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Get Rid of Unwanted Things Responsibly

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Get Rid of Unwanted Things Responsibly

This post was compiled and written by Hannah Theisen, Alice Robertson, and Leah Wise.

Any aspiring minimalist or zero-waste living enthusiast will eventually run into the ethical issues with getting rid of stuff.

Most of us who are on this lifestyle path haven’t been minimalists or conscious consumers from birth, so how do we dispose of all the stuff we’ve accumulated that we don’t want or need without contributing toward the environmental stress that’s being placed on our planet by our massive amounts of cast off goods…

I generally don’t support big thrift shops.

Only about 20% of what gets donated to those Goodwill-type stores is actually put out for sale. 

The rest is sorted and either sent to landfill or shipped overseas- and the crazy surplus of cheap American fashion in developing companies has ruined many countries’ own textile/clothing industries and contributed to the lack of sustainable work.

Kind of like how TOMS used to dump shoes in “poor” communities and brings ruin to local shoemakers, or how we dump excess crops from the US into Haiti and put local farmers out of business.

In addition, the financials and “charitable giving” of these big-box thrift stores are somewhat sketchy. Goodwill, for example, pays top executives millions per year while paying workers as little as 22 cents an hour.

Since I’ve been trying to avoid simply hauling bags of my no-longer-wanted stuff to a donation site at Goodwill or Salvation Army, I’ve had to get a bit more creative (and alot slower) as I downsize my belongings. Here are some ways that I’ve been able to get rid of my old “junk” in a more sustainable way:

Art Supplies

Many non profits and art organizations accept donations of used art supplies. I was able to recently get rid of a bunch of old card stock, half-used acrylic paints, brushes, and more by donating it to a local group that teaches free art classes to youth.

Contact your local after-school programs, like Boys & Girls Club, to see if they will accept art supplies. Also see if your locale has an art and craft supply thrift shop!


Free The Girls collects used bras to donate to a social enterprise in Mozambique where women repair and remake the undergarments and sell them in the local market.

I’ve donated to Free The Girls several times… and will most likely continue to do so because I haven’t found a better alternative and I believe very strongly in providing jobs for women leaving the sex trafficking industry. However, I am going to be honest and say that I don’t love the organizations messaging and the general rescue-y vibe.

In addition, I know that donating used goods to be sold in overseas markets can be quite detrimental to the local economy and apparel industry. However, I still believe that donating used bras to be refurbished and worn again is a better alternative than throwing them in the landfill.

You can mail bras to Free the Girls, or see if there is a local drop off center near you. I drop mine off at a local midwifery office!

assorted clothing hanging in the clothing racks - Get Rid of Unwanted Things
Photo by cottonbro on

Clothing and Small Household Goods

When getting rid of clothing, I go by a certain formula:

  1. Sell
  2. Give Away
  3. Repurpose
  4. Donate
  5. Trash or compost

First, I always try to sell my lightly used clothing and household goods. Not because I need to get money from my old stuff, but because my philosophy is that people place more value on stuff when it’s not free, and think more carefully about whether they want something or not.

Try Ebay or Poshmark for online resale. Or check out your local consignment stores.

For example, when I go to a clothing swap and am faced with piles of free clothes, I am far more likely to pick up something that I don’t really need/won’t end up wearing a lot!

Second, I’ll give away anything that my friends or family want. Thankfully I have two sisters who wear similar sizes! Sometimes this step is first, if I’m getting rid of a piece that I know a certain friend would like or fit into well.

You can also check out local Buy Nothing and neighborhood groups on facebook and apps.

Third, I try to repurpose. If an item isn’t sellable or easy to give away, most likely it’s a bit ratty. I tear old cotton tees into rags, make headbands from old shirts, and have even made cloth napkins from some of Andrew’s old button downs.

Fourth is donation. This, of course, is only for things in good condition, and only as a last resort if I haven’t been able to give them away, sell them, or repurpose them. When I do donate, I donate to a small local thrift and vintage shop rather than Goodwill.

Fifth is Trash. Thankfully I don’t have to use this option very often, but occasionally some of Andrew’s work shirts will be so torn up, filled with holes, and covered with glue that they aren’t salvageable for any purpose. Anything that’s 100% natural fiber gets composted, a few things do find their way to the trash can…

Note: old cookware containing teflon should be discarded, as it poses a health hazard.

Personal Care Items and Food

Local food banks will often take unopened and unexpired food from individual donors. Just be absolutely sure it’s something they want before dropping items off.

If you or a household member smokes, have someone do a sniff test before donating, especially on boxed goods that absorb household fragrances.

Unopened personal care items (aka toiletries) can sometimes be donated to local shelters and other nonprofits. Again, contact them first to see if they need the items you’re ready to get rid of.

Finally, opened and partially used food and toiletries can be offered up on Buy Nothing groups. Just make sure to be completely transparent about the condition and expiration date.

a close up shot of canned goods - Get Rid of Unwanted Things
Photo by Julia M Cameron on

Appliances, Construction Supplies, and Furniture

Habitat for Humanity operates Habitat ReStores all over the U.S. They sell anything from tools to tile to furniture.

If you don’t have a ReStore in your town, consider consigning furniture items. Partially used tiles, old fans and lighting, and working tools may be donated to a local thrift or construction nonprofit.

Check with appliance retailers who sometimes offer buyback programs to encourage consumers to recycle. If that old refrigerator in the basement still works, consider donating it to a local nonprofit (call ahead to see if it’s something they need and want).

If, like many people, your drawers are jammed full of old computer keyboards, cast-off cell phones, cracked tablets, chargers, and other debris from outmoded electronic items, be aware that most communities have recycling facilities that make it easy to declutter all that drawer space in an environmentally responsible manner (many electronics retailers also have buyback programs).

Mattresses and Rags

Textiles account for a massive amount of the total material that’s sent to landfills. In 2014, more than 16 million tons of textile waste was produced, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The majority of that bulk — over 10 million tons of clothing, bedclothes, and mattresses — wound up in landfills.

Old mattresses make up a considerable amount of textile wastage, despite the fact that much of the material inside a mattress is recyclable. So, contact a local recycling center to see if they have a mattress reclamation and recycling program.

The American Textile Recycling Service has collection bins in communities across the US where you can leave old clothing, bedding, and other textile items instead of throwing them away. Find a drop-off location near you by calling 866-900-9308 24 hours a day.

To get rid of unwanted things responsibly, it may take a little more effort and a few phone calls.

But it’s worth it to make sure things don’t get thrown out or congest international markets. Plus, it’s a great way to fell more integrated with your community!

More info on the business of thrift shops

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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