Almost daily, I hear a client say, “I don’t know what to do with this. It was free. I don’t want it, but I also don’t want to throw it away.” As if our kitchens, offices and closets aren’t full enough, we’re constantly collecting — whether voluntarily or not — free stuff that we didn’t want, don’t need and can’t store.
T-shirts, water bottles, lunch totes, hats, bags, pens and pencils, magnets, and key chains. You name it. Yes, on occasion, one of these items proves useful or beneficial, but mostly they just feel wasteful and burdensome.
My major concern, though, is not only with the clutter this stuff creates in my clients’ homes, but also about the unnecessary waste it’s creating for seemingly little benefit to the recipient or to the organization distributing it. Is it time to rethink freebies?
To me, these are the worst offenders.
Kids’ camp and sports T-shirts: So many camps and organizations are teaching kids about caring for the environment but then handing out hundreds of bags, T-shirts and other items that rarely get worn or used and ultimately end up in the landfill. Every kid has at least a dozen T-shirts from camps, sports or special events. It seems strange to donate them and feels terrible to just throw them away. So, they take up space until one day, someone finally summons the courage to throw them out. Some people make quilts out of these T-shirts so that their kids can cherish their camp memories, but sadly, sometimes the quilts also end up being more of an albatross than a truly sentimental item.
I understand that organizations want their logos to be seen around town, acting as free advertising. But does it really create significant additional business when parents have so many other means of learning about camps and activities? That’s a question for the marketing department, but I do think that few people want these shirts , and most end up in the trash. Is there something that could take the place of these T-shirts? A notebook could at least be recycled. A certificate could take up minimal space on a bulletin board. A book on a relevant topic could be donated.
Water bottles: How many does one family need? Probably not more than one or two per family member. The bottles are another frequent sports freebie, and in our attempts to minimize the use of one-time plastic water bottles, we exacerbate the problem: Reusable water bottles are everywhere. People are swimming in water bottles that they never use (and can’t find the tops for) but don’t want to throw away.
Assess your water bottle situation and see what can be reused or donated. Plastic reusable bottles can be donated to thrift stores. Wide-mouthed ones can be used for storing dry snacks on road trips or camping trips. They also can be decorated and used as a vase or to water house plants.
Reusable bags: We want to use less paper and plastic, but now everyone has 30-plus reusable bags that they have collected or bought along the way. The problem the bags were meant to solve has become its own problem; most cloth bags will end up in the landfill, too. Reusable bags can be donated to local food pantries, farmers markets or homeless shelters. Think about how many you really need and pass on the rest.
Corporate swag: There’s a whole category of free items people receive from their workplaces, conferences or meetings. I acknowledge that people feel pride in their jobs and their employers, and it’s great to have a few useful items with your company’s logo. But do you need hats, T-shirts, tote bags, portfolios, mugs and all the rest? Again, I’m sure this is free advertising and useful for branding. But is it worth the cost if most of the items ultimately end up in the landfill or at the donation center?
Instead, companies could increase the amount of money they donate to a local fundraising event so that their name is prominently displayed on a banner or in the event program. This has the advantage of doing good, but also providing visibility. Additionally, companies could donate office supplies to a local school or nonprofit.
I see the allure of getting free stuff, and I, too, am occasionally thrilled to acquire something I didn’t have to pay for. But I don’t want a steady influx of these items coming into my house, and I know a lot of other people don’t want them, either. So, while we’re thinking about ways to help protect the environment, and keep our homes clutter-free, maybe it’s time to have a candid conversation about whether freebies have any real value.