Edmonton

War on storage: How finding new homes for your old stuff could solve society's waste problem

As you prepare to launch your spring cleanup, take a moment to think about Mister Pants, hanging in that cramped storage closet for the last year or two.

Think of your possessions as being on a journey, U of A researcher says

Holding onto unwanted items is a form of waste, says University of Alberta doctoral student Saurabh Rawal. (Shutterstock / smirart)

As you prepare to launch your spring cleanup, take a moment to think about Mister Pants, hanging in that cramped storage closet for the last year or two.

While you're at it, have some compassion for Trixie the Toaster, who used to be hot stuff in the kitchen but got the cold shoulder once you bought a four-slice. And don't forget Ralphie the Bear, suffering a self-esteem crisis since getting stuffed into a box of old toys in the garage. 

Giving human attributes to unused household items is a strategy touted by a University of Alberta researcher to tackle a unique perspective on wastefulness: namely, the propensity of people to let perfectly functional items languish in storage.

"Stashing stuff — you know, holding onto it without ever using it for years and years — is equally wasteful," Saurabh Rawal, a marketing PhD student, told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Monday.

"And that is because as individuals, although we might think that we have been less wasteful by not throwing things away and storing them, but as a society, we have been extremely wasteful." 

As part of his work into redefining waste, Rawal has learned that average American household stores about 50 items that aren't being used, while in the U.K., consumers own more than 770 million kilograms of clothing that hasn't been worn for at least a year. 

"On an average, a household owns up to 300,000 items," he said, citing another U.S. study. "And I'm pretty sure we don't use a lot of this stuff on a weekly, or monthly, or even a yearly basis. 

"We hold onto this stuff because it possibly has meanings or we potentially might just use something in the future. But that never happens."

The result is that the marketplace is forced to create new toasters or pants or stuffed toys, as examples, which requires resources to be used unnecessarily, he said.

A solution is for households to get their unused goods into the hands of people who want them — and that's where anthropomorphizing objects and giving them human characteristics might help, he said.

Saurabh Rawal plans to watch the animated movie Toy Story as part of his own strategy to get rid of toys his two-year-old daughter has outgrown. ((Disney/Pixar))

"It may sound ridiculous, but we actually do this for a lot of our possessions," he said. "We refer to our products as smart, intelligent. We give our cars names, we even use gender pronouns."

The act of giving your unused object a little humanity just might bring out some human qualities of your own.

"Stop and consider that these possessions also have their own journeys," he said.

"You start to feel bad for abandoning them in your storage rooms, in your garages, and therefore be more likely to give it to someone by selling it, donating it or sharing it."

He thinks agencies like Goodwill and Value Village could use the personification technique in their marketing campaigns to nudge people into decluttering  rather than storing.

Rawal also appreciates that letting go isn't easy. To that end, he advises a one-year rule — that is, put an item into storage with the promise that if you don't use it within 12 months, it needs to find another home.

Rawal can fully relate to the emotional pull of holding on to unused items, such as toys his two-year-old daughter has outgrown.

In order to combat those feelings, Rawal plans to put all the unwanted toys into a pile and then watch about 15 minutes of the animated classic Toy Story. 

"I'm very confident after watching Toy Story for 15 minutes … that stuffed elephant would seem a little more real to me, a little more like someone I want to take care of and ensure that it is reaching a good home."

Spring cleaning! Our next guest has a little marketing theory that might help you clear your clutter. 6:25

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