How eco-consciousness can become eco-neurosis

Eco-consciousness is much needed in our world, where global resources are rapidly being exhausted. Recycling, reusing and finding more eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives are crucial to the future of humanity.

Recyclable garbage

For several decades now, we’ve all become more aware of the environment and been have educated that each of us can do our bit to save energy and reduce waste. Recycling has become an everyday habit, and there’s a lot more that can be done.

However, there’s a point where eco-consciousness can turn into eco-neurosis, and this is something I’m seeing more and more these days in the homes of people who have clutter.

Not wanting to create more landfill

Some people are so conscientious about recycling and repurposing that they won’t let anything go unless they are sure it will be reused in some way. They feel so guilty about creating landfill that, over time, they turn their own home into a mini-landfill site. Entire rooms and outbuildings become filled with things they don’t know what to do with. In some cases, it can get to the stage where it starts to smell bad and may even attract insects or vermin.

Their intentions are sincere but, in fact, all they are doing is delaying the process. Whether they eventually send it all to the garbage dump themselves or leave it for someone else to sort through and dispose of after they die, the fact is that some things simply cannot be reused and will have to go to landfill at some point.

New recycling technology is emerging every year. One of the most recent projects is Terracycle, which offers a range of solutions for previously unrecyclable items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, coffee capsules, snack wrappers, pens, various beauty product containers, and more.

It’s an excellent resource, available in 20 countries at the time of writing, and expanding to more with each passing year. It allows environmentally conscious manufacturers and consumers to work together to reduce huge amounts of waste.

How long are you prepared to wait?

Technological advances are happening all the time. Amazing new solutions are being found. The problem is, there is still a long way to go before absolutely everything can be recycled.

No matter how much effort is made by consumers, lasting changes can only be brought about by manufacturers at the top of the supply chain developing better solutions and making more eco-friendly choices about the materials they use. There are signs that the trend is heading in the right direction, but it’s going to take time. It may not be resolved in your lifetime.

If you’re the kind of person who cannot bear to throw anything away unless it can be recycled or reused, what needs to be weighed up is how long you are prepared to live surrounded by these items, clogging the energy of your home and affecting your personal progress. Even though your reasons for holding on to it all are commendable, the stuck energy it creates will be affecting your ability to be all that you can be. If you want to make a difference in the world, it doesn’t make sense to hold yourself back in this way.

How to turn the situation around

The home of one client I worked with was full of stuff, piled on every surface and the floor. She knew the situation had got out of hand and asked for help to let at least a third of it go. However she had such strict, personally imposed rules about recycling and repurposing that after half a day of clutter clearing, she had only agreed to donate three small items to a local group.

We had a conversation at that point to help her understand what had caused her to adopt such a rigid stance and, after discovering that many of her ideas were in fact not her own but the result of other people’s influence, she realized it was not serving her or her long-suffering family to continue living this way.

In the second half of the day, she joyfully filled many trash bags and loaded her car with things to donate to charity. It took several sessions but eventually she relaxed her rules considerably, enabling her to reclaim her home and her life. She continued to do her bit for the environment but in a more considered way, and was finally able to enjoy her house as a home.

Finding the right balance

The secret to a happy life is finding the right balance. When it comes to recycling, the best anyone can do is to keep abreast of new advances so that you know what’s possible and what’s not. For the things you already own, recycle what you can, and let the rest go.

Going forward, make more conscious choices about anything new you acquire. For example, there’s no need to buy fruit or vegetables conveniently packaged in non-recyclable plastic netting or bags. In many stores, you can buy the items loose, and it only takes a few more seconds to gather them and put them in your basket. The choice is yours. You can stop the waste in your own home before it starts.

A healthy, balanced approach to preserving the environment is what’s needed. If you find yourself unduly obsessing about every little thing, you’ve probably crossed the line into eco-neurosis, and especially if you’ve reached the stage where you’re reluctant to throw anything away unless it can be recycled, it would be wise to reassess if you may have gone too far.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2017, updated 2021

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Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2017

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 fourth 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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8 Responses to How eco-consciousness can become eco-neurosis

  1. This definitely hit home for me! When i was 12 years old (in 1988) i saw a television special about Earth Day and it talked about how some people in the world only throw away ONE small trash can worth of trash per YEAR(!) (I don’t even know if this is actually true) and it was the seed of my eco-neurosis, i think. A program i saw many years later, Penn and Teller’s “Bull****!,” actually, had an episode on recycling, which i recommend people seek out and watch on YouTube if you can find it. Specifically the area regarding landfills, how they actually work, how they benefit (!) us, and how much space they actually take up as compared to the actual available square miles of land in America (spoiler alert–not very much at all). Very interesting stuff!

    Essentially, i think the healthiest way for us eco-neurotic people to deal with this is to go ahead and do a good clearing-out, get our house to where it should be, and allow ourselves not to feel guilty about wherever the purged stuff might go, and then–going forward–to do our part by taking IN as little as possible, looking for eco-friendly packaging if we must buy new products, etc.

    Great article as always! 🙂

  2. I’ve noticed this trend a bit in myself, but more so in some friends…I led a de-clutter group in the past for
    5 great yrs….And this was an emerging theme….really hindering and slowing down clutter clearing…yet it was so hard for them to switch gears…feeling really guilty. Thank You so much for this article…I’m sure it will help shed some light on the subject.

  3. “How eco-consciousness can become eco-neurosis” is not really as new as the “eco-” prefix suggests, for concern about how much of our artifacts we regard as trash, as soon as their immediate usefulness has gone. And what happens to all such stuff when there is no such thing as throwing something “away”?

    I live in a city squeezed between the Sussex Downs and the sea, where city-fringe landfill sites are nearly full, waste disposal forms a significant part of Council Tax, and a derisory 30 percent or so of waste is recycled: due to lack of public concern and not to lack of recycling facilities (though they could be better). And this city has the UK’s first and still only Green Party MP, now serving a second term with a hugely increased majority.

    I first found Friends of the Earth 40 years ago at the first Festival for Mind, Body & Spirit at London’s Olympia, displaying a kitchen stand of different coloured recycling sacks, having previously only heard of FoE in “Undercurrents” alternative technology magazine. Having heard at last that a local Green Party really did exist in Brighton, I joined 32 years ago when there was no recycling collection.

    So when Council recycling finally started several years later, it was a joy to get rid of my great collection of washed cans — stored above a false ceiling (of removable wooden slats) I had built in the narrow entrance hall of my tiny flat. I couldn’t bear throwing cans out in the rubbish, as I couldn’t bear putting them into the rubbish in the first place: an aesthetic offence, to mix these perfect and beautiful rolled and pressed metal cylinders with a lot of yuck…

    But my “problem” — always described as a “personal” problem, seldom (until recently) as a social, ethical and environmental problem i.e. “ecological” — goes back to childhood and habits of austerity living. Born during the war and with post-war austerity that included food rationing until I was 15, food was too scarce and expensive to waste. Mending broken things was routine, and if made of metal metal and far past mending, they were collected next time a rag-and-bone man with horse and cart, piled high, was heard coming down the road.

    Clothes were passed on. And what clothes weren’t already secondhand when they reached me, I made myself from age 13 on an ancient sewing machine. Wool for a new jumper meant unravelling an old one. Socks were darned. Every sheet of paper had to be written on both sides before it could be thrown away. Polythene bags, scarce and expensive, were washed and reused until they fell apart. At the end of every school term, a day was spent by all pupils mending torn school books with sellotape. Where possible, used sellotape was reused.

    Years of early experience of this kind makes you value things. And it makes living in a wasteful, throwaway, trash-littered consumer culture almost unbearable.

    This is exacerbated by the fact that as a “designer” I am occupationally predisposed to seeing — or seeking — alternative uses for everything: every leftover carton or other piece of packaging, visualising what they could be, not what they are. In my student days yoghurt cartons were glued together at the rims to form huge bristling globes used as lampshades. Arrays of egg boxes were glued to ceilings as acoustic treatment to sog up high frequency sound.

    What inspired me was not the arid and arrogant designs of prestigious international architects, invariably hated by users, but the amazing and beautiful recycled building creations of hippies in California, and the “no-cost” dwellings in poverty-stricken developing countries, using eg bamboo reinforcing in latex beams, or walls of mud-filled rubber vehicle tyres (devised by Michael Pawley).

    In these situations, large available quantities of “worthless” discarded materials were an invaluable building resource. I most recently saw photos of a round dwelling of sand-filled plastic water bottles, being built in a poverty-stricken part of war-torn Libya. Discarded plastic water bottles there are now precious: needed for more housing for the homeless.

    These creations depend on perception of discarded stuff as “resource”, not as “trash” or “waste”. But to do anything with it requires collecting and storing it: this is the problem. And yes I am exactly that person you describe who cannot bear throwing away a used staple or bent nail. This is because I mentally multiply it by a U.K. Population of 60 million people (if you exclude babies and toddlers) using staplers: and wonder how many tonnes of steel per annum of used staples and bent nails this represents? All normally thrown away.

    Terracycle has got the right idea but it’s incredibly expensive for individuals. And given the amount of organisation needed to collect stuff on a community basis in sufficient quantities to make it (possibly) worth using Terracycle, it seems just as likely that someone involved might have an idea how to use stuff locally, without sending it on long journeys to rack up more carbon production.

    Fortunately a great deal of the stuff collected by Terracycle can be readily disposed of in most parts of the U.K. to a myriad local charity shops, or via the web through such outfits as Freegle or GreenCycleSussex.

    Meanwhile how do I cope with living in a landfill site? Of unpacked boxes from a previous two houses, as well as mountains of (very organised) packaging and boxes of nested cartons, plus stuff to get rid of in various ways, all requiring effort. Try to motivate myself to go on tackling it bit by bit, and not giving up on everything else too, as it’s so overwhelming. And do a clean-up pre space-clearing, with exhaustion and now debt threatening to overwhelm me in a flat with two previous bankruptcies energetically coded into the walls.

    “Eco-neurosis” is one of those words that condemns the individual for the shortcomings of society. Getting rid of all this stuff by throwing it away is — for me — failure, not success. This spoils any relief it might give.

    1. Regarding the packaging materials, have you contacted local charity shops to see if they might be able to reuse your bags and whatnot, like as shopping bags for purchases made at their shop? I know it’s a small thing, but if you can just get something, anything, out of your space, to give yourself a tiny bit of breathing room, it might give you a small spark of energy to tackle the next thing with. Sending you positive thoughts!!

      1. Thanks Melissa for a sensible suggestion, and I do take consignments of packaging to the nearest charity shop (plus other stuff). What I keep is probably excessive as I don’t know what I’ll need to sell (I hope) a lot of stuff on eBay, and I don’t want to have to buy it. Could probably still get rid of some.

        1. No problem at all! I, too, have the “I’m going to be selling some stuff on eBay” thing going on, and one thing that helped me with that situation is realizing i don’t have to sell it all at once. I just list ONE item here and there, when i have the time and motivation to do so. Allowing myself to just sell one thing at a time has given me a lot of freedom (it took me 15 years–from stopping selling in 2001 until moving 1,500 miles to a new home in 2016) to realize that nobody shops on eBay the way i think they do (by checking a seller’s “other items”)–most people are looking for a specific item and buy only that item. So listing lots of items at a time doesn’t really draw any more buyers than listing just one item does. And if you’re anything like me, there’ll be no problem accumulating more packaging material before the next time you have time to list something for sale–the stuff seems to breed in the night!! 🙂

  4. Really helpful. I have been delaying a much needed round of office clearing because of these issues. Now watch me go!! Thanks

    1. If you end up with office supplies that you don’t need so many of, but are still useable, you might call your local school. I bet they can take them off your hands and be grateful for the donation! <3

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