By Michelle Millet
Cross posted from the Davis Enterprise on March 16, 2014

Recently, my family has taken on the challenge of reducing the amount of waste we are responsible for generating. We decided to undertake this challenge in small, incremental steps, in an attempt to make the seemingly monumental task of living a zero-waste lifestyle a little less daunting and little more feasible.

A common theme I found when reading about others’ attempts at minimizing their waste was a decision to simplify their lives by reducing the amount of “stuff” they owned.

To live more simply, I realized that my family needed to do two things: first, reduce what we already own, and second, reduce the number of new things we bring into our home.

my family needed to do two things: first, reduce what we already own, and second, reduce the number of new things we bring into our home.

This month, we decided to focus on reducing what we already own and set out on a mission to “declutter” our house by following these two steps: identify what possessions are most important and useful to us, and eliminating everything else.

Needless to say, both of these guidelines are easier said than followed. Everything we own has some importance, or we wouldn’t own it, right? Plus, deciding what to eliminate is hard, as it comes with some anxiety over “what if I want to use that someday?”

To break ourselves in slowly, we decided to start with duplicate items and evaluate whether it is necessary to own more than one of any particular object.

For instance, do we really need three staplers? Are we ever going to need to use more than one stapler at a time? Why do I have five different hair brushes? Will I really need three different-size colanders, or will one medium-size colander meet our food drainage needs?

When I noticed that my kids’ closets and drawers were so full it was sometimes hard to put clothes away I wondered, does a 7-year-old boy need 20-plus short-sleeve T-shirts? And how many pairs of leggings does a 9-year-old girl really require?

As we started to remove duplicate items in our house, we began reaping the benefits of having less stuff cluttering our lives. We started to find things more easily, there was more space to put things away and there were fewer items lying around that needed to be put away.

Do we need it?

Inspired, we decided to evaluate the need for items in our house that we hardly ever used.

Do I really need a curling iron if I can’t remember the last time I used it? What about all those DVDs of movies we never watch or the board games we never play anymore? At 7 and 9, they kids have pretty much outgrown Candyland, so why do we still own a regular version as well as a Dora the Explorer one?

Yes, it was fun to make fondue that one time five years ago, but does the slim chance that we will use the fondue pot again one day justify the space it takes up in our crowded cupboard?

We soon became aware of all the little things that are cluttering up our house and our lives as well. We realized we had far more pens, pencils, crayons, paper clips, hair ties and nail clippers than one family of four can use at one time, or even over a long period of time, and that basically most of these items are just taking up space.

As I started the decluttering process, I realized that my desire to reuse — combined with my discovery of Pinterest pages filled with do-it-yourself project ideas on ways to “up-cycle” what some consider garbage into new products — was getting in the way of reducing the amount of clutter in my house.

I took a good, hard look at the six months of newspapers I had collected and asked myself, Am I really going to find the time to spin enough yarn, from this paper, using the homemade spindle I bought on Etsy, to make the ecofriendly doormat I discovered on Pinterest?

Am I ever going to actually make pencil holders from the floppy disks we no longer have use for, and, more importantly, do we really need another pencil holder?

With the other more pressing and important demands on my time, like making sure my daughter is keeping up with her school work — think fourth-grade mission project — and helping my first-grader with his reading, was I really going to find the time to get the sewing machine, which has been sitting in my closet unused for more than 10 years, up and running, to sew shopping bags out of my kids’ stained and worn-out T-shirts?

The realistic answer was no. So I decided to reduce my up-cycling projects to one at time, and let go of the unfinished and unstarted ones I had planned.

Lots of donations

After determining what items we were ready to eliminate from our lives, we needed to decide the best way to go about doing this.

Things that were still in good shape could be donated, which allowed us to share these already-consumed items with others, lowering the demand for resources to be spent on making new things.

My favorite place to donate in Davis is the SPCA, not only because it supports a great cause, but because it makes dropping off items very convenient. I just drive up to the donation station at the back of the store on Third Street downtown, where I’m greeted by a friendly staff member who helps me unload my donations.

Not everything we decided to give away was appropriate or convenient to bring to the SPCA. For these items, I turned to Freecycle — a sort of free version of Craiglist — whose official mission is “to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources and eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.”

Freecycle allowed us to find homes for the used, but still perfectly good, shipping boxes that we accumulated over the holidays, and the 200-plus plus gently used file folders that had somehow found their way into our closets. Objects that would have been recycled or tossed in the garbage were now going to be reused for their original purpose.

We also found homes for larger, hard-to-transport objects, like the stepping stones we pulled our of back yard last summer and the garden fountain that we inherited when we bought our house more than seven years ago but never used.

As for the six months of newspapers that were never fated to become a doormat, they went into the recycling bin. And the stained, worn-out shirts? Well, regrettably, they are headed for the landfill.

So, while our recycling and garbage containers were a little more full this month, we hope that by adopting a simpler way of life, by sharing what we no longer need with others and only purchasing what we need and will use, that in the long run our efforts will lead to a more sustainable way of life for ourselves and our community.

— Michelle Millet is a Davis resident with a degree in wildlife and fisheries conservation biology from UC Davis. She’s the mom of two kids, ages 7 and 9. Follow her blog at or contact her at