Back to You: Get rid of something you think you need (but really don’t)

Soon after I got married 15 years ago, I began to amass an impressive (well, maybe “impressive” isn’t quite the right word) collection of plastic containers. I chalk my plastic avalanche up to a couple of factors:

  • For one thing, plastic – particularly the semi-disposable sort I tended to buy back then – is usually cheap.
  • It’s easy to pick up – you can buy it at the grocery store – and it’s disposable enough to send leftovers home with a friend you rarely see, or not worry too much if it never comes back from school.

But after a period of time when we lived in three different houses in as many years, it became clear that I had a Plastic Problem.

Even after culling 2/3 of it from the supply, I was still left with the plastic monster shown in the photo above. Half the containers were missing their lids (and plastic wrap or aluminum foil doesn’t stick very well to plastic, I’ve found). None of the containers nested inside each other. Some had warped, so they wouldn’t lay flat in the drawer or cupboard. And collectively, they were ugly.

The bulky, unstable mountain the plastic created never fit right in my kitchen drawers and nearly caused an avalanche when I opened cupboards. I grew tired of spending five or ten minutes searching for a matching lid every time I wanted to use a particular container.

But I neeeeeded that plastic. Right? If not for what was left of the 40-piece nesting container set I purchased from an infomercial (true story), where would I store leftovers? What would I use for lunches and park snacks? What about if I wanted to send cookies home with a friend?

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I really didn’t need the vast majority of my plasticware.  I realized that I was holding on to all that plastic for potentialities that just didn’t play out in real life.

After all, on the rare occasion that I’m sending leftovers or treats home with somebody I won’t see again soon, a gallon-sized Ziploc or Hefty storage bag does the trick nicely. Most of the time, we eat dinner with people we know well enough to just pick up the glass dish or bowl later. Leftovers work just fine in my heavy, lidded Pyrex and Corningware containers, too.

And just how many leftovers does one family need to have in the fridge at any given time, anyway? If anything, putting the leftovers in my “nice” bowls encourages me to use them up faster since I need the containers back in rotation. It’s only too easy to shove those plastic bowls to the back of the fridge, only to get quickly forgotten about.

Another plastic problem: the waste! I used to wonder why I always seemed to be missing containers, but I finally realized that because plastic seems disposable, people don’t seem to value it as much. Nobody would dream of tossing a Pyrex bowl just because it had some moldy food in it, but they’d throw away plastic in a heartbeat.

I reminded myself that I could always pick up more plastic later if I really felt the need. Then I took a deep breath and got rid of my dented, lid-lacking, warped, dysfunctional plastic collection, once and for all.

Now, I didn’t unload every piece of plastic. I kept my mother’s yellow Tupperware container with the strainer/steamer insert. It’s durable, holds a lot, and I like that it’s a piece of my family history.

yellow Tupperware steamer strainer

I also held on to my three-quart plastic pitcher, which comes in handy a few times a year and is stored on the top shelf in the back of my pantry, and a couple of the lunch containers I bought during last year’s Lunch Box Challenge (though I’ve also decided I’m not above using brown paper sacks and sandwich bags for kids’ lunches when I’m feeling overwhelmed or rushed – it’s still less waste than the typical school lunch and keeps me in the school-lunch habit.)

But other than a very small, manageable handful of plastic pieces, it’s all gone. Gone.

And guess what?

  • Getting rid of plastic freed up more room in my fridge (no more random, unidentifiable things in cloudy plastic containers. My glass containers mostly have see-through lids, and since they’re more distinctive, I remember what I put inside.
  • My cupboards are less cluttered and more attractive.
  • I spend less time searching for an appropriate container when I need one.
  • I no longer have to worry about whether food has been sitting too long in plastic to be safe (BPA), or whether it’s really OK to heat up those leftovers in the microwave.
  • I feel a connection to my glass, Pyrex and Corningware containers; one of which I earned by collecting points at the local supermarket (I felt so elderly doing that!) and others that I’ve picked up from antique shops and thrift stores. They’re pretty and they give me joy to use. And that counts for a lot!

Far from making things harder, getting rid of all that plastic has simplified my life and made it that much more lovely.

I know you’ve got a version of “the plastic mountain.” Something – or a collection of things – that you’re holding on to because of habit, or fear, or some irrational worry. Something that seems useful on the surface, but in reality causes clutter, mess, or stress.

Today I challenge you to take a few minutes walking around your house and identifying possible ‘plastic mountains’ of your own. Ask yourself:

  • Does this object fill the need I bought it for?
  • Is it attractive to look at and/or functional?
  • If not, why am I holding on to it?

If you can’t answer that last question – or the answer is just kind of lame – I challenge you to gather up all those un-lovely, un-useful objects, and put them in a bag or box.

If you’re feeling especially confident or bold, you can take that box or bag directly to Goodwill or toss it in the trash (I tossed all warped, lid-less containers but did put a few whole ones in the donation bin).

If the idea of getting rid of it leaves you feeling panicky, you can opt to put it in a closet, basement or attic and re-evaluate how you feel about it in three months. Set an alert on your phone to let you know when it’s time to decide. (My guess is that you’ll feel totally confident giving the stuff the heave-ho after you realize how little you missed it.)

The whole idea of this exercise is to do it quickly. You don’t want to spend a ton of time obsessing over each object and what possible future purpose it might hold….it’s only too easy to justify hanging on to things too long when you do that. In ten minutes or less, you should be able to relieve yourself of something that’s been cluttering up your life. And it’ll probably feel so good that you’ll be tempted to keep going all weekend.

Ready? Set? Go! Your own “plastic mountain” is almost history.

Edited to add: I can’t believe I didn’t think to mention canning jars above! They’re a great, easy and not-too-bulky way to store stuff in the fridge, too. I’m feeling inspired to write a whole new post on alternatives to plastic containers – coming soon!

My bloggy buddy Jessica Ashley and I are presenting on a month-long project called Back To You, helping moms remember to take care of themselves during the busy back-to-school season. Look out for Back To You posts several times a week now through October 4: there will be a bunch of fun giveaways, challenges and do-able activities to get you energized, refreshed and focused for fall.

Read other Back To You posts here!

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