This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
Rachel Friend and her family were at their wits’ end. She, her husband, and their two young children had all the ingredients for a wonderful life, but as often as not, the days felt chaotic and unsettled. The Friends fought about cleaning, childcare, and chores. So they called in an expert: Marie Kondo, the world-renowned “tidying” coach—who documented their journey for her TV show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, which premiered on Netflix this January.
Japan-based Kondo has helped people around the world clear out the excess stuff from their homes and lives. Her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, sold over 1.5 million copies. Her TV show immediately sent viewers down binge-watching spirals.
Over the course of several weeks, the Friend family tidied their LA-area home—and by extension, Friend says, much more of their lives.
“It was this truly transformative experience that made us so much more mindful about everything in our lives,” she says.
Kondo’s method of tidying, in which objects are gently cleared out of people’s houses and lives, leaves behind empty swaths of closet and neatly organized spaces. It also can generate piles upon piles of trash.
Some of that detritus gets passed along to friends or family, or finds new homes via donation. But much of it ends up thrown away—out of sight and mind of the tidy-er, but far from gone in the larger planetary sense. Earth, unfortunately, does not have its own trash collector or tidier.
“I have this concern that thinking about where the waste goes isn’t totally a part of the process,” says Kate O’Neill, an expert on environmental policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “The notion that once it's outside and off your doorstep that it will find its way in the world—that’s wrong.”
But the immediate pulse of waste production, say some tidiers, is offset by the bigger impact of being more careful and aware of what they bring into their lives in the first place.
The tidying process
Kondo’s methods for tidying are comprised of a few simple steps and maxims. First, tidiers must take stock of everything they have. All the clothes, from the summer tees to the winter coats, come out at once. The items get picked up, one by one, and the owner decides: Does this tank top “spark joy?” Does this tie inspire feeling? If not—out it goes, with a gentle thank you for its service.
First come the clothes; then books; then papers like tax forms, leases, and random mail; then “komono,” the miscellaneous detritus that drifts into nearly every household, from kitchenware to personal care items to others; then the sentimental items like photographs and mementos. The order isn’t fixed, but at the end of the process, a tidier will have taken stock of basically everything they own.
The things that spark joy stay. The other things go away.
But where is “away?” And what ends up going there? As it turns out, a lot—much of which is at least partly composed of plastic.
Friend’s family, for example, got rid of at least 13 30-gallon trash bags of stuff throughout the grand tidying experience. About half of those were clothes, shoes, and accessories—often plastic-laced, but not fully plastic—and a few more were filled with primarily plastic toys, containers of expired products, and odds and ends. Other tidying consultants list plastic hangers, small appliances, broken kitchenware, and much more as contributors to the trash toll.
Some, of course, gets donated and reused. But some of it—especially the broken things or the low-quality things—get tossed.
Waste management companies don’t have fine-grained enough data to track whether the volume of trash might have bumped up after the start of Kondo’s show, but charities and secondhand shops across the world have reported upticks in donations since the TV program began. Some Goodwill donation centers across the U.S., for example, saw bumps in donations in January that they ascribe to the effect of the show: 22 percent higher than the previous year in Houston, 20 percent higher in Roanoke, and 16 percent higher in Grand Rapids. In Australia, some charities reported nearly 40 percent increases over the previous year.
Break free from the buy-toss cycle
Kondo has said previously that she hopes her method helps people examine their own relationship with stuff. Ideally, she says, after going through the process, tidiers will find themselves thinking more carefully about the things they choose to bring into their lives, ultimately decreasing the amount they buy and discard.
That speaks to the underlying issue: Many people in developed countries are accumulating historic, unprecedented amounts of stuff—much of which is disposable, designed for single-use or a short life, and quickly ends up in waste streams. In fact, economists have noted a close correlation between the strength of a country’s economy and the amount of waste it produces.
“The fundamental problem is that we haven’t been able to decouple growth from waste generation, which is a proxy for consumption,” says Stan Krpan, the chief executive officer at Sustainability Victoria, an Australian state-organized environmental organization. “Many would say consumption is a good thing, but we really have to recognize that there's a cost to that—and that cost falls onto the environment.”
Jenny Albertini, a Marie Kondo- (styled as KonMari-) certified consultant based in Washington, D.C., has watched her clients recognize the ways they were often buying or accumulating more than they needed as they decluttered. “The process helps people sometimes get to the heart of it—why were you buying these things in the first place?” she says. “Were you buying that lotion because you wanted it, or because you wanted something less tangible?”
Jessica Louie, a KonMari-certified consultant in Pasadena, California, often directly incorporates discussions of sustainability in the process as she works with her clients. Instead of buying new storage bins to store their newly organized items, for example, she makes sure to help them use what they already own. And often, the process helps her clients deplasticize their lives.
“We have a plastic pollution problem that’s very obvious,” she says, “so we talk about how to convert over to glass, for example, or about how to change habits so when you go to a grocery store you make sure you’ve taken stock of what you have ahead of time so you’re more aware of what you’re purchasing. It’s really about applying this method of thoughtfulness to any other purchases you make—especially plastics.”
If they’re already in your life and working, she doesn’t encourage people to get rid of them—that would just contribute to the waste issue—but she tries to get her clients to think carefully about bringing new plastic items into their lives.
For Rachel Friend, the process changed many aspects of her relationship to both stuff and trash. “The thing is, the simple act of tidying can bring you joy. But this process, it can permeate so much farther, so that you start to look at the whole way you interact with your environment.”
In the end, she says, it’s the planet that needs tidying—and that can start with the smallest step.
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