Ottawa

As the pandemic drags on, families are waging war on COVID-19 clutter

Stuck at home, some families are realizing they have too much stuff. They're decluttering, donating, and moving stuff along, via online websites and professional organizers.

Stuck at home, some families are realizing they simply have too much stuff

Mary Tsai is determined to declutter in order to prepare for kitchen renovations. She's one of the countless Canadians who've realized during COVID-19 that they've simply got too much stuff lying around. (Kirk Anderson)

When Mary Tsai inherited furniture, housewares and collectibles from her in-laws' estate, she and her husband jammed some items into their home and rented a storage locker for the rest.

That was three years and 36 monthly payments ago.

"If my in-laws knew how much we spent on storing this stuff, they would have been really upset with us," said Tsai.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to stay at home, families and couples like Tsai and her husband are now realizing they have too much stuff — and they're taking action, decluttering and donating via online websites and professional organizers.

For Tsai, that's meant posting items on the local Buy Nothing group on Facebook and offering physically distant porch pickups.

"[Things were] snapped up so quickly, I started putting more stuff up. It became addictive," said Tsai, executive director of the Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group. 

"It's totally connected [to COVID-19] because you are at home, you're looking at your stuff all the time."

Tsai also tackled her closet with help from YouTube videos, showing her how to fold clothes and shed pieces à la Marie Kondo. 

"I started purging. It really felt good," she said "It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel like I'm reclaiming some of my space."

Veteran thrifter Shelley Robinson uses websites to declutter and find new treasures, like bongo drums and this commemorative whiskey bottle from 1976. (Supplied by Shelley Robinson)

Online sites extra busy

Second-hand online sites have definitely become busier during COVID-19, said Shelley Robinson, the executive director of National Capital FreeNet, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit internet provider.

"The competition … is nuts," said Robinson. "It's just so fast. People are sitting around watching Facebook Marketplace."

Robinson is also involved with her local Buy Nothing group, as well as Facebook Marketplace, where she both gives away her own items and snaps up new ones — like a set of bongo drums and a commemorative Jim Beam whiskey bottle from 1976, topped by a ceramic Democratic Party donkey.

"Part of it is that we're all home," said Robinson, who, like Tsai, arranges safely distant porch pickups. 

"They see their stuff and they have this opportunity to engage online with their neighbours, post it, and then feel like it's actually getting used."

Robinson doesn't deny the irony of de-and-then-re-cluttering. For her, it's largely about entertainment.

"Oh, yeah, 100 percent," said Robinson. "What I do for fun is I watch YouTube videos about minimalism and then … search online shopping sites."

Gregor Sneddon realized that with no company dropping by because of COVID-19, there was suddenly no impetus to tidy up. (Supplied by Gregor Sneddon)

'A little out of control'

For Gregor Sneddon, he came to realize COVID-19 has meant no dinner parties or drop-in visits, and that's what has led to the family's messy house.

"Slowly but surely, surfaces get more and more cluttered. It started to get a little out of control," said Sneddon, adding the problem reached a crisis point in the basement.

 "Even my little man-cave workshop area was just overflowing with crap that I couldn't part with."

In search of more living space to accommodate their two active kids, the family resolved to carve out a play area on their home's lower decks. 

But Sneddon was hampered by a classic clutterbug assumption: the fact "you never know when it might come in handy." That common refrain, he said, began to cause discord.

"The stress of just staring at these piles of stuff? It's like your taxes. You can't even approach it," said Sneddon. "So yeah, we looked for some help."

Help arrived in the form of Martha Tobin and her new business, Room 2 Breathe.

Martha Tobin worked for 31 years selling promotional products. COVID-19 devastated that industry, so she started her own decluttering business, Room 2 Breathe. (Meagan Tobin-Devereaux)

Decluttering in demand

Tobin was forced to regroup during COVID-19, after her commission-based job in the promotional products industry dried up and businesses cancelled conferences, trade shows and annual general meetings. 

After reading Richard N. Bolles' 1970 book What Color is your Parachute, a best-selling guide to identifying the work one loves and turning it into a career, Tobin realized what she wanted to do was organize and declutter. 

And COVID-19 created a sudden demand for her services. 

"[People] were like, yes, oh my God, I need a home office. I need our basement back," said Tobin. "All of a sudden, kaboom, it just started. And it hasn't stopped."

Toggle the slider back and forth to see how Tobin cleaned up Sneddon's basement:

"We find stuff they haven't seen in years. And because they haven't seen it for years, they went and bought three more," she added.

One recent client, Tobin said, discovered she owned 17 pairs of scissors. She said Room 2 Breathe helps those clients donate their clutter to local organizations who serve people in need.

"I always want [clients] to keep things that they love," said Tobin. "But here's the catch ... if you can't find a place where it's going to live, then you probably shouldn't keep it."

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