How to Downsize/Declutter/Purge Responsibly

That’s me hiding from all the mess! Just kidding! This is in fact me in my “studio” (aka drying rack + blankets) recording my weekly sustainability talk for COSMO, one of the German public broadcaster’s radio stations. Gosh, I am so professional.

Hanno (my partner in crime) and I moved from Germany to Canada in March. We only got a one year visa, so we will see where it goes from there. We will probably return to good ol’ Germany and pick up our lives where we left off, but we do not rule out staying in Canada or going to yet another country if destiny calls.

Our indecisive arrangement presented us with the problem of what to do with all of the stuff we had accumulated over the years. Should we store it somewhere so we have it ready if we return? But what if we do not return? Should we just get rid of all of it?

We decided we would only keep some very basics household items just in case, and store those things in my in-laws’ attic, preferably taking up as little space as possible.

What we kept

We kept our very minimal collection of kitchen items like utensils, cutlery, plates, two pots, our pan, some appliances (high-performance blender, KitchenAid, microwave with oven function), our admittedly extensive jar collection (a zero waster’s secret weapon), the mattress, bedding, towels, two folding chairs, our small folding table that used to live on our balcony, and our yoga mats.

Then there was of course what we would be bringing to Canada with us. With what we packed, we could have traveled hand luggage only, if it weren’t for our pocket knives and razor blades. But I will talk more about packing light and airplane meals in another upcoming blog post.

Everything else had to go. But where to?

My two cents…

In my humble opinion, ownership is responsibility. If I am not willing to take on the responsibility to care for it and to ultimately dispose of it in a responsible manner, then I shouldn’t buy or accept it in the first place.

Donating Is Not Always Good…

Before we went zero waste, we used to donate our stuff whenever we decluttered or moved houses. We would put everything into big boxes and pretty much dump those boxes at the doorsteps of some charitable organization.

While this is certainly the most convenient option (needless to say that I do not consider trashing everything an option), it is not the most sustainable one.

Reason #1: It Is “Wishcycling”

We love to think that everything we donate will be reused. But the truth is that many items will be trashed immediately. The staff will look through everything and what they deem too difficult to sell, too old, too “unique”, too yucky, in too bad of a condition, they will usually trash because storing junk that nobody will want is simply too expensive.

Reason #2: It Can Be Shipped Elsewhere

Thank goodness not all organization do this. But oftentimes donations, especially clothes, are shipped to developing countries, where they destroy local markets or prevent the development of a healthy, self-sustainable local textile industry.


Call the organization before you make a donation. Ask them if they ship donations to developing countries. If the donations stay in your local community and you decide to go forward with the donation, make sure to only donate items in good condition.

How to Keep It Local

This is the number one preferred option. It supports your local community, and avoids unnecessary shipping.

Friends and Family

Ask your friends and family. Who could use what?

We set up a “redistribution corner” in our hallway where we displayed what we had already weeded out. Whoever came could look through it and take home what they had a use for.

The setup of our “household party” looked a lot like a garage sale 😉.

Before we set off to our semester abroad in Tokyo, we threw a pretty rad “household party“. We told everyone beforehand that everything that was still in the apartment at the time of the party was up for grabs, minus chairs and the stereo. When we came back after one year, we recognized several items when we went to visit our friends in their homes 😉.

Swap ’til You Drop Parties

Swapping parties are all the rage now, and you can find them in almost every city. They are always a lot of fun, but do ask what is going to happen with the leftover clothes! Some donate them, which means they might end up on a landfill or destroying a market somewhere…

What I do is to have an eye on the pieces that I brought. At the last swapping party I went to, I was very happy and somewhat impressed to see that almost all of the clothes I brought were gone within the first 20 minutes!

Local Facebook Groups, Craigslist, Bunz

You can post your things on local sell, trade, or give away groups on Facebook, on the trading app Bunz, or on Craigslist. This will take some time and effort, and yes, many people will be very unreliable and sometimes downright rude. Just take it as the best cure for mindless consumption.

  • Do not give out your address right away! I always ask the buyer to confirm the appointment one hour beforehand, and tell them I will give them the address when they have confirmed. This will also weed out the unreliable ones, and you do not have to wait around wondering if they will show up at all.
  • Set up a public meeting place for small, portable items.
  • If you let people pick up things at your home make sure to have somebody there with you just to be on the safe side. I like to do bundle all pickup appointments into one big group pickup.


When selling things on Ebay, you can set the item to “local pickup only”.

To Ship or Not to Ship?

It is easy to find a new local home for generic things, especially household items. However, it can be tricky to find somebody interested in specialist items like expensive camera or sports gear. In those case it can make more sense to sell it online and ship it in a cardboard box you have lying around at home anyway, than to let it go to waste by storing it away in some box.

We found a lot of boxes at home…

The same goes for buying secondhand items. It can be more sustainable to buy something used and have it shipped to you in reused packaging than buying the same item new (and fully packaged) at some big-box store. When you buy something new, you create a demand. You tell the company that it is lucrative to produce more of it, that you are okay with the way the produced it (which was most likely unethical and unsustainable), and that you do not mind the way it is packaged.

What About Things That Need to Be Thrown Out??

You can find a lot of creative ways to repurpose things! We gave all our fabric scraps and unwearable old clothes to an acquaintance who loves to sew. An artist took our scratched plexiglass sheet off our hands.

Some of our miscellaneous clutter got swept up by people who came to pick up other things and had use for some thumbtacks or keychains. Once one of the the kids who came with their parents for something else simply fell in love with the torn and overall pretty unsightly Power Puff Girls pouch that I thought I would have to toss in the end.

The 10+ year old SD cards I found were in pretty high demand, and when I posted a photo of all of the odd chords we found I got more than thirty requests in ten minutes! Really, you’d be surprised at what you thought was junk really is somebody else’s treasure!

Use, the search engine that plants trees, to search for ideas, like giving away your collection of cardboard boxes to somebody who sells a lot on ebay.

Some of the things we tossed. Old photos (we kept the digital versions), stickers, an ointment that was way past its expiration date, seams of an old shirt (the fabric was 100% cotton, but the threads are always polyester!), a very old pair of socks.

However, sometimes you just have to face the music. We, too, had junk that had no chance of being revived. We recycled what could be recycled and trashed the rest. Keeping it would only a delay of the inevitable.

Purging Things Responsibly Takes Time!

If you know you will be moving houses, do not start last-minute! Finding a new home for things can take time, especially if you plan on downsizing, i.e. purging a massive chunk of what you own! We started the whole process almost four months before we relocated to Canada, knowing that we only wanted to keep the very basics. I will not lie to you, it was very tiring and sometimes very frustrating, but it was also very rewarding.

We gave away a huge chunk of our belongings before Christmas, and so many people came to our home thanking us because they could not afford to buy presents. We have met the kindest people and kid around with the sweetest kids. Many people shared their stories with us, from the single-mom struggling to make ends meet to the excited young couple moving in together or just the girl who fell down the stairs we gave my old ankle brace to.

Going through this lengthy process really gave us perspective. We learned to take responsibility for our past actions (which was to mindlessly accumulate all that stuff), to value things (instead of just throwing them out), and it reminded us of what is most important: love people, not things.

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Filed under Article, Housekeeping, Lifestyle, Minimalism


  1. Pingback: Sustainable Decluttering: What Are You Doing with the Stuff You Don’t Want?

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