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What downsizing taught me about the circular economy

'The process has reminded me why we focus on systems change and not individual actions.'

Selling items at the garage sale. Secondhand concept.

Image via Shutterstock/Visualistka

This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

The sale of your childhood home is an inevitable rite of passage for many adults, and it's often preceded by the obligatory and exhausting task of taking responsibility for all of your stuff. Not just the items deemed worthy of moving between increasingly adult apartments, but the childhood art projects, stacks of yearbooks, questionable prom dresses and inherited heirlooms that have conveniently waited behind the rarely opened doors of childhood bedrooms.

I wasn’t surprised when my mom announced her plans to downsize and sell the home we moved into when I was 7 and my brother was 9. As an independent adult, it’s felt increasingly unreasonable for me to have a childhood bedroom within 10 miles of where I live, and for my single mother and her dog to remain in a home built for a family. So after the final holiday season in the home where I grew up, it was time to begin the belabored process of saying goodbye: not just to the space, but to the abundance of stuff.

There are over 300,000 items in the average American household.

While that number would have previously sounded hyperbolic, I’ve touched, considered and intentionally dealt with every item that I own over the past month. At this point, it sounds about right.

There are over 300,000 items in the average American household.

There is a stratification of stuff in many homes. On the surface, there are the items that we actively or passively interact with on a daily basis: what we use and what we see. The next layer is hidden in drawers and behind cabinets, used weekly, monthly or maybe once a year. Finally, there are the items squirreled away into some nook or cranny. Just as squirrels lose about 75 percent of the acorns they bury, so too do people and our belongings.

With a combination of hindsight, emotional distance and the pressing reality that everything must go, during the cleanout process I continually asked myself, "What was I thinking?"

A cassette tape of "A Night in Terror Tower," from the R.L. Stine Goosebumps series and a staple of the Phipps family road trips of my childhood. Stacks of mix CDs, from the avoidant proclamations of high school affection to the dozens with Sharpie-scribbled titles such as "middle school party hits!" and "jamz." A first-generation iPod mini with gray buttons that made me feel oh so cool on the school bus.

Sentimental? Certainly. But also collectively rendered functionally obsolete with today’s technology.

What was I thinking holding onto these items for so long that they no longer serve a purpose in my life?

For many that live comfortably above the poverty line, we have the option to avoid thinking about all of our stuff. The average U.S. home has tripled in size in the past 50 years and one out of every 10 Americans still rents an offsite storage unit, making it easier to avoid engaging with what we own.

But even when we are confronted with the task of decluttering and downsizing, anyone who has been through this process will agree: it’s exhausting. Balancing the emotional weight of each item, assessing the cost-benefit of economic potential and tactical burden of dealing with the "give" pile and managing the guilt of trashing items that could be recycled in a specific context, but finding the right place to do so would be untenable.

Success for the circular economy won’t be defined by identifying the best place to recycle 2 dozen VHS tapes or donate 10 binders.

There’s a reason Marie Kondo rose to prominence.

Throughout the process I couldn’t help but reflect on how it felt like a microcosm of the circular economy. Most of us have bigger fish to fry than tediously identifying the highest and best use of hundreds of thousands of items. We have deadlines, limited energy and a lack of expertise. Value is subjective. Sure, there are new tools and platforms to help enable the decluttering process, but many are still limited in scope and in scale.

I have a new, visceral perspective on why the UL zero waste to landfill certification requires more than 90 percent diversion and not 100 percent. A surfeit of existing stuff not designed for its next life, paired with a lack of recovery infrastructure, means that perfection is unattainable.

The process has reminded me why we focus on systems change and not individual actions. The path to a circular economy isn’t built on each family making hard choices when they downsize. Success won’t be defined by identifying the best place to recycle two dozen VHS tapes or donate 10 binders. What’s most important is to consider impact and scale; to design better products and systems for future homes to one day manage with greater ease; and to consider changing individual relationships to consumption in the first place.

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