How to dispose of old photos

A question that often comes up in my Clear Your Paper & Digital Clutter online course is how to dispose of old photos in an energetically conscious and considerate way.

Old photos

Is it OK to put old photos in the bin?

Some people don’t like the idea of putting pictures of themselves or people they know in the bin. As one reader wrote to me to say, ‘Sending them off to slowly decay in a landfill doesn’t seem right.’

But that’s exactly what I do when I dispose of old photos. I simply rip them up and put them in the bin. Not in the recycling bin, though, because the chemicals used in the printing process mean that old photos have to go in the regular trash that goes to landfill or incineration.

Some people are surprised to hear I do this because they have read somewhere that we are  energetically connected to images of ourselves, so photos must be ritually burned or at least disposed of more respectfully. From my experience of hand sensing photos, I certainly agree that there is an energy connection between a person and their image. But it does not do any harm to a person to throw their photo away. When you think about it, millions of photos of people in newspapers end up in recycling waste every day and there are no dire consequences of this. If there were, all celebrities would be in big, big trouble.

Alternative methods of disposal

For people who are still not convinced, or find themselves unable to rip up images of themselves or people they know, a kinder method is to immerse the photos in a basin of water until the images float off and dissolve, which usually takes 3-5 days. But then you are faced with the problem of what to do with the toxic water you are left with. To dispose of it responsibly you certainly can’t pour it down the toilet or the sink, or empty it in your back garden. Photo paper contains a cocktail of chemicals, including silver and mercury. If you choose this method you would need to contact your local hazardous waste disposal centre first and ask them what to do.

I have to say, though, that I do draw the line when it comes to putting photos of people through the shredder. I can happily do this with photos of places or things, but seeing those mechanical metal teeth tearing through the faces of people I know feels unnecessarily aggressive.

Digital photos

For those who’ve grown up in the digital age, deleting a photo is only a click of a button away. But the sheer quantity of photos most people now have has brought with it a whole new set of problems. Taking a photo is easy and cheap, but the time it takes to store it in a way that allows you to find it again, and the energy it takes to decide which to keep and which to delete, can take up untold hours of a person’s life.

Always bear in mind if you decide to take on a task that every use of your time you say yes to means saying no to something else. So if you are spending so much time organizing memories from the past, what are you saying no to in the present?

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2021

Paper and digital clutter is one of the most challenging types there is. If you need help with this, I warmly invite you to take my highly effective 30-day Clear Your Paper & Digital Clutter online course.

Related article
The art of intercepting clutter before it even starts

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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16 Responses to How to dispose of old photos

  1. I am 48, but during lockdown realised that I am getting too much clutter and running out of room for things or not being able to find them, so have been trying to clear out a lot of stuff – loads of magazines that had been taking up room in the cupboards for a start of to recycling. My mum was also one for keeping stuff, when I was clearing the house out forget how many bin bags of stuff I took to the tip or documents and paperwork that I burnt.

    I found stuff that I had long forgotten about, load of old school stuff from 30 odd years ago, don’t even know why I was still keeping it so I ended up burning it, but also found a few things that I thought I had previously lost. I took stuff to the tip as well.

    I am trying to be good now and not keep holding on to stuff (well apart from my garage full of car spares).

  2. Guess it’s a dilemma that we are all going to face at some point.

    After my mum and dad passed away a few years ago, I ended up with a big box of photos, mostly undated or unlabelled and these are currently still sitting in a cupboard at home. Add to that I must have hundreds of my photos in boxes and drawers and again not one for dating or labelling them. Thing is I’ll have no one to pass them on to (and who would be interesting in photos of a car show taken in 1996 or whatever) so I suppose it’s more about what happens to them when I am gone which probably means they’ll be going to the dump anyway.

    I suppose my question then is, do I just leave them all for whoever to dispose of as they see fit or save them the task and do it myself. Perhaps sort through and keep ones that mean something and then bin the rest. I don’t know whether I’d want to have a big fire or just watch them get thrown in the back of the bin lorry with the rest of the rubbish and head off to the dump where at least I know they’ll get incinerated rather than simply put in landfill.

  3. I respect your opinion but I completely disagree with it. My wonderful wife passed away a few months ago. I had large canvas photographs created to display her wonderful essence. If you think I would throw them in the garbage you are absolutely nuts. I will go to a place where we shared so many great memories, make a bonfire and in a thoughtful and contemplative manner let them go one by one.

    1. Hi Peter – My article was written for all the people who have photos stashed away that were taken before digital cameras and phones became commonplace. As part of decluttering their home, they may end up with a pile of photos they no longer want to keep, but they are not sure how to dispose of them responsibly.

      The photos of your much-loved and recently-departed wife are in a very different category, and it makes perfect sense to dispose of them in the way you have described, which feels meaningful to you. It can form an important part of completing your relationship with her, which is what grief recovery experts John W. James and Russell Friedman strongly recommend in their wonderful books about the grieving process.

  4. I have pictures of my parents family & great grandparent grandparents going back into the 1800’s & possible earlier. They have been added to as each generation comes & goes. I’m the oldest of my generation. My children & my cousins children are not interested in them & I hate the thought of disposing of them. I guess my kids just didn’t get the history conversation from me that I got from my parents. They just don’t have the connection to them like I do. Any suggestions of anybody who might do anything with them out in the world. I’d rather give them away where they might be used as opposed to just throw they away. I’m trying to clean out this kind of stuff so my children aren’t left with the problem I’m facing now.

    Thanks, Pat

  5. I have very few printed photos left, didn’t have many either. Most of them were thrown away or burnt (burning seems finer to me as it gives a feeling of something finished). Have some digital photos of course. But when thinking about it, if case they got lost, I’d only miss few of them really. Most are just trash, why drag them along for years? I try not to take too many anyway. And I hate looking through hundreds of other people’s photos of holidays.

  6. So what shall I do with tons of family pictures? My kids Don’t want them, sisters, brothers, no, who? The shredder?

  7. I have taken the responsibility of going through my blessed mother and fathers old photos. It is a real challenge because the bulk of them are NOT in an album, mom was obviously overwhelmed and didn’t date or label some way. Therefore I have sent nearly 60 pounds of old photos to the landfill.

  8. I feel like “purification by fire”, especially for photos of those who have passed on (and may have had a troubled life) seems a better choice to me than going to a landfill. A kind of alchemy I guess, returning to ashes and spirit, as with the physical cremation of the body. Landfills are for garbage/trash and to me that doesn’t seem symbolically respectful. Burning a photo feels like a form of release for the person in the photo and for the person doing the burning, depending on the nature of the connection. I am hoping there is no metaphysical prohibition against this that I am not aware of…that is the search which brought me here in the first place! ;-D I haven’t actually done this yet and am looking for more information/input.

  9. Really great article – it’s so hard to throw away old photos. I was debating between burning and garbage, and realized that the chemicals used to make the image are so toxic that burning them becomes a karmically worse choice. So into the bin they go!

  10. Sinds ik een digitale camera heb (2006) heb ik geen een foto meer uitgeprint, ik vind het gemakkelijker en fijner om ze digitaal te bekijken. In het begin dacht ik nog ik zie wel welke ik ga afdrukken.

    Since I have a digital camera (2006), I have not printed a picture, I find it easier and nicer to view them digitally. In the beginning I thought I’ll see what I’m going to print.

  11. I usually just throw them away but occasionally burn them in our woodburner. I have very few to dispose of. We keep family photograph albums and scrapbooks and they are well thumbed. In the digital age I print only those I know I am going to use in an album or scrapbook. I have albums on FB which friends and family can browse through and some shared albums on photobox where friends and family can order pictures themselves if they would like. In fact it is now easier for me to have less photos I don’t want because I can chose which ones I print.

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