing decisions in order to reduce the amount, but it's difficult. Everything is wrapped in plastic or cardboard. Buying in bulk is about the only way to lessen the amount of retail purchase packaging.

Take a look at this site. Maybe you can find alternate uses for things you'd normally throw away.


good luck!

Seriously? Recycling's been going on since the 70's, and you're just now figuring this out? As childless couple?

Forget your blog, I'm not contributing my ideas for free. If you're that lazy and clueless, I'll just add a chapter to my own blog and monetize the whole thing myself.


Is there a "freecycle group" in your area? You may wish to check this avenue out. Good Luck!

Great post! I find that it is imperative to keep recycling on the mind at all times. Do not trash anything. Keep up the great effort with your recycling. I look forward to reading your updates on reducing your waste.

- Maurizio Maranghi -

The fact that you blog about this is amazing. I wish I had as little to worry about as you (I'm guessing) Obama westsiders do. Ugh.

freecycle... and join a timebank (www.timebanks.org) or LETS exchange (www.community-exchange.org) in your area. You get to declutter, and anyone looking for work opportunities will find an abundance of them!

Another thought... I use newspapers and magazines as weed-matting for my garden. Layer them and cover with organic mulch, and you'll be virtually weed-free for a couple of years!

I started recycling when, ironically, the local paper featured an article on the massive failure of the recycling program in our city. They listed the recycling centers in the article and I found out there was one close to our home. My husband and I have been recycling since then and have decreased our trash output from about 5 bags per week down to 1 or 2 per week. We have four storage bins in our garage and we sort glass, cardboard, paper, aluminum by bin. This keeps it clean and organized. Speaking of clean, we rinse all glass and aluminum and food containers to prevent ants, bugs, mice etc. When we have BBQs/parties, we make it known we recycle bottles and cans and put out a bin to make it easy for everyone to do their part.

In addition to recycling, we also compost which has dramatically helped cut down on waste as well. Everything from our daily coffee grounds and filter to egg shells and all veggie/fruit scraps go into our composter and used in our organic garden.

In regards to catalogs, we definitely stay on top of calling catalog companies to request they discontinue sending us catalogs we have no interest in. We also ask them where they got our name and call that company and tell them to stop selling our name to mailing lists. On the rare occasion we do request a catalog from a company, we ask specifically if they sell mailing lists. If they do, we don't sign up. Also, signing up under a fake name is a good way to track who is selling your name. I have a friend who does that with all of her magazine subs so she can call a specific magazine publisher to tell them to stop!
We have signed up for as many estatements as possible which also helps cut down on incoming mail. It takes a little work to get things cleaned up, mail-wise, but it definitely lightens the load.

Clothes that no longer fit and housewares that are no longer needed or used (if you dust it more than use it then lose it) goes to Goodwill.

When I shop at the grocery store, I take those "green" bags with me. I have a "green" bag that has a very pretty print on it that I take to the mall. It holds everything I buy, and I don't come home with a bunch of plastic bags that I will have to recycle. By the way, Costco sells these great bags that are huge (perfect for Costco runs) and the cooler bags that are included in the pack are great in the summer when it is hot. I take the cooler bags to the grocery store all the time. No more melted ice cream!

Between recycling, composting, and becoming an anti-hoarder, not only has our trash output been dramatically reduced, but our home is a lot less cluttered with unwanted junk, be it mail, underused items and trash. We have also made some very good donations to Goodwill where others can utilize the things we don't really need. I have found that our home feels "calmer" due to the simplicity of the environment. Knowing that we are recycling is part of the cycle as is the compost going from the kitchen to the garden and helping the veggies grow for next year. It feels more organized.
It will take a little work but will be a healthier environment for you and your husband in your home AND for the environment in general.


Your struggles to live a more sustainable life are normal. I think most people are looking for ways to be greener but find that it can be overwhelming in the beginning. If you are looking for good resources and tips, my organization, SAGE, can help. I’d love to send you some tips or schedule an interview with our chairperson. She might be able to offer some insight in to eco-friendly lifestyle. Congratulations on making the first step! That’s often the hardest.

Best wishes, Amanda (SAGE)

Whenever I walk into a home ammassed with clutter, and I mean anything from trash to treasure, I shutter. It signifies to me, a disordered brain. I think of them at work, and how I am dependant on these people every day in every field of employment. I cringe when I watch some of these "Clean House and Hoarder shows" the ineptitude, the complete lack of ability to start anywhere, just pick something up off the floor and deal with it for God's sake. Two weeks ago I heard someone out front putting trash in my bin. What if it was porn or a body part or evidence of a crime? Your article was not amusing, it was just another story that happens in every big and little city in America and the world. There's even a new job created because of people like you, "professional organizer". Cluttered home, cluttered brain. Downsize your life to fit in what you can, in your typical day. Stop the constant flow of information coming in and not going anywhere. Consider fire hazards and safety in your home. Most of all, think of your spouse, friends and family and how they percieve you. You will learn alot about yourself.

Stop the junk mail at the source - use http://catalogchoice.org to opt-out of unwanted mail. It is free and easy. We're also a non-profit working on behalf of citizens and companies to stop unwanted mail and go paperless. It is a lot easier than using your valuable time to call customer service.


Yes, Rene, we have an interest in these issues. For example, we carry 2 cardboard boxes into the grocery store (although I feel colorful plastic carriers would be so nice). We pack our groceries into these as we shop and since we load our own groceries, we pack them back into the boxes to take to the car. We have found this faster and we do not have to use any plastic bags.
I look forward to your blog and your discoveries.
Judy in Anaheim

I have subscribed or purchased a newspaper for over 3 years, everything I need is online.

We built an 800 sq. ft. home to downsize from an over 3400 sf house. When you downsize, you find imaginative ways to dispose of your "stuff."

Donate to charities, to libraries for your books, hand off antiques to other family members, try not to buy ANYTHING for a year that can't be composted(unless you accidently throw away all your clothes like a friend of mine did.)

Keep one item that reminds you of a long lost friend or relative. Make it fit in your hand.

People really don't need king -size 4-poster Mahogany beds.

OOOps,I should had written "NOT SUBSCRIBED."

@K.E.: What I get from your post is that you're not as worried about recycling to save the planet as you are about making or saving a buck off of it, and telling everyone else they're stupid or lazy because they haven't been at it as long as you have. If you truly cared about recycling and the reasons why it should be done, you would share your ideas on this blog, by word of mouth, email, your own blog; anywhere and everywhere you could get people to learn and react positively to the message. You would encourage and praise the writer's decision to begin making these changes. It's not WHEN people join the bandwagon, it's THAT they join - and stay on it.

Your post rings loudly as that of an egotist of low character and no compassion. If that is not who/what you really are, perhaps a writing class would help you to get your point across without coming off as insulting and arrogant.

Watch an episode or two of "Hoarders" on A&E. It will inspire you to start decluttering immediately.

Here are a couple of easy ones.

1. If the shopping's not on your regular route from home to work, don't drive there.
2. If you don't remember to bring a bag, don't buy more than you can carry out in your hands & pockets.
3. set aside three hours to call companies and ask to be taken off their catalog list. Start anywhere in the pile--the ones the come most often will pop up soon enough. You'll have less junk mail, and less temptation to buy things until you need them. After all, there's the internet.

Forgot this one: when donating to a charity or "issues" group or subscribing to a magazine, ask that your name be taken off the list of names that they "share with" (read: sell or trade to) like-minded groups.

Our house rule is for every item we bring into the house, we have to get rid of an item, typically something we donate to AmVets or the Salvation Army. New pair of shoes?, gotta go through the closet and find a pair that hasn't been worn in over a year and toss them out. Another easy tip, spend just 15 minutes a day making a quick sweep through the house of clutter items, put bills away or recycle old mags/newspapers laying around. That way you aren't overwhelmed, and can save specific projects for the weekend.

We bring a few tupperware containers along when we dine out to take the left over home. They go right into the refrigerator with no spill along the way.

Re the cloth bags, I admit it is a challenge to get into the habit. My trick was to force myself to return to the car to retrieve them EVERY time I forgot. Took a month of almost daily shopping, but now I just reflexively reach into the back seat to grab the bags when I pull into a parking space. (Keeping the bags within easy reach and having big, sturdy bags helps too!)

Donating to Goodwill and other charities is a good way to "recycle" items you no longer wear or use. However these charities end up having to pay to dispose of junk! So please follow these guidelines:
1. Clothes - If you wouldn't wear it because of stains, tears, etc. others won't want it! Wash clothes before donating them.
2. Electrical items such as hair dryers and small appliances need to be in safe, working condition.
3. Dishes, decorative items, etc. should be in good condition - no chips, cracks, etc.

If you are disposing of batteries, old paint, etc. check your city's website for locations where these items can be dropped off. Goodwill will take old TVs, computers, etc. for recycling of parts and proper disposal.

Think before you buy! Do you really need another pair of shoes, another TV, etc.?

take a good look at what you are throwing out. Canned foods may me some of those which are good for one quick meal. In 1 week you end up with a lot of cans in your trash. The alternative is to buy the raw foods ,example dry beans, dry rice, etc in a 5 lb bag which will be good for at least one months worth of food for two people. Put them into plastic containers and freeze them all. You will be surprised at how much money you will save by doing your cooking, how much less trash you will have and as a bonus, note that your freezer will consumer a lot less electricity when full. An empty freezer will eternally be trying to freezer air, which is an impossibiltity. Freezing your beans and rice, and meats will save you a lot of money and give you healthy home made foods

Try Freecycle for those tattered throw rugs. It's an online community where you can give away your stuff to other people who might have random needs/uses for your old stuff. You can also get free stuff, of course. I've given away ripped pillows, among many other things (someone wanted them for pet bedding).

I think it's very important to consider the Waste Heirarchy when making purchases: 1- Reduce, 2-Reuse and 3-Recycle. REDUCE your consumption of single-use items or products that are packaged with an obscene amount of plastic. Then REUSE whatever you can at home, and finally RECYCLE what you cannot reuse. Also, composting helps reduce trash considerable and it's relatively easy once you get the hang of it. Here's an easy step-by-step guide to making your own compost bin:


Good luck!

We have not gotten into this problem by not recycling enough, we have gotten into it because we have TOO MUCH STUFF in this country. Recycling gets too much attention. The first word in the three R's is REDUCE. Use less and there will be less need to recycle. "Stuff" weighs you down. Make the effort to first reduce your consumption and the rest will come much easier. Focusing on recycling first takes away the focus of reducing and even reusing.

These are awesome posts! Thank you for putting this together. I appreciate the personal-life aspect to the articles. Your advice has been helpful. Keep asking/answering questions, seriously— recycling questions are endless.


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