Book Review: Zero Waste Home

zero waste home graphic

Lots of good advice and tips (five stars); don’t be scared off by its extremes — worth the read overall (four stars).

Of the five books I read this summer, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste by Bea Johnson is by far the most extreme. How extreme? Imagine a family of four generating only a quart of garbage — every year.

Obviously, getting to this level of waste reduction takes us far beyond simple decluttering, and as the subtitle implies, the Zero Waste Home approach places its primary emphasis on the intake side of your stuff. Although Johnson notes early on that the book “will encourage you to declutter,” her eyes are clearly on bigger prizes: “a better environment” and “a better you” [Kindle location 170]. The path for doing this is by “understanding the effect of our purchasing power on the environment and acting accordingly” [192]. In this context, decluttering is about not just getting rid of stuff, but learning how to refrain from collecting stuff in the first place. While Zero Waste Home does not have a method for decluttering, Johnson did have a motto which she and her family applied when they downsized to a much smaller house: “What we did not truly use, need, and love had to go” [85]. Using this motto, the author’s family reportedly got rid of 80 percent of their belongings within two years.

Zero Waste Home certainly delivers on its promise to “take you beyond the typical eco-friendly alternatives covered well in other publications” [179]. For starters, the book takes the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra one step further at each end, by adding refusing (what we do not need) as the best option and rotting (composting) as the option of final resort. But getting to Zero Waste in today’s society is another matter altogether; indeed, Johnson describes Zero Waste as “an idealistic goal, a carrot to get as close as possible” [188] and notes that “this is not a book about achieving absolute Zero Waste,” [187] which is not possible because of current manufacturing practices in place. The author should know: as first she tried to do things that even she found to be too extreme — churning her own butter, making her own lip balm, even foraging for moss to use instead of toilet paper [152], before she backed off in order to find some balance.  Even so, her family’s resulting “balance” is quite extreme for most people: using kitchen towels for sandwich bags instead of plastic ones [711], using cloth bags to buy all your produce and bulk items [862-66], or taking your bread home from a bakery in a pillowcase [873], to name just a few.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go to such extremes to derive value from the book. In fact, this book generated the largest number of useful tips (almost 20 of them, to be exact) of any of the books I read on decluttering. Perhaps this is because at this point I am as interested in reducing my intake of stuff as I am of getting rid of it. Some of the things I’ve already done (for instance, using microfiber cloths to replace paper towels; creating a reuse paper bin for printing on both sides; asking family members which of them wants my Kitchen Aid mixer which I never use).

Although the book is chock full of tips for reducing clutter (the word (de)clutter and its variants appear over 60 times in the book’s narrative), a lot of the book’s tips are about avoiding the creation of additional clutter by refusing to accept stuff, for instance by thinking twice before letting anything new into your house [306] or considering the life cycle and choosing only products you can reuse or recycle [316]. Again, most people would find such tips to be onerous as a unremitting regime, but they can also be handy tools to have in one’s decluttering toolbox. Happily, Zero Waste Home also includes useful sections to help with systematically reducing the clutter in various areas of your house and life, for instance getting rid of kitchen gadgets and specialty items that are not worth the space [612-636], having a carefully selected small “capsule wardrobe” [1840] which emphasizes style and quality over fashion and quantity, and tackling the formidable nests that are bathroom cabinets [1288].

Perhaps Zero Waste Home’s most useful contribution to the decluttering process is a series of questions to ask during the downsizing process [e.g., 641]:

– Is it in working condition? Is it outdated or expired?
– Do I use it regularly?
– Is it a duplicate?
– Does it put my family’s health in danger?
– Do I keep it out of guilt?
– Do I keep it because society tells me that I need one (“everyone has one”)?
– Does it truly save time, as promised?
– Could something else achieve the same task?
– Is it worth my precious time dusting and cleaning?
– Could I use this space for something else?
– Is it reusable?

I like that this list of questions is a menu rather than a checklist; the questions are varied enough so that I can pick and choose which ones are appropriate to ask for a given item rather than feeling like I’m supposed to ask each question of every item (which is a non-starter for me). This makes the list another set of handy tools to use in the decluttering process, particularly for dealing with difficult or sticky decisions about individual objects.

These takeaways are important because at times, the book’s single-minded focus on getting as close to Zero Waste as possible seems more fanatic than sensible. Even though Johnson says early in the book that “how much waste one generates is not important” and that “everyone can adopt the changes that are possible in their life” [191], Zero Waste Home also spends a fair amount of time prescribing correct behavior. For instance, “shopping should always start” with buying used items, preferably at thrift stores, garage sales, or online sites such as Amazon and Craiglist [380]. Such prescriptions at times lead to rather unhelpful assertions; for example, saying that “stuff takes us away from our roots, from the outdoors” [552] is only part of the story, and disposables [711] are not pure evil but in fact can save time and offer convenience, which is a different kind of freedom from making our own stuff. Zero Waste Home‘s emphasis on avoiding packaging at all costs sometimes leads to rather absurd concessions, as when Johnson advises readers to refill a beer jug at a local brewery but notes that this method requires being ready to drink a gallon of beer at once before the beer loses its carbonation; her solution to “have some friends over” [925] is a pretty weak and unreliable one.

In the end, Zero Waste Home amply demonstrates its premise (whether intentionally or not) that Zero Waste is an “idealistic goal” which requires going to extremes that most people won’t accept, including me. Even so, you can find value in this book without having to embrace its extremes, especially its many useful resources on decluttering both as a process of getting rid of things and as a process of refusing to take them in.  Even adopting just a few of the book’s suggestions will help you move the needle toward building a healthier relationship with your stuff.

Book Review: Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home

breathing room cover graphic

Still more good advice and tips (five stars); spiritual approach with limited appeal (three stars); worth the read overall (four stars).

Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home by Melva Green, Lauren Rosenfeld is yet another variation on the theme of using the decluttering process to change your life: in this case, decluttering as “a spiritual process that involves coming into communion with what is truly important” [Kindle location 96].

Given that this was the fourth of five books on decluttering which I read this summer, my reading goals were continuing to evolve. I was still looking for new tips and ideas, as well as examples which confirmed what I learned from my ‘1000 things project,’ but I was also even more focused on what made my project and my book different from the other books I was reading. One of the important differences which Breathing Room helped make clear to me is the very notion of clutter itself. Breathing Room’s definition of clutter is, in effect, anything that’s getting in the way of you living your life the way you want:

Here’s the deal, and it’s pretty darned simple: Whether the clutter is in your home, heart, mind, or spirit; if it’s weighing you down, crowding you out, blocking your light, cramping your style; if it’s become an obstacle you keep stumbling over; if it continually cuts you with a broken, jagged edge; if it’s stopping you from finding the things you really love, then it’s time for you to let it go [245].

The authors’ “honest truth” is that “you only have room and time for what you truly love, [357] hence the need “for you to make some space for what truly matters. It’s time you found a little breathing room” [248].

It’s important to understand that this definition of clutter is distinctly different from what you or I might have in mind. By Breathing Room’s definition, a cluttered desk or nest of things in a closet is not really clutter if it’s not getting in your way; conversely, a single object could be clutter if it’s “cramping your style” or “weighing you down.” In effect, defining your things (or your emotions or thoughts for that matter) as clutter depends more or less entirely on their effect on you.

In this context, it’s not surprising that Breathing Room makes large, outsized claims about the stakes and potential benefits of the decluttering process.  Green and Rosenfeld assert that “decluttering is a deep spiritual practice that can bring you closer to your true self, the people you love, and your Divine Source” [238].  In their view, one’s clutter is hiding “spiritual lessons and emotional ah-has” which are there waiting to help you liberate your home and your heart, “give flight to your spirit and rock your world” [144]. Perhaps this is because the authors’ experiences were based on their work with extreme cases (co-author Green was a consultant on the TV show Hoarders), I found myself wondering if the primary audience for this book is serious hoarders, for which the heavy spiritual emphasis is an antidote; extreme problems demand extreme solutions.

Although Breathing Room recognizes that the decluttering process is a “complex” and “personal” journey and that “only you know how to make that journey safe and comfortable” [149-153], this happens in the context of its “spiritual method of decluttering” which is called SLICE, an acronym for “Stop and Listen. Intend. Clear the Energy” [165].  The method itself is demanding  — the first step (Stop and Listen) asks no less of you than to “change your habits of being” [176] — and for me it goes off track by reading too much into our clutter, which for them represents “our history, fears, worries, and uncomfortable and painful emotions” [182]. Indeed, the authors assert that our emotions “tend to generate clutter” [188] that “blocks our hearts” [330]. The solution to all this is to use decluttering to create empty spaces, which are “full of pure potential, a vast openness into which we can invite any energy we desire” [265].

This does not match my experience with the 1000 things project. For instance, Breathing Room’s assertion that “we create our clutter unconsciously, through indecision, fear, and running away” is rather naive if you ask me; our consumerist society which encourages us to accumulate things thoughtlessly has a major role to play in this too. The authors also seem to uncritically criticize all “time-saving” devices that in fact “are not only consuming physical space and time, but they are also taking up mental and emotional energy” [353]. There is an element of truth to this in many cases, but I still happen to think a blender is quite handy, thank you.

As a result, I found Breathing Room’s approach to be foreign for my own purposes for the most part.  For me, decluttering can be a deep spiritual practice, or it can be something more mundane than that. The 1000 things project aims to support self-directed journeys rather than directly aiming for life-changing experiences, so a 1000 things project can be far less ambitious than aiming to serve one’s “Highest Self” [234], for instance. Likewise, in my experience decluttering doesn’t have to revolve around “love” or “joy.” Although Breathing Room offers a somewhat broader list of choices as did SHED Your Stuff and Letting Go — “happiness, freedom, joy, ease, or love” [385], this is not a complete list either; for instance, there is more to purpose than “ease” — things like security, safety, comfort, utility, giving, and lots of other positive things as well.

I did find some nuggets in Breathing Room here and there. The authors’ advice to

listen to your clutter. Yes, clutter speaks. It speaks volumes! It can tell us about our attachments, fears, and worries. It can regale us with regrets about missed opportunities or our disappointments in life. This is not easy stuff that our clutter has to say [504]

reminds me of the inner voices I encountered in my 1000 things project, and their description was more involved than what I encountered, so I’ve started listening more closely during my second 1000 things project currently in progress.  The notion that “our lives are overburdened by physical reflections of our emotional exhaustion” [351] could be another useful insight in moderation (vs. as the basis for an entire method or process).  The notion of decluttering as relief and release is another appealing concept for me moving forward. Who knows, maybe I haven’t reached this deep a spiritual level yet, and this serious level of a journey still awaits me. But I suspect not; so far I’ve been satisfied with where my own 1000 things project journeys have taken me.

Breathing Room looks like an excellent resource for someone who is in dire straits relative to their relationship with their things, or for someone who wants their decluttering process to be a deep spiritual journey. If that description doesn’t fit you, you’ll most likely find a more simpatico approach elsewhere.

Book Review: Letting Go: The Dao of Decluttering

letting go book cover graphic

More good advice and tips (five stars); overly prescriptive method (one and a half stars); worth the read overall (four stars).

Letting Go: The Dao of Decluttering: Create Joy through Decluttering, Minimalism, And a Life of Less by Kate Evans Scott and Melinda K. Bryce is another book which claims to have “the most effective process for decluttering your home,” a process based on “Joy and Purpose” [Kindle location 150].  As its subtitle implies, Letting Go combines two distinct decluttering sub-genres: minimalism and life improvement.  At least in my experience, the more severe proponents of a minimalist lifestyle (relative to one’s material possessions) advocate for their approach because it’s the Right Thing To Do: Save the Planet, maintain one’s personal purity, and the like.  Less austere proponents tout the personal benefits of a “life with less:” satisfaction, happiness, and other good things. Letting Go falls in this camp and takes it a step further: decluttering, minimalism, and a life of less will create Joy (yes, capital J) in your life, which is as much of a need as “food, water, shelter, sleep, safety, and security” [80].

It’s worth pointing out that this was the third of five books on decluttering which I read this summer. So by this time, my reading goals had evolved: I was looking new tips and ideas, as well as examples which confirmed what I learned from my ‘1000 things project.’  I never had any interest in following someone’s else method, so by the time I read Letting Go, my patience for prescription was wearing even thinner, and Letting Go lays on the prescription rather thickly — at least as strong as Tidying Up and much worse than SHED Your Stuff. It doesn’t take long for Letting Go to start telling you how to live your life, with an Rx that could have ‘clean your home, cleanse yourself’ on the label. For instance, there’s the assertion that “Your home should be your sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.  When you walk through your front doors, it should feel like a cleansing breath” [76]. Likewise, “Mindful decluttering is a cleansing process. Once you have cleansed away the superfluous items” [105], you won’t need to worry about organization. Authors Scott and Bryce tell you what your goal should be instead: organizing? No… “That is not your goal.  Your goal is to free yourself of the negative energy surrounding you” [108]. Thus it’s no surprise that Letting Go is similarly prescriptive about smaller decisions as well, such as the number of paper items from your child’s life to keep (a dozen per year is “practical” [655]) or the number of blankets to have (one; you’ll take better care of it, be more grateful and attract positive energy [677]). As with Tidying Up, Scott and Bryce also believe that “it is much more effective to clear clutter by category” [156], that the things you discard can find a New Life [170], and they also display occasional OCD tendencies such as the prescription to have color-coded place settings for each family member [307].

Despite its prescriptive tone, Letting Go confirmed some of the insights I gained from my 1000 things project and also offered new tips and advice that resonated with me. Among the insights that echoed my experience were the authors’ observation that clutter which fills your house drains both your physical and mental space [92]. Letting Go also advocates curating your things by taking valued objects out of storage and putting them on display and treating them like prized possessions which honors the memories themselves [644, 666].  The authors also recommend photographing childhood mementos and creating a scrapbook to help let go of the physical version [656]. The dual goals of Joy and Purpose [113] echo my goals of identifiable purpose or value, although I tend to use a broader range of criteria, for instance comfort and satisfaction among others.  Letting Go also asserts the importance of gratitude, although it places more emphasis on generating self-gratitude [692] rather than receiving gratitude from others.

Even though I don’t believe that decluttering by category is always the most effective method, I do like that Letting Go has more categories for things than Tidying Up, which makes the method a bit easier to tackle.  Although the notion of letting clothes “find a New Life with someone” else is a little woo-woo for my liking, it did help inspire me to do another culling of my clothing with this idea in mind.

Letting Go also offers useful insights about the time, energy, and attention costs of our possessions, for instance its description of how a piece of clothing can ‘own’ us:

If it was a popular name brand, you might have had to work five hours or more for that dress…What better activities could you have done with that five hours?
This is precisely how what you own, owns you.  That dress owns five hours of your time.  If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t bring you Joy, then that’s five hours not very well spent.  Look into your closet—How much time is in there? [228]

Although I believe that the notion of a maximized alternative is a fallacy — we most likely would have spent that time working or loafing or something else less than maximal — I do like the idea of considering how much time and effort we embed into our things, and whether we our energies would be better expended or served in some other way.  Letting Go follows a common trend of advocating for “experiences” rather than gifts [458]; in my opinion, this is also too pat of a response (many experiences require considerable time, resources, or expense), shifting from things to experiences, as well as the idea of purchasing many fewer, higher quality, more valued things, are both useful strategies for building a healthier relationship with our things.

And while I’m not willing to go as far as Letting Go does (as do SHED Your Stuff and Tidying Up) by asserting that clearing the clutter in your physical space will automatically bring you joy, reset your life [674], or clear your mind so much that “you may be able to finally focus on that dream of starting your own business, or you could become more focused on your studies” [196], such things can and do happen sometimes, whether you choose to embrace the authors’ prescriptions or not. At the very least, Letting Go does offer useful tips for you to pick and choose as you engage in your own decluttering journey.

Book Review: SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life

shed your stuff book cover

More good advice and tips (five stars); self-help slanted method (three stars); worth the read overall (four stars).

SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck by Julie Morgenstern is clearly more of a book about changing your life, for which shedding your “stuff” is the means to that end. Indeed, the author conceives of decluttering as a process of letting go, and her method converts this process “into an opportunity for self-discovery and healthy growth” [Kindle location 209]. Given this emphasis, it’s not surprising that Morgenstern makes some pretty big promises about what the SHED method can deliver: “Clarity, lightness of being, authenticity, and living as your most genuine, fully engaged self” [210].

The SHED process itself consists of four parts:

S = Separate the treasures
H = Heave the trash
E = Embrace Your Identity
D = Drive Yourself Forward [203-04]

The theory behind this process is “releasing your attachment to obsolete, tangible items in your space and schedule” will provide “the energy, insight, and clarity to make decisions about the big stuff” [98]. SHEDing is about creating both physical and psychic space — creating the space to think and move” [119], the process of which “fortifies your identity and eliminates old, unhealthy belief systems” [98] and helps you build a new theme to your life. The book deals with three types of stuff, and the book chapters are organized around them: material things, time, and habits (or “objects, commitments, and behaviors” [727]).

As a resource purely for dealing with your physical stuff, the “SH” method (“Separate the treasures, Heave the trash”) is a more accurate description, and only Chapters 1-4 and 7 of SHED Your Stuff apply, although you might find chapters 4, 5, 8, and 9 (dealing with your time and habit stuff) to be worthwhile as well. You can skip the rest of the book if you’re not feeling stuck or the need to change your life, although of course it’s there if you wish.

Even though the 1000 things project was also born of a personal desire to get unstuck and help me make some changes in my life, the SHED method struck me as rather over-engineered and overly prescriptive for my purposes. So again, I found value in the book through culling its contents for specific tips and advice that resonated with me. As a resource for decluttering, I found SHED Your Stuff to be a mixture of good and not-so-good advice.

For instance, Morgenstern offers a concise definition of clutter as “anything that no longer serves you” [741], which matches well with my goal of living in a home where everything I own has an identifiable purpose or value, that is, serves me in some way. However, the SHED method is a little too focused on the short term with its emphasis on “eliminating the obsolete” [296] so you can “identify and unearth the gems that energize you and have true value for the next chapter of your life” [315]. Fair enough as far as it goes, but what about the items that are inert now but might be useful in a future chapter down the road? The SHED method doesn’t seem particularly helpful for distinguishing between those items you should keep for the longer-term future and those that are simply just getting in your way.

I also haven’t figured out yet how to use Morgenstern’s notion that clutter’s most telling characteristic is a “feeling of stagnancy” or that stagnant spaces are “points of entry” which offer opportunities for change [741-43]. Perhaps this is because SHED Your Stuff promotes a more actively self-help approach than I’d been taking, and maybe a little too much for some people’s tastes. (By contrast, you can do a 1000 things project for many other reasons.)

My reaction to the notion of disengaging your identity from your stuff is similarly mixed. While it may be true that “you are who you are wherever you go, regardless of your possessions, habits, or roles” [124],  why disengage your identity from your stuff instead of mining it, curating it, drawing strength from it? Your clutter may provide tangible clues to old belief systems which “you can examine and expunge” [130], but for me it’s not just a simple expunging, reinvention process, or at least it doesn’t have to be.

Morgenstern also believes that being organized is more important than being streamlined; she asserts that you are sufficiently well organized “if you can find what you need when you need it, and are comfortable in your space,” no matter how much you own [261].  She further asserts that streamlining your belongings is not a requirement for being organized [260], which is almost the opposite philosophy from that in Magic of Tidying Up, which asserts that streamlining is essential and being organized is counterproductive since it results in packing up things you don’t need. You may feel differently, but the notion of being able to find what I need when I need it, and being comfortable in my space resonates more for me and allows more latitude in keeping things as compared to more minimalist approaches such as the joy-based sorting method at the heart of Tidying Up.

The SHED method itself is a also little too detailed for my liking. Keeping “a running list of the points of entry in your physical space, noting what percentage of each area is stagnant, how big a space you would create by releasing the clutter there, and the strength of your emotional attachment to each object” [872] is a bit too persnickety for my tastes. The “Selecting your treasures” step features six questions to help you distinguish “true” treasures from “maybes,”  including practical value, need, and relevance to your vision [1379]. These questions might be good for occasional reference, but asking each question is too much to ask for each object you encounter IMO. While Morgenstern’s two basic types of treasures (practical and meaningful) are also very similar to very my criteria of ‘identifiable purpose and value,’ I don’t think everything we own has to be raised to the level of treasures. Then again, this technique is meant to be applied to “points of entry” rather than an entire house, so I found the methodology itself to be less than useful for my purposes.

The “Heaving Your Trash” step was similarly over-engineered for my purposes. For example, the SHED Heave Worksheet [2077], on which you track name of resource, contact info, timing, quantity, and disposal method, seems excessive to me. Recommending that “heaving is usually best done in two- to three-hour sessions” [2102] seems like a good tip and is more moderate than trying to do it all at once (a la Magic of Tidying Up). I haven’t really tried it yet, though, although I recently did 100 things in one day (having organized said things for several days beforehand).

Morgenstern also rightly warns that it’s a careful balance between getting rid of too much or too little stuff, and you might have to start from scratch unnecessarily if you focus too much on simply tossing stuff.  The SHED process includes “consciously evaluating what’s truly valuable and what’s not,” but again the focus is on preparing you to “move forward into the next phase” of your life [1052], and a life phase change may be more than you were planning or bargaining for. In this context, Morgenstern’s stated target of aiming “to keep only 10 to 20 percent or a handful of items at most” or else “you won’t be able to create enough space for objects and activities that support your new theme” [1066] may be a little too extreme for some, even if that target only relates to items that you find in your ‘points of entry.’

Most of the rest of the book soon departs from decluttering and into self-help land. I found some of Morgenstern’s ideas to be intriguing and potentially helpful, and I might even return to the “ED” sections of the SHED method at some point. Overall, however, while I found the SHED method to be somewhat more sensible and less onerous than the KonMari method, it’s not a method I plan to apply in toto. I will be a little more assertive in questioning whether some of my possessions still need to be in my life, but I found the process I developed through the 1000 things project to be a better fit for my own purposes.