The Timeliness of Trash

We’re often hired to clear out homes after long-time residents have left. Sometimes we’ve never even met the people who lived there, but it can still tug at our heartstrings. We often can see the love and care that these folks have put into some of the collections that we are disassembling.

But other collections reflect a lack of care. After a painting project, keeping the leftover paint for up to five years for touch-ups makes sense. Beyond that, the wall will have faded, so any touch-ups will be glaringly obvious. The best use for that leftover paint is to donate it to the local paint recycling program before it turns into a rock in the bottom of the can. Once that has happened it is of no use to anyone and must be handled as hazardous waste destined for disposal.

The same is true with food. Many people stockpile food thinking that they can use it in case of a natural disaster, which may be true. But they often fail to consider that even canned and boxed food has an expiration date. Keeping a viable stockpile of food items requires managing it: cycling out the older items before bringing in the new ones. The older ones can be donated to a food bank that will use them right away if they are not yet expired. Expired food is not useful to anyone.

Clothing has an expiration date, too. Almost no one over a certain age can imagine going back and wearing clothes from those awkward high school years. Yet, we recently had an elderly client who bragged that she still had every item of clothing she had ever had since high school. Although they still fit, she no longer wore them. She just had them taking up room in her apartment and they were high-quality clothes that someone else could have worn.

Giving up clothing as soon as it becomes something that is not worn regularly has several advantages. If the item is to be consigned, it is much more likely to sell. If the item is to be donated, it will be easier for the charity to use or sell. Most importantly, the item will be much less likely to acquire mold, moths, or other issues. Mold is a significant problem in some particularly damp parts of the Bay Area.

We’ve often heard clients tell us that they have an article of clothing because they are waiting for it to come back in style again. But were the 1980’s flared pants really the same as those bell-bottoms from the 1960’s, or did they just take inspiration from them? Then, there’s the adage: “If you’re old enough to remember when they were popular the last time, then you are too old to wear them now.” Give them to a current teenager.

Another example of the timeliness of trash is what we found at a client’s house a few years ago. She had a 10-gallon glass jar filled with gasoline. She and her husband had filled it in 1960, sealed it, and put it in a very inaccessible shelf in the garage in preparation for a cataclysmic event of some sort. It was no longer useful as automobile fuel and had not been for quite some time. However, it was still hazardous and very awkward to handle.

Often, though, the items are much more mundane. We recently cleared a house that was filled with all sorts of paper. One large closet was filled with greeting cards signed by the client’s husband. He had given her big elaborate cards for every possible occasion, and she had saved them, put them in Ziploc bags, labelled them with the year in which she had received them, and tossed them in the closet. Over a 60-year period, that’s a lot of Ziploc bags and a lot of paper to be recycled.

We are very lucky to live in a time in which we have door-to-door recycling, hazmat collection events, simple charity drop-off procedures, and other easy ways of dealing with our excess. The challenge for us is to use these resources for their intended purposes to keep our homes free of the issues created by keeping our things around too long.