A few weeks ago, I slung a slightly worn, navy-blue North Face backpack over the gate in front my house, just to see what would happen.
By the time I returned from making myself a cup of tea, it was gone – and I felt a little cheated. I didn’t get to see who had picked up the bag.
I’ve always embraced the three Rs of environmental responsibility. The lid of our recycling bin seldom closes completely, old clothing gets consigned and I’m a big fan of Craigslist, Kijiji and the donation boxes you can often find in grocery-store parking lots.
But despite all these handy ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, I inevitably find myself faced with an overwhelming proliferation of stuff. We live in downtown Toronto, have two kids, two cats and a dog, and the lot for our house is only 12 feet wide. Let’s just say that space is at a premium and I’m constantly purging.
I recently started putting random household items on the sidewalk in front of my living-room window in the hopes they’d disappear. They did. Better yet, I discovered that parting with old possessions in this way is more than a fair trade: Passersby happen upon things they’re only too happy to take home, and in return I free up closet space while getting a glimpse of a community I never really knew existed.
It’s become a whole new form of home entertainment (and, I like to think, a more worthwhile and productive pursuit than scanning the latest Facebook status updates). It’s also ideal because I often work from home and have a tendency to look up from my laptop hoping for some distraction. I’ve found my new decluttering strategy is much like putting out a bird feeder and waiting to see what interesting varieties it might attract.
There was the portly, white-haired man with a limp who scooped up my old red ski jacket with lift tags still attached (an especially odd choice as it happened to be a women’s size small); the tall teen wearing a grey hoodie who scored a gently (read “un”) used set of badminton racquets; and the elegantly dressed middle-aged couple who carted off an entire box of school textbooks, including an introduction to contemporary theory and criticism.
In the past month alone I’ve successfully parted with: a pair of inline skates (Roces, size 9); a beige rug (free with another purchase at Home Depot); a baby gate (also handy for dog owners), and a laundry rack I was sure I needed on a long-ago trip to IKEA for something totally unrelated.
My new game has only one rule: If I put something out and it isn’t gone the next day, I simply retrieve it and pop it in the garbage bin. But that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, nothing has lasted on my little front lawn for longer than an hour or two.
When I started setting things out, I’d tape a sign to the item to identify it as free for the taking, but I quickly realized that wasn’t necessary. People know. And, as though driven by some sixth sense that there’s free stuff on my street, they come.
There’s always more foot traffic in front of my house when I suspend something from the fence. This mode of recycling also works in rural settings – when my parents put things out at the end of their driveway, it doesn’t take long before a driver slows, reverses and pops open the trunk.
Not only is this exercise handy when you’ve got general household stuff to get rid of (but not enough to warrant a garage sale), it’s also good on recycling day if you happen to have an extra-large recycling bin, or a surplus of items to fill it with.
When our city switched to bigger bins, the handful of people who regularly rummaged through our old blue boxes for bottles to return could no longer reach the empties nestled near the bottom, so we started leaving them out in handy canvas grocery bags. It’s been a win-win – random recyclables no longer wind up scattered across the sidewalk, and we’re able to get rid of some of the reusable bags that otherwise accumulate at an alarming rate in our basement.
On a good day, I might even get to meet some of my best customers. For instance, one morning after a dinner party, I was setting out a bag of assorted empties and was thanked by a man passing on his bike. He immediately took them off my hands – and told me he stops by weekly.
I’m not sure if my neighbours have noticed my new hobby, but several have followed suit, whether it’s putting out a cardboard box of gently used children’s toys or a bag of empty beer bottles. These days, there’s usually something up for grabs somewhere along our street.
Just the other day, a thin man in a white T-shirt and sunglasses, sporting a headset clipped to his ear, pulled up in an orange SUV. I suddenly got the same feeling I had as a kid when I went fishing with my father and saw the tip of the rod jiggle just a little.
The man took a moment to study the small end table (another misguided IKEA purchase) I had set on the sidewalk, then lifted the back door of the SUV, placed the table inside and was gone. Success!
There’s only one problem now: I’m actually starting to run out of stuff I don’t want.
Sydney Loney lives in Toronto.
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