In the first week of the summer holidays, I often get a burst of energy, of Let’s Do This, of tidying fever. I dare to dream impossible dreams, of empty washing baskets and Lego-less carpets. As the weeks pass, the fervour diminishes and the wading through treacle-ness of keeping a family home habitable overcome my enthusiasm, resulting in an enormous sigh of relief when the holidays end and our cleaner (yes, I admitted it) comes back and sorts us out.
This pattern repeated with Lockdown, as the busyness and purpose of the first few days slowly melted into a puddle of sameness and a gradually increasing collection of dust in the corners and Haribo wrappers under the cushions. Now, however, Lockdown is slowly easing, and, like a whale in a long, slow dive, we are coming back up for air and bringing those seeds of energy with us. Seeds of energy coupled with being trapped in a house overwhelmed with Stuff has resulted in plunging into the sorting of children’s toys, clothes, books, drawings, games, letters, shoes and random plastic bits that have been building up around us for as long as we’ve been saying that we’re just not here enough to sort them all out.
The dream result is newly painted walls, black furnishings for The Paleontologist, All The Games for The Cowgirl, and endless empty, hooverable space for me. The reality involves rather a lot more gritted teeth through conversations about the absolute necessity of keeping another half-lost Kinder Egg toy, whilst simultaneously demanding to give away every item of clothing in the wardrobe. My cunning plan to find things to get rid of has worked very well. The part about actually doing the decluttering? Not so much. Here is the pile currently waiting to be removed. If I said this was all of it, would you believe me? (Spoiler alert: you shouldn’t.)
Faced with this mountain to dismantle, now feels like a good time to look again at decluttering strategies. It’s time for a radical approach, preferably one that comes with its own bulldozer. Never mind simplicity, sheer practicality says we must find new homes for things literally tumbling out of every storage crevice in the house. But sustainability says skips and dumps should be a last resort. So I thought I’d round up earlier resorts, to remind myself of the options and stop me hiring that skip. Well, stop me hiring it this week, anyway…
- Car Boot Sales are a no from me, I’ll warn you now. The idea of getting up that early, and Being Cheerful into the bargain, in order to convince people to buy stuff I still care about a little is something I just couldn’t do, even without the social distancing and non-essential shopping rules currently still in force. Plus, it would probably rain.
- Giving things to friends has to be my favourite way to declutter. In our early parenthood adventure years, we were given All The Things, a vast amount of which were beautiful, and some of which were, well, not. Not at all. (That’s just Vicarage Life With A Baby, in my experience.) As time went by and those delightful pooing vomiting bundles grew out of their Beautiful Things, it was a genuine joy to pass them on to other pooing vomiting bundles who were just starting out in life (and, yes, we passed on some of the rubbish too, naturally. What’s a little rubbish between friends?) Ironically, though, once the pooing and vomiting diminished and the grass and ketchup stains increased, the clothes swapping machines seemed to dry up too, at least in our household. Not so many Beautiful Things came in. Almost no Beautiful Things went out. We haven’t
been able to get rid of our crapshare our children’s outgrown outfits in this way for some time now.
- Freegle is probably the best known sharing-stuff-you-don’t-want-anymore site. It has loads of people, endless offers of hangers and jam jars, and occasional scrums when people offer things that are actually still useful. I don’t know if I’d be more worried that our offcasts would set off a scrum or be ignored along with the blue and red plastic magazine racks, truth be told. Also, the app is clunky and people who say they want things don’t always turn up for them. This makes me a lot more reluctant to put things up there again.
- Olio is similar in many ways, but I prefer how it makes me feel when I use it. The app is more fun, you can give away food as well as stuff, and in general the people who use it are terribly polite. (Probably due to the fact that it is mostly populated by middle class liberal lefties, it has to be said. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home there?) It is much smaller, though, which means there’s a good chance that the things you put up won’t actually be wanted by anyone close enough to you to make it worth picking them up, in sustainability terms or time and money ones.
- Giving to charity shops is pretty straightforward (particularly if you just load up a collection bag and leave it outside your front door). Unfortunately, though, plenty of us are willing to give things to charity, but not enough people are willing to buy from them. So the things in charity shops build up, and build up. Sometimes they are shipped out to other countries because they can’t be sold here. Sometimes they are shipped to other countries and shovelled into recycling or rubbish tips once there because they are such bad quality no one would ever want to wear them again. So yes, sparingly, I like decluttering this way; but my current clutter-mountain is not what I would call sparing.
- Facebook marketplace. I’ve done this once. Never, never again. The familiar platform is great, but you get an insane number of messages and the pressure is awful. My phone never stopped beeping and I started dreading yet another person showing interest. This is not a viable option for a fairly-overwhelmed introvert.
- eBay is my preferred way of selling on used things, despite paying commission. You can donate some money to charity from the sales if you want to. You can let eBay do all the hassle of sorting out who is going to win things and how they will pay. But, you have to display things in a way that makes people want to buy them. You still occasionally have to talk to the people buying things. And you have to be able to make it to the Post Office regularly, which even without lockdown is rather easier said than done.
Looking at that picture, I feel so guilty. Guilty for buying so many things, some of which have never been worn, bought because they were on sale, or in charity shops themselves, or because they made me hope that one day I would be slim enough to wear them, or because they reminded me of something I used to love that fell apart. I feel guilty that we have so many toys that these can be removed without making a dent in the messiness of the girls’ rooms. I feel guilty that it’s all Still Here, that none of it has been given away already. But the fact is, being sustainable, even in a haphazard, messy way, is hard. It takes time. It takes emotional energy. It takes learning from mistakes and experience and accepting that some of the things you tried made matters worse, not better. It means realising that it is possible to be both part of the problem and part of the solution. It means doing your best, even when that isn’t enough, because it’s all we’ve got. So I’ll keep going with selling things to people who might enjoy them more than we have, giving them to people who would appreciate them, and avoiding Facebook Marketplace like the plague. And when all of this is over, I’ll look smug and tell stories of great daring, about the time I took on a decluttering mountain, and my best, as it turns out, was exactly what was needed.