About the time of our third pop-up, my grandmother passed away. She’d had a stroke a few years earlier and died in her sleep one night in January 2014 at the age of ninety-four. Amid the sadness, and the celebrations of her long and fruitful life, came the inevitable coping with her houseful of rather huge amounts of stuff.
My grandmother had five children, four husbands, lots of pets, a big house, and a generous and dignified demeanor. She also had a tendency to accumulate. She had lived in the same house since 1949, a long and low split-level Norman-style house with several bedrooms, designed by my inveterate inventor/tinkerer/ fixer/stuff-genius grandfather. While she was nowhere near hoarder territory, the nooks and crannies of her house were always full of exciting treasures for a grandchild: the coin collection glued to a dresser in the downstairs bedroom, boxes of handkerchiefs hand-embroidered with old-fashioned family names like Crampton, crumbling books about steam shovels, a flat white box labeled Mimi’s lorgnette in thin slanted cursive (Mimi was my great-great-grandmother), an old leather mega- phone that brought to mind college football games and raccoon coats, and a remote control with just three big buttons that changed the TV channel with a satisfyingly significant click.
I remember the desk where Nana would make phone calls, always seated with her eyes closed, a habit that seemed to belong to an earlier era, when a telephone call demanded one’s full attention. She sat surrounded by piles of papers, cards, and newspaper clippings, somewhat sorted and awaiting distribution to the correct relatives. Her philosophy toward stuff was perhaps summed up by a clipping above the desk that read a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind.
Toward the end of her life, however, Nana seemed reluctant to leave unattended the piles of papers, the closets full of vintage clothes, and the attic full of relics. She did not want to leave her children with the task of sorting it all, and slowly, bit by bit, she worked through as much of it as she could; she figured out what to give away (and how), what to pass on to family, and what had to go to the trash. My grandmother took upon herself the difficult process of closing out her life in stuff.
Our lives are marked with stuff, from the cradle to the grave. We are born, and right away we are showered with onesies and blankets and squeaky giraffes. Each birthday is marked by more gifts: Legos and stamp sets, and later on tablets and gift cards. We go to college and squeeze our belongings into a tiny dorm room, or we commute to cam- pus and try to launch adult lives from a childhood room. We get married and find ways to merge our stuff — commingling old books on shelves, choosing new things together. We get divorced and have to reverse that process, returning again to “yours” and “mine.” And when we come to the end, either we or our loved ones face the work of figuring out what to do with the physical record of who we were.
Even though Nana worked hard to sort through her stuff toward the end, there was a great deal still left in the house after she passed. It was amazing, and also quite beautiful, to go through some of it. To see the little printed tags with her children’s names on them in her (many) sewing boxes and drawers, to imagine her carefully stitching them onto summer camp blankets and T-shirt collars. I found at least five or six lovely wooden darning eggs, along with delicate scissors, numerous thimbles, and button replacement kits from hotels where she had stayed in the 1960s. I had never thought of my grandmother as much of a “handy” person — I don’t remember ever seeing her sew, but there was the record of many years of mending, labeling, and stitching.
As the family sorted and sifted through furniture and pictures and dishware and more, I took an old sewing box and several of the darning eggs and thread snips. These items seemed useful as well as beautiful, and I liked the idea of rescuing her tools from their drawers and using them again in our shops. However, there were many, many items of Nana’s that we weren’t able to find a home for, that the thrift stores wouldn’t take, and that ultimately wound up in a landfill.
Much of my grandmother’s stuff wound up in the landfill because of economic, logistical, and psychological barriers in our culture today. That may sound like a fancy way of saying nobody wanted or needed most of her stuff, but it’s worth pausing to figure out why that is the case, especially since the phenomenon of “unneeded stuff” is relatively new. For centuries, people’s wills specified the destination of not only money but also goods such as clothing, furniture, sheets, table linens, and the like. To get to a healthier pattern of consumption, to complete the cycle and close the loop, we’ve got to get used to passing things on again, and we’ve got to make the practice easier, more popular, and more expected.
One major barrier, as discussed previously, is the low price of new goods. As long as the social costs of manufacturing wages overseas, the artificially low cost of raw materials, and the environmental costs of shipping things all over the globe using fossil fuels remain unaccounted for, we have an artificial downward pressure on prices. It’s a tall order to change these things, but there are signs of progress: increasing awareness of North American and international fair trade certification standards; the recent move by some companies to include factors other than just shareholder returns in their bottom line; the growing push by individuals toward conscious consumption; positive regulatory and legal movements incentivizing and protecting sustainability and stewardship; and the changes in design approaches resulting in an explosion of products made from reclaimed materials. Each of these factors is part of a fast-growing stuff movement that will ultimately lead to higher prices for new stuff, additional revenue streams from reuse and repair for manufacturers and retailers, and alternative forms of “ownership,” such as rental models and sharing economies. For now, however, new goods are still cheap and plentiful, which makes it much harder to find homes for old stuff.
And there are other barriers to “passing it on” that should also be addressed. First is the lack of incentives, or worse, counterincentives. In New York City today, for example, I have absolutely zero incentive to do anything other than toss something once I am done with it.
My younger son, who was a baby at our first pop-up, recently out- grew his toddler bed and graduated to a loft bed built by Michael. The white IKEA toddler bed had been given to us by our neighbors, so we felt karmically okay in terms of how we got it in the first place, and I wanted to try to keep it in circulation. We had already had a very hard time getting rid of his crib, which was itself a hand-me-down from my sister. No one seemed to want a twice-used crib even though it was really in fine shape, and after trying valiantly for several months to find a good home for it, we wound up dropping it at a local thrift store, which is always a bit of a crapshoot.
Thrift stores are increasingly overwhelmed by stuff, often selling in bulk overseas or dumping the excess into landfills. Donations are up; perhaps people have become frustrated with peak stuff, or are inspired by Marie Kondo to tidy up, or are donating their old stuff to some abstract person in need to try to assuage their climate guilt. The uncomfortable fact of the matter, however, is that while donating to those in need is admirable, it’s not enough. People at the middle and high ends of the economic spectrum need to start buying a lot more used goods of all kinds. Donating alone doesn’t cut it — it does not reliably close the loop.
For the toddler bed, I was determined to do better. I tried to post it on AptDeco, but the value was too low; since AptDeco charges for delivery, it has a minimum price per item, and I didn’t think anyone would spend $100 on my used toddler bed, especially since a comparable new one on IKEA cost less than that. I tried Craigslist, posting it for twenty dollars, and got a few responses, but each sale fell through. The weeks went by and the bed sat disassembled in a corner of the living room, bothering me like the un-crossed-off to-do item that it was. Finally I posted on Facebook Marketplace and got a couple of responses, one of which was from a neighbor around the corner, a young man we knew from the local barbershop. He came by that same afternoon and I helped walk the bed over to his apartment, where it would serve as a double bed for his two dogs. In all, I spent about two months trying to pass on that toddler bed. I know it is unreasonable to expect people who are not writing books about consumption to devote that much time to “rehoming” a used IKEA bed. As the countless desks, chairs, beds, and other items I see in the trash on NYC streets attest, it’s much easier to just put it in the trash.
In addition to the inconvenience of passing things on, the economic incentives are backward. In New York, for example, our taxes pay for the sanitation department to come haul away our bags of waste, our recycling, and our large items like toddler beds. But this is a sunk cost that has no influence on my behavior — I pay the same taxes whether I spend two months finding German shepherds to live on my kid’s stuff or just dump it on the curb.
Some municipalities have introduced a “pay as you throw” (PAYT) model, where households pay according to how much trash they generate, a policy that has been shown to reduce the volume of trash collected and improve recycling rates. The power of economic incentives cannot be overstated. In Ireland, a fifteen-cent bag fee led within weeks to a 94 percent reduction in plastic bag use. South Korea increased composting 93 percent by charging a fee per pound for residential waste. If it had cost me twenty-five dollars to have my toddler bed hauled, the way it does in some areas of the country, the incentive for me to find a new home for it would be much greater, and it starts being worth the time.
For people who are willing and have the time to make a bit of an effort right now, without waiting for their city or state to change the incentive structure, there are ways to make passing things on easier. There are online marketplaces, including Letgo, OfferUp, AptDeco, good old Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and many more. There are also more informal “curb alerts” and other online or community systems; one Instagram page in New York is called Stooping NYC (@ stoopingnyc), where you can post and find used things on the street.
There are important steps that cities and municipalities could take to support these types of platforms as part of a strategy to get to zero waste. PAYT models are clearly effective. Concentrating a neighborhood’s bulk pickups on certain clearly posted days of the week can make curb alerts more effective. And clear and convenient pickups or drop-off events for specialty items can help too. The bottom line is that we should — must — continue to build, support, and incentivize systems that make it easier to pass things on. Otherwise, we are relying on people to voluntarily devote their time and effort and lose money in the process — and that’s a losing proposition.
Excerpted from From How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark. Copyright © 2020 by Sandra Goldmark. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.
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