On Throwing Away

What we keep and what we don’t.

Photo: Guillaume DELEBARRE (Guigui-Lille)

I participated in a time-honored holiday tradition this year: the annual pulling of stuff out of my parents’ attic and hoofing it to my own home. I live in a rambling 1920s house with more than enough space, and it seems like it’s time. However, it’s not particularly easy to get rid of things.

There are a few classes of items that are easy to deal with: I have one of those American Girl dolls, well preserved and with a ton of accessories and stuff, that I’m more than happy to keep for a future kid to fall in love with. I have a bunch of old, irrelevant papers from high school and college, which I can recycle. I’ve even got old clothes that, while far from ideal, can either be sold at Goodwill or sold as bulk cloth on the recycling market.

But there are items that aren’t easily kept, donated, or recycled, and those things have to be trashed. It’s a brutal truth, but whenever someone gave me a trinket or item that isn’t recyclable but also isn’t valuable enough to keep in mountains all around my house, they destined it for the landfill at some point.

The perfectly good stuff that I will definitely throw away can be divided nto a few categories. One major group is awards. I know, that sounds so egotistical, the idea of having so many awards that you have to throw some out, but some of these are not for accomplishments. I got a plaque at the end of the week every year I completed the camp I went to as a kid and teenager — that’s 7 plaques, some made of clear hard plastic and some made of particleboard. I don’t know how to recycle plaques, donate plaques, and frankly, I want to keep the awards that mean more to me than “you completed a week of camp.” How sickening though, is it to throw out something like that, something that maybe has one-plaque worth of sentimental value but manifests as seven plaques worth of storage space? I’ll save one, probably, and grudgingly trash the rest. They are shockingly sturdy; it makes me hope that if my future kids get rewarded for good participation or high achievement, they are given certificates instead.

Another class I have trouble with are figurines/trinkets/mementos. Some of these are obviously full of memories and get a prize place in my home; others are still valuable enough to keep and store for days when I want to think about childhood. For example: I have this stuffed bear stuck to a wooden block that says “spread sunshine with a smile” on it. It’s clearly old, clearly important to someone, but also not really valuable apart from having been given to me by someone else. I could donate it somewhere, I guess, but I think they’d throw it away too — either immediately or after it couldn’t sell even with a 10 cent price tag on it.

Yet another grouping for me is unidentified cords, chargers, and old electronics. The problem with them being unidentified is that I don’t remember whether they go together to power something, to be a complete, donate-able set, or if I’ve irretrievably lost some part that would make them useless to a thrift store. I feel bad throwing them out, but I don’t really intend to revert to my 2000s-era electronics either. I’m stuck wondering how many landfills I’m filling with things that aren’t worn down yet, and too frequently I find myself saving things for the simple reason that throwing them away “feels bad.” It’s a bit of a pre-hoarder symptom, I fear.

In Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she asks that people only keep things in their possession that “bring them joy.” I love this as an idea, but I think it would have to be a life-cycle choice: you cannot just get rid of things, but also actively prevent things from coming into your life, because once something non-joyful enters your space, you will have to either throw it away or find someone else who can get joy from it. Part of my new year’s resolution is to get creative with ways to reuse and donate items that still have use in them, even if so far I cannot think of how, but a bigger part is for me to try to be conscious that as soon as something comes into my possession, I’ve already started the process of having to throw it away. It makes me want to get things that will last longer and are more universally useful rather than “personalized” to me, because who knows when I’ll be pulling them out of an attic box and trying to remember why I had them in the first place?

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