What Marie Kondo Never Mentioned About Spring Cleaning

Just as spring brings bears out of hibernation and entices tulips to bloom, it compels people to get down on all fours and sweep dust-bunnies out of long forgotten corners. After a year of spending far more time inside our homes, spring cleaning offers a much needed fresh start.  However, in the quest for a magazine-cover worthy home, the junk we throw out is swept under the rug and out of our minds. While you might squeeze a few weeks or even months of organized bliss months out of a deep de-cluttering, the junk slowly invades again and the cycle repeats. All that unwanted stuff piles up.

Queen of spring cleaning, Marie Kondo, has popularized home cleanouts with her method that blends mindfulness, gratitude, and relentless organization.  The key is separating items into five categories: books, clothes, papers, komono (miscellaneous), and sentimental items – in that order.  By collecting every item of one type that you own, rather than by room, you can better assess inventory.  Once the items in a category are assembled in one spot, Kondo preaches to only keep items that “spark joy.” The end result is a home optimized for your happiness and free of unnecessary clutter. Kondo’s disciples have found freedom in purging bagfuls of unwanted things from their homes.

Woman folding and stacking clothes

Everything that doesn’t make the cut of “sparking joy” likely has something in common: plastic. And if you’ve heard anything about plastic, it’s that it’s a challenge in the waste stream. While it’s nice to think that your bleach-stained t-shirt and broken waffle-maker will find a new, loving home through goodwill, that’s rarely the case.  Much of your junk, polyester shirts, broken appliances, worn out sneakers, is just more plastic jetsam destined for the landfill. In fact, about 85% of textiles end up in dumps or incinerated. The rest is downcycled into shredded products like car seat stuffing. Only a small fraction is actually resold in the second-hand market.  There has even been some criticism that the flux of unwanted clothing from wealthy countries into the developing world has actually caused more harm than good by disrupting local economies.

As far as that broken waffle maker goes, while there are plenty of recyclable, valuable materials in our electronics and appliances, the cost of recovery is often prohibitive. The hard truth is most of our irreparable electronics have the same fate as valueless plastic packaging.  The US produces millions of tons of e-waste every year – waste that includes old cell phones, coffee pots, and computers.

Pile of junk

Goodwill and other donation services or thrift stores are still a great option for rehoming items in good condition.  Name brand clothes, functioning appliances, and quality furniture will all likely go on to make someone else happy. And even donated items that don’t get sold are more likely to go through the appropriate recycling channels better than if you just toss them straight in the dumpster. For all the junk beyond hope of repair or reuse, there are plenty of community recycling centers that can help you responsibly dispose of textiles, e-waste, and other hard to recycle materials.  Earth911 is a popular site for finding recycling resources in your zip code.

When staring at a pile of castaway items it can be disheartening at how much of it is destined to join the rest of our detritus in a landfill, but don’t lose hope. Obviously industry and fast-fashion cycles are culpable in pushing this mountain of clutter, but that doesn’t mean consumers are powerless. The same gusto you apply to cleaning out your home an be used to shape your consumption habits—and ultimately help you live more sustainably. Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering method should really start at the point of purchase, not once things have accumulated a healthy layer of dust.

One tactic to breaking the cycle of stuff and living a life that sparks joy is to start by making a list of all of the things you purge from you house. Keep this list somewhere where you can remind yourself to avoid similar purchases that will end up in a junk drawer or forgotten closet.  While clothes often wear out and do need replacing, keeping a list is especially helpful for those other komono items that slip through the cracks.  If you remember that you already donated an ice-cream maker, an instant-pot, and an immersion blender because you never used them, maybe you’ll think twice about whether you actually want that new beadmaker to take up kitchen space.  

The idea behind practicing this type of note-taking mindfulness during your cleaning is not to make you feel guilty.  There’s no reason to feel eco-shame about tossing out a cracked Tupperware.  But if you notice that you’ve done it three times already, its probably time to invest in a more durable set of containers.  In the long run, being more conscious of the items you get rid of will help save you money and optimize your lifestyle.  It’s a way to extend Marie Kondo’s life-changing magic to purchasing and bringing new items into your home. 

More important than being mindful of what you’re tossing out is an awareness of the new items you acquire. Learning to discern between the dopamine rush of a new purchase and the spark of joy from a well-loved object will not only help our wallets and our closet-space, but the planet as well.  Of course there is still a time an a place for those impulse purchases that end up bringing us a disproportionate amount of joy – I, an adult woman, inexplicably purchased a rubber duck wearing a propeller helmet to attach to my bike handlebars.  Nobody on earth has a need for this piece of plastic crap.  But it truly sparks joy in me.  I love the way his little propeller spins in the wind, and the way he squeaks as I pass joggers on the bike path. But the point is to just start exercising more discretion between things that will bring you real, lasting, joy (even if it’s a stupid rubber duck), and something that will make you happy for a day or two before just becoming another fashion mistake relegated to the back of your closet.  When shopping, ask yourself why an item sparks joy, and if you will feel that same joy in a month or even a year.

Rubber duck with propeller helmet

If it doesn’t spark a real, lasting joy, why buy it in the first place?

Kondo's framework makes it easier to tackle an ungainly chore, but categorization, mindfulness, and emotion can also help guide our purchasing habits to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle as well as a tidy house. To truly solve the world’s trash problem, we need systematic approaches that address root production and design issues.  That doesn’t mean you can’t take action in your own life, too.  Big changes only happen when they are supported by a lot of voices.  You can be a voice for change with your own habits.  Spring is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf!  

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