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Post-holiday cleanup that brings joy: an urbanMama green thing

For two days, the pile sat in the middle of my living room. The Pile of Christmas (just) Past. Even though we'd done our best to have a holiday low on gratuitous buying -- no new ornaments or lights or wrapping paper, no dollar store toys, no gifts I didn't think would last and be enjoyed for a really long time -- we've still amassed quite a pile of mess. There was the wrapping paper and ribbons from the generous gifts from grandma and grandpa; there were clothes three sizes too big (with gift receipts, phew!); there was the huge box of dollar store toys purchased for us by a well-meaning girlfriend of one of my husband's fellow soldiers. And to top it all off, one of my (favorite) gifts was a full day of help from my mom and sister, cleaning my office/craft room, which had been absolutely destroyed while I worked full-time and Monroe was a baby, and I had never had the oomph to tackle the piles of junk on my own. This had yielded big bags of mixed trash and recycling and things-I-really-didn't-want-to-throw-away.

Last night, we tamed it, and I thought I'd share some of the strategies and info I found for cleaning up after the holidays (while still keeping it green):

  • Reuseables. Foil wrapping paper, ribbons, gift bags (unless entirely made of paper -- most have plastic coating), and most packing materials (like block foam) can't be recycled. I have a system for wrapping paper I'd like to reuse; I cut off the ragged parts and roll it into tubes, then put it into a deep, wide basket in my craft room. It's part storage, part art piece. Ribbons get wound up and put in a quart jar. Gift bags go into a box in the basement. Some packing materials (bubble wrap) get stored downstairs for shipping jars of jam; others (soft foam) go into a bag in my craft room to stuff things like these wings I made for Truman. Packing peanuts can go to shipping stores for re-use; I rarely manage the patience to do this but I mean to one day. I save the prettiest cardboard boxes, especially gift boxes, for things like mailing photos and stickers and crafts.
  • Recyclables. The list of what can't be recycled always seems longer than what can. Metro has a very slow-loading form that tells you where to take a variety of recyclables, and has info on what can and can't. A few highlights: you can take your old Christmas lights to the Zoo through January 3rd for recycling (and get a free piece of fudge); plastic clamshell packaging isn't recyclable at the curb in Portland, but can be taken to a Metro station; plastic containers smaller than six ounces and lids can't be recycled curbside; no plastic bags of any sort can be recycled (and even those that stores will take back are often shipped to China where their fate is uncertain at best); no holiday beverage cups (I put my Starbucks cups in the compost heap where they decompose nicely and just leave a little filmy plastic carcass I remove in the spring); plant and nursery pots can be recycled curbside, as can any bigger-than-six-ounces plastic bottles or containers or buckets (no lids).
  • Trash or give away or compost? I have a cache of toys that are broken or will soon be. One gift in particular, six extremely flimsy plastic cars, will I am sure be broken within days. Should I toss it pre-emptively? I wonder. Another gift, a set of knock-off board games from the dollar store (we already have the far sturdier brand-name versions), I'd rather not keep. But is it worth giving them to Goodwill or am I just adding to their trash pile? I've decided to compost the lightweight wooden paddles for the paddleball games which, as I warned Everett it would, broke within an hour of opening (happened to me, too, when I was his age). If gifts are too flimsy to last, what do you do with them?
  • Return for good. We've decided to take back the enormous clothes a relative bought from J.C. Penney for the boys and get an ice cream maker. We'll buy the boys "new" clothes from a thrift store or the Goodwill Bins and I'll be able to make honey-sweetened ice cream for years. I'm satisfied the exchange will be good for us and will save lots of future ice cream cartons from the landfill.
  • Give up on old clothes. We need room for new clothes and that means giving up on some old clothes that are stained/holey/unloved/too little. My mom convinced me to throw a few things away, but others I saved, cutting up old t-shirts and sweater seams into tiny bits to serve as stuffing for a new toy; saving pretty fabric for handkerchiefs or other upcycling; and putting a pair of pants into the patch pile despite her better judgment (shhh!). Generally very few of the clothes we've finished with are suitable to give away. Three boys! After all.
  • Make room for new toys. I'd already started moving around toys in anticipation of Christmas gifts and as part of my office reorganization. The Legos got a whole new mega-sized jar; I didn't need the old "choking hazard" jar I made when Monroe was tiny, anymore, so the beads and other tiny delights got a new home in my craft room and their jar went to Legos. I'd chosen a few infrequently-used toys to give away, but after a delight-making gift of a new Hot Wheels supertrack, our "tiny transportation" bin isn't big enough to hold all the sorts of things that go into it. I don't know if I should give away a bunch of the toys in it (there will be strenuous objections), recategorize (this one isn't tiny enough, right?), or find a new storage place for the new toy (generally the wrong solution; that's how things get broken around here). What do you do when toys won't fit in your old, painstakingly-organized storage?
  • Green your tree (more). This was the first year we got a live tree, dug in the actual forest for us by my mom and dad. For an investment of one $5 permit (gifted by grandma & grandpa, no less), we have a beautiful big tree to plant in our yard. If you have a chopped-down tree, you can, of course, divest it of its tinsel and other non-compostable ornaments and leave it next to your yard debris bin on a yard debris pickup day on your street, or take it to a charity tree recycling drive (in our neighborhood, Cleveland High School has one). Even better, though, is to reuse your tree in your own garden. Get out your hatchet, chop off all but the biggest branches, and break or cut them up as best you can. Spread them as a top layer of compost, or distribute over the earth of your vegetable garden, or around blueberry bushes and other perennials. Save the trunk and big branches to stake pole beans, tomatoes, and other climbing vegetables this summer. In the garden, all natural material can be turned back into life, after all.


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When we have any natural fiber clothes that are too stained/full of holes to give away and the rag drawer is full, I just stick them in the compost.

And I know the Metro recycling form can be slow, but the Metro recycling hotline rocks. The people who answer it are knowledgeable, helpful, and polite--so much so that I don't mind calling them and I hate to make phone calls.

Those dollar store toys may break in an hour, but sometimes an hour is exactly what you need. I'm not saying you should keep a huge number of them, but a small stash of new toys you can pull out in an emergency is a good thing.

Thanks for the tips in your post!

As much as I dislike those dollar store toys, the kids have received a few small toys like animal figurines that I've tossed in my purse or bag over time. They were a blessing for the group of 3 year olds at the 2 hr long Christmas program a few weeks ago where they were expected to be quiet & stay near us.

With fear that one of our loving & generous family members will see this, we often find ourselves donating, returning or exchanging gifts that we don't want our children to have. Since we tend to be more particular about items for our children (noises, plastics, china, etc.), we started using an Amazon wish list many years ago. The children receive gifts we know they'll love and enjoy (they're actually old enough now to help us put things on their list), and we're not in that uncomfortable position of having to return things the day after Christmas or figure out what to do with the cheap paddle ball from China.

Great post Sarah. I need to get to this today around our house & will keep these in mind.

Gina: How did you get relatives to use the Amazon wishlist for your child? We started one earlier this year, before my daughter's first birthday. I shared the link to the list a few months before, anticipating questions about what she would "like" or "need". We only had one grandparent use it really and the rest of the relatives haven't even commented on the list or used the list. My spouse and I didn't want to appear greedy or too particular, so we never mentioned it, but it was disappointing a bit to get a few things that we/my daughter didn't need, and in one case a duplicate outerwear item.

Any tips for reminding relatives in a friendly way about these online wishlists? I sent a very "gentle" email reminder with the link to the list before the holidays, but only two relatives used it. I suppose it's just part of being a parent and accepting the fact that we will always be receiving random gifts for our child. Maybe as she gets older and can articulate herself her wishes to relatives this situation will be improved. ;)

Thank you! Thank you for sharing and thank you for DOING all of that sorting and reusing and organizing. Its nice to know that I am not alone in my freakish attempts to minimize and organize and recycle nearly everything possible. It takes a lot of time and effort and creative thinking, and I appreciate it!

I'd love to hear people's ideas (your own ways or suggestions of books/websites) on how to organize the piles and piles of toys. My oldest is only 2.5, and so we are just now, this Christmas, amassing enough to require complicated organizational systems. I really don't want to give anything away yet, because I have a baby who will likely want to play with many of her brother's old toys.

To SJ: If you have the space, try to put things away in bins that are no longer (or not yet) age appropriate. Also, for my 2 kids, I have gotten a variety of baskets and I recently started using those to categorize toys (like dress-up clothes and accessories, music-making toys, little plastic animals, baby toys, etc). I have to be the one to maintain this order of course but it makes clean-up easier.

Thanks, JD, for the suggestion. I especially appreciate the note that you do have to maintain the order. I think I have this unrealistic vision that my son will actually put things away in the right place if I just do something (what?) magically right. Clearly, this is not true!

GREAT ideas, Sarah. I particularly love - "return for good" and "give up on old clothes". As I purged the clothing drawers today to make room for some new gifted items, I was more realistic about the items that really needed to go - either because she'd never, ever, ever wear it no matter how much I bribed or because it was just too worn.

For Christmas, my husband went through our naked mama party pile of clothes and extracted one item, sent it to Tease Recyclewear, and had some armarmers made for me. They will take your clothing/old Tees and repurpose for arm warmers, scarves, hats, skirts, and other tops. http://teaserecyclewear.com/index.php

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