Posted by Rob Walker on December 6, 2006
Posted Under: Unconsumption

[UPDATE May 6, 2007: Please see the new Unconsumption page for updates, comments, etc., on the below.]

Okay. New topic! Please note this entry concludes with an open call for feedback and suggestions. Let me know if I need to offer a prize or something to get you interested in this topic. I’ll do it.

The topic is “unconsumption.” By this I mean, getting rid of things. I don’t mean voluntary simplicity etc. — I mean we all have to get rid of things sometimes, and as you’re probably aware, this can lead to problems. Basically there are two kinds of things we need to get rid of: things that don’t work and/or are used up, and things that do work but we don’t want them anymore.
One dimension of this that’s gotten a lot of attention is the disposal of gadgetry, from computers to cell phones. There’s a book that’s evidently on this subject — I haven’t read it — called High Tech Trash, by Elizabeth Grossman. (Here’s TreeHugger’s writeup.) And there’s another book called Made To Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. I haven’t read that either, but here’s an Utne Reader interview with the author, Giles Slade.

A site called Computer Take Back offers information about “which computer companies will take back your old computer, what services they offer, how to uses them, and how to get free recyling.” THere’s also a list of articles, with links, on the subject of “e-waste.”

More broadly, but within the context of stuff that’s used up or doesn’t work anymore, a project called The Art of Recycling looks like a sort of “awareness”-focused kind of thing. Making recycling cool, maybe? Looks like there’s also a kind of store or project involving the selling of cool stuff made from recycled materials. That’s fine, but it’s not my interest here: I’m not interested in things Joe Consumer can buy (in this rare & particular instance), I’m interested in how Joe Unconsumer can get rid of stuff.

[Side note: I’m not sure how to reckon with things like “make your old CDs into coasters or a disco ball,” as suggested here on Worldwise (via TreeHugger). I guess that’s useful. Is it?]

A UK outfit called Envirofone touts itself as “the best way to get money for your old mobiles and help the environment.” It does not appear to operate in the U.S. (Here’s a Popgadget writeup.) Another UK project is Reverse Vending Machines, “designed to automate the collection and identification of used beverage containers, issuing a refund receipt or money.” (At least it looks to be a UK thing.) Here’s a Treehugger bit on that.

On getting rid of things that do still work, there’s always donating them to charity in one way or aother. And barter seems to be a popular response. Freecycle (“a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns”) appears to be the most prominent example. It claims more than 2.8 million members. PSFK had this rundown of other barter example (all in the UK, looks like), including Read It Swap It, which is book-focused, and Swapz, which bills itself as “the biggest, most established and original direct swap website where you can swap anything with anyone.”

Have any other, or better, examples? Again my focus is not on how to keep from buying things in the first place (which is fine, it’s just not my focus), but rather on disposal of things you’ve already consumed.

What do you do when you are ready to unconsume them?

Update (December 8): Something else I just found in my files: Ebay has an “initiative” called Rethink that’s aimed at the e-waste issue. According to this old press release, at least, it wa launched in October 2005, to address the “understanding of electronic recycling and reuse options.” There’s a list of places to donate, and another of recycling-oriented organizations. I haven’t checked this out in any detail, but, just adding it to the pile. Also: Some good things in the comments section to check out if you haven’t already…

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I started a local freecycle about 2.5 years ago, and it’s been an amazing way to get rid of stuff. Not everything is wanted, but an awful lot of it. It’s such a win-win to get something OUT of the house and find someone who will pick it up and know that it has use. We’ve got various things like leftover drywall, a TV, plants, a PDA, as well.

Once a guy came with a truck and disassembled our old wooden shed, loaded it up and took it home to his farm, presumably to reassemble. We would have had to pay to put it in the landfill….

The getting-rid-of-stuff feels great. Simplifying our life and our space by cutting down the low-hanging fruit.

I’m not adding any new way of doing it, but simply to echo the pleasure and benefit of doing so.

Written By Steve Portigal on December 6th, 2006 @ 6:00 pm

I split my “unconsumption” between Goodwill and Freecycle. So far I have “freecycled” furniture and working electronics and generally prefer to donate clothing and small items to Goodwill. I’ve found Freecycle to be more work than small household items are worth.

I have also consigned more valuable items.

Written By Susan K. on December 6th, 2006 @ 8:40 pm

That’s actually quite helpful Steve, thanks much. It’s always good to hear a real-life story, as opposed to theory. And the “getting-rid-of-stuff-feels-great” comment is exactly what I”m curious about and trying to get at with this.

Written By murketing on December 6th, 2006 @ 8:43 pm

This topic came up spontaneously in my Design Research class last night. We were considering “culture” – especially through artifacts, and they went off to do a scavenger hunt; find something in the environment that reveals something about the culture that uses. One student came back with an illustration of a garbage can he saw where there is a metal basket on top for recyclables. His interpretation was that this was for homeless people, so they didn’t have to dig through the trash to get the bottles and cans they collect. It led to questions about how we can throw out food; but maybe the city doesn’t want us to do that. I immediately thought of this picture http://flickr.com/photos/steveportigal/27238629 of food left “on”a garbage can. For someone else to take?

Are they doing something similar on Granville Island? http://flickr.com/photos/steveportigal/270960999/

I don’t know.

Written By Steve Portigal on December 7th, 2006 @ 12:53 pm


Tangentially related are these videos:
Nancy Nisbett interviewed about the Exchange Project, Interviewed at Zeke’s Gallery June 2006.
The Exchange Project a film by Scott Lutes, Interviewed outside of Zeke’s Gallery June 2006.

And the Exchange Project’s website

Written By Zeke on December 7th, 2006 @ 1:00 pm

Between my roommates and I there is always a pile of clothes to be built upon and taken to Goodwill every so often. I’ve also found that Freecycle can be more effort than it’s worth, also considering how hypercompetitive people are for the “resources” available.

I’ve heard that in Japan there is a culture of both natives and foreigners based upon the early adopter and fast-paced nature of the electronics market. People will toss out with the trash, relatively new electronics as a newer model has come out. Not to say that there are tons of vcrs sitting out, but along the lines of components and dvd players. Can’t find the information right now, but if anyone else is familiar a link would be appreciated.

Written By Evan on December 7th, 2006 @ 4:11 pm

Thanks for all of this, these replies are great, very helpful!

Written By murketing on December 8th, 2006 @ 9:34 am

Unconsumption! I like that term. I began my unconsumption project around September. I searched the Internet for donation, reuse or exchange options. I found that unconsumption/reuse is easier said than done. It takes effort, persistence and time. For these three reasons alone, it is unlikely to take off in any large-scale way, unless it becomes easier. And, by easier I mean the ready identification of individuals or organizations who actually want used stuff, and to whom it can be transferred at the moment a person thinks they want to get rid of it, rather than weeks or months later.

Mostly what I found were articles which had lists of general suggestions for what to do with stuff in theory, like “Don’t toss those magazines out, donate them to a senior citizen’s home or local library”! However very few references to such organizations who were actually accepting such donations in practice.

I would have to agree with previous posters, that Freecycle, a fantastic idea in theory, can definitely be more trouble than its worth. Navigating the email postings is difficult in terms of identifying items that are still available as well as those who have requested “needs” have had them met. Also, from what I understand there is a rather high rate of people saying they want stuff and but who don’t end up following through to pick it up, for whatever reason.

Nevertheless, I am nothing if not persistent, and I did find actual ways to unconsume a number of items for which I wanted to find new homes. And, I did have a feeling of satisfaction when I was able to connect my unwanted stuff to someone who could use it and wanted it. I have made use of the Salvation Army and other types of drops for clothing, as well as municipally sponsored electronics drops. However below is a list of several alternatives that I have also actually used for various items:

1) “Materials for the Arts” – http://www.mfta.org/home.html (several lengths of fabric I was never going to use!)
3) Bookins (http://www.bookins.com/index.php) – an easy to use book swap site
4) ThrowPlace (http://throwplace.com/) like Freecycle, but waaaaayy easier to use, at least in terms of listing items.
5) Excess Access (http://excessaccess.com/index.html) also like Freecycle, except the emphasis is on redistributing items to nonprofits. In terms of listing items, I found this site a little less user friendly than ThrowPlace
7) Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (www.state.tn.us/environment/ea/serp) a nonprofit agency in Tennessee supposedly requests old greeting cards. I emailed to find out if they were still doing so, and they were, so I sent a batch down. Also found this site http://www.volunteersolutions.org/vctucson/org/giftmatch/22286123.html, but haven’t used it and don’t know how current the info is.

Written By Sestinaverde on December 9th, 2006 @ 12:27 pm


A little more than a year ago I got tired of finding a place to put things, while cabinets held stuff that had not been out for over a year except for re-aranging in an attempt to create a bit more space.
I decided to get rid of 25% of my possesions, both small stuff and big like furniture.
First I tried if I could sell an item on an online marketplace or give it to a friend,
if no succes, next I tried if someone would pick it up if offered for free on the marketplace,
if no succes, then I brought it to a store that sells used stuff.
Broken stuff that could not be fixed I brought to the cities recycle point.

I must at least have got rid of 20% that way. And experienced that the emtier house cleared my mind as well, funny how that interacts. I guess I need a certain amount of empty space around myself.

Now I’m still alert of stuff that isn’t actually used. If I notice something to be redundant I take it to the path as described above. With one exception, first I look is there is a way to re-use it in another way. An example, an unused cooking pot looks nice in the garden with some herb planted in it. An empty cd jewel case becomes a frame from a small drawing from my kids, a nice personal present for a teacher’s birthday.

It works preventive as well. Sometimes when I’m about to buy something on impulse, I rembember all the stuff I got rid of and how much time that took. It makes me think twice.

It’s addicitve too, I feel like doing another ’25 percent round’ and further enjoy the freedom of free space.

Written By Max on December 10th, 2006 @ 9:38 am

This entry is being bookmarked, linked to, and otherwise memorialized in any way I can think about. I’m a long-term packrat with a loathing for throwing away stuff, which is only partially because of my concerns for the waste stream. Thanks for presenting any number of helpful options to get me back on track, and for giving me something worthwhile to blog about too!

Written By Terence on December 10th, 2006 @ 1:01 pm

There’s also an interview with Elizabeth Grossman here: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//004610.html

Written By Sarah on December 15th, 2006 @ 7:09 pm

Eco Encore is a nonprofit organization that collects and resells used books, CDs, DVDs, and software. Proceeds from sales go to local environmental organizations. Please check us out and if you want to do any advertising or linking, I’d love it!
I found your site, by the way, because I Googled “unconsumption”. I may try to work this wonderful word in to our new tag line…
Jessie Alan
Executive Director
Eco Encore

Written By Jessie on January 8th, 2007 @ 7:43 pm


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