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Donate, Recycle, or Trash? How to Get Rid of Difficult Items

A cluttered garage, filled with items destined for recycling and disposal
trekandshoot/Shutterstock

Over the past few years, Marie Kondo has introduced the world to the simple pleasure of getting rid of things. However, deciding whether or not your stuff sparks joy is one thing— choosing what to do with it once it’s in the “get rid” pile is another.

Donating things feels good when you imagine the joy someone else might get out of your old stuff. However, you don’t want to be the person who fills thrift stores up with useless junk that will end up in the landfill. How can you decide what to donate, what to recycle, and what to throw away?

We believe organizing should be fun and easy, not stressful. With these guidelines, you can quickly sort your most challenging stuff and get rid of it guilt-free—read on to learn how to tidy up faster!

Deciding What to Donate

Some things are clear candidates for donation (or even reselling). These include lightly-used, clearly useful items that are easy to transport to your local thrift store.

But other stuff raises more questions. Here’s how to navigate some tricky items:

  • Appliances: If your appliances are still working, you can donate them to a local thrift store. However, you should call or look online first to make sure they take that kind of appliance.
  • Bicycles: Used bikes are great for thrift stores, but your city might also have a bike library or a youth bike program that’s looking for used bikes—try Googling “bike recycling [your city]” to find out. Some of these places even refurbish broken bikes.
  • Construction supplies: See if there’s a Habitat for Humanity ReStore in your area: these secondhand home improvement stores also take appliances, furniture, and more.
  • Electronics: A local charity in your area might take your old cell phone or laptop as a donation. Otherwise, you’ll need to recycle them.
  • Hangers: You can’t put old hangers in with your recycling—they get tangled up in the recycling equipment. Instead, donate them to a local thrift store or consignment shop.
  • Mattresses: If your mattress is in good condition, contact your local thrift stores to see if they’ll take it. If it’s not, check out our tips for recycling a mattress below.

Most of the time, deciding what to donate is pretty simple: it’s just a matter of finding a place near you to take big or unusual items. But if you can’t donate something, your next step is to try to recycle it.

Recycling Responsibly

You might be surprised by all the things you can recycle—here are a few ways to give the stuff you can’t donate new life:

  • Appliances: If you have an appliance that no longer works, or that your local thrift store won’t take, the retailer you bought the replacement from will often take the old one for recycling. Contact them to be sure. It’s also worth contacting your utility company. Many utility companies will “buy” old appliances to remove energy inefficient models from the market. Our local utility offers $50 for your old fridge, for example.
  • Batteries: Some kinds of batteries are hazardous in the trash. Check your city for household hazardous waste facilities where they’ll get recycled instead.
  • Blankets, towels, and pillows: If they aren’t in good enough shape for the thrift store, ask your local animal shelters: they might need soft items for the animals to sleep on.
  • Books: If your books are too damaged to donate, try contacting Franklin Media with the details—they recycle and upcycle many beat-up books, and might even pay you for your donation.
  • Broken ceramics: Dishes, mugs, and other ceramic items that are broken and can’t be donated might wind up in the trash—there’s usually no way to recycle them. However, you could use them to make art projects like mosaics. And occasionally, recycling centers that take old building materials like concrete will also take ceramics.
  • Clothes: Clothing that’s too worn for donation shouldn’t go in the trash. If it has holes, stains, or other severe damage, you can repurpose it into rags for cleaning the house. But if you just want those old clothes out of your sight, send them to a recycling service like TerraCycle. Goodwill also sends unsold clothes to textile recyclers, so that’s not a terrible home for your damaged items. Just make sure not to donate wet or moldy clothing, which will go straight to the landfill.
  • Electronics: Electronics that can’t be donated can be recycled by major retailers, like Staples and Best Buy. Contact your local stores to see what they’ll take. Some also charge a small fee for recycling, but many people would rather pay it than contribute to a landfill. Just make sure to erase any personal information before you donate.
  • Furniture: Furniture often has many recyclable materials. You can offer it for free on a site like Craigslist for those who love refurbishing old items. Or, you can ask your local recycling centers if they take furniture.
  • Light bulbs: Surprisingly, old light bulbs don’t belong in the trash: some contain small amounts of toxic substances. Hardware and home improvement stores often offer light bulb recycling (try Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Ace Hardware). Your city might also offer recycling options.
  • Mattresses: As you can imagine, trashed mattresses take up a considerable amount of space in landfills. Like with appliances, you can see if the retailer where you bought the replacement will take your old mattress and recycle it. Otherwise, consider offering it to an animal shelter along with your old bedding, or ask your local recycling centers if they take mattresses.
  • Sensitive documents: Obviously, you don’t want anyone reading your old bank statements or tax documents. You’ll need to shred these documents when you no longer need them, but unfortunately, shredded paper isn’t always accepted by local recycling programs. Before you trash it, consider turning it into compost or mulch for your garden. Or, for a fun craft project, try making paper bricks to burn in your fireplace or over a campfire.

To answer your most challenging recycling questions, make sure to visit Earth911.com. This site is a fantastic resource that tells you where and how to recycle all kinds of challenging items.

The Right Tactics for Trash

Although you might do your best to cut down on waste, sometimes throwing things in the trash seems impossible to avoid. Here’s what to know about disposing of things that are truly trash:

  • Broken glass: Once glass gets broken, its value as a recyclable is pretty much gone. Make sure to put it in a plastic bag before putting it in the trash so that it won’t cut any workers.
  • Mattresses: Old mattresses are notoriously hard to get rid of, and sometimes, you might not even find someone to take yours as a donation. If you must, ask your local sanitation department what you’ll need to do for curbside trash pickup (the same goes for other large furniture items that you can’t recycle).
  • Medications: You can’t give old meds away, but you also shouldn’t necessarily throw them straight in the trash. If it’s a potentially harmful or addictive substance, return it to the pharmacy or hospital for safe disposal. Otherwise, secure old pills in a plastic bag before putting them in the trash so that they won’t spill out. Keep in mind that any medication you put directly in the trash or flush down the drain can end up in the water or food supply in the future.
  • Paint: If you can’t donate old paint to a thrift store or a ReStore near you, it will most likely need to go to your local hazardous waste center.
  • Wet paper: Any paper that’s gotten wet can’t be recycled. You’ll need to use it in your garden or put it in the trash.

Although you can do your best to reduce waste, it’s almost impossible to avoid having some trash (without taking extreme measures). But if you’re diligent about properly donating and recycling things, you’ll minimize your contribution to the landfill. And when you stay on top of getting rid of excess stuff, you’ll also find yourself less inclined to buy new things you don’t need.

Have more questions about what you can put in with your regular recycling? Don’t miss this guide!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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