When the Junk Piles Too High 

Discarding the crap you've gathered in that garage or storage unit isn't as easy as you might imagine.

When we moved into our Oakland apartment two and a half years ago, we were delighted to find it came with a garage. We liked the idea of having a place to throw our computer boxes, camping gear, and high-school yearbooks.

But storage is a dangerous tool, a curse for the undisciplined. Before long our garage held everything we were too lazy to deal with in the moment -- whether it was boxes filled with Styrofoam peanuts, exercise equipment we never used, wedding presents we'd never exchanged, or charity-bound clothing. Carelessly tossing aside procrastinated projects, we fed the insatiable garage monster while chanting hopelessly, "We'll get to it someday." As time went by, our apartment, too, collected items we no longer wanted. Old bedding; cassette tapes; an extra desk chair. Without motivation to clean out our quarters, it was easier just to put things off.

But then, last March, we bought a house, and the jig was suddenly up. Determined to start fresh and not sully our new residence with useless junk, we set out to sort, dump, donate, and recycle in just four short weeks. It was, it turned out, no small task.

At first, it seemed easy. Our discarded possessions took on new promise as donatable goods. We were excited that we could finally rid ourselves of what -- when it came down to it -- were some pretty respectable items, simply by handing them over to those more needy. Sure, I wasn't about to sew new covers for my thirty-dollar cylindrical futon pillows after my dog destroyed the old ones, but I was positive some lucky soul would be happy to make use of the surviving pillow inserts. And, even though we couldn't get the CD player to work on an otherwise well-functioning mini-stereo system, I felt certain there was someone out there who would gladly take it and repair it. There seemed to be no end to the number of perfectly good items we had to offer.

I was, therefore, a bit thrown off when, as I called various charities, I sensed a reluctance to take our stuff. They'd heard it all before. They knew the donation had less to do with altruism or liberal guilt, than it did a need to pawn our old dish rack and dog toys onto somebody else.

Only the Salvation Army would agree to pick it all up, reserving the right to refuse the items upon inspection. After a friend warned us that Goodwill had rejected what he thought was a fairly nice couch, I called them back and discovered that our old desk, which qualified neither as a computer desk nor an antique, was unacceptable. Other charities agreed with the prognosis: Our large, moderately worn, perfectly good desk we'd happily pictured giving to some deserving deskless individual, was worthless.

I was confused. Since when had charities gotten so picky? We generously offered bags of clothes, books, and miscellaneous household items, but they were apparently doing us the favor. Perhaps there was already enough "perfectly good" crap to go around.

Some friends suggested we put the stuff on the all-powerful Craigslist instead, calling it "free" and leaving it outside for the first taker. I was getting pretty desperate, but just didn't feel right about leaving our old satellite dish, broken coat rack, and nonfunctioning halogen lamp out on the curb. As our moving date grew closer, I began to panic, fearing we'd be stuck with our junk forever or have to throw it out.

Meanwhile, we soon realized that we'd never have enough room in our trash for the remaining items. Bags were piling up as we sorted through an entire garage filled with who-knows-what, and we'd clearly exceeded the city allotment of one trash can per week. The next bulky trash day was months away. A trip to the dump became inevitable.

And so, having resolved not to bring it all with us, I came up with a plan. I rented a U-Haul for our last day in the apartment -- no, not for the items we wanted to keep, we already had movers for that -- for everything we wanted to get rid of. So when the Salvation Army failed to show up for their scheduled pickup, it didn't matter. If they wouldn't come to us, we'd go to them. We loaded the cargo van with our trash, recyclables, and gently used stuff, and set out on a well-researched and carefully charted journey to cleanse our lives of every last bit of stuff we no longer wanted.

We started at the Goodwill drop-off location and handed over our clothing, shoes, books, stereo, futon cushions, coat rack, and satellite dish to an unenthusiastic but fairly indiscriminate employee. He wouldn't take everything, but I felt a small sense of satisfaction knowing I'd snuck items into boxes marked "miscellaneous" that probably never would have made it past the censors on their own.

At Urban Ore, an organization committed to recycling, a sympathetic employee reluctantly took the desk, desk chair, and even an unopened bag of dog food for himself. We dropped off numerous cardboard boxes and newspapers at Berkeley's recycling center and left our halogen lamp, Ab Roller, and an old dishwasher for scrap metal. We then headed for the transfer station next door. By day's end, with just moments to spare before our rental was due back at U-Haul, we successfully reduced a vanload of junk to just $9.50 of actual trash.

I considered it a victory, but the true test lies in the future. Can we overcome the pack rat mentality? The procrastination? The compulsive consumerism that means today's Crate and Barrel floor cushion -- which, by the way, was a perfect addition to our new house -- may be tomorrow's landfill? Old habits die hard.

Did I mention our new basement?


If you're like me, you may need some help figuring out how to dispose of your junk. The Yellow Pages are full of listings for various waste haulers who will take your junk off your hands for a fee and spare you the worries of trying to find a home for it yourself. If the idea of paying someone to clean out your clutter doesn't work for you, however, I recommend the following four-stop process:

Goodwill Industries Drop-Off

2925 International Blvd. at 29th Ave., Oakland. 510-534-6666. Open daily from 9:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m., closed 1-1:30 for lunch. They accept shoes, clothes, toys, housewares, books, small appliances in working condition, and wood furniture. They do not accept couches, mattresses, TVs, microwaves, computers, baby furniture, file cabinets, automotive parts, food, office furniture, or pianos. Make sure you keep track of what you donate and save your receipt for a tax write-off.

Urban Ore

7th Street and Ashby Ave., Berkeley. 510-841-SAVE. The receiving department is open Monday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and Sunday 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. They are committed to ending "the age of waste by advocating and developing total recycling." They accept some appliances, computers, electronics, furniture, building supplies, bathroom fixtures, doors, carpet, working microwaves, VCRs, and windows. They do not accept built-in appliances or mattresses.

Berkeley Recycling Center

Second and Gilman streets, Berkeley. 510-524-0113. Open daily from 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. They accept cardboard, newspapers, mixed paper, aluminum and tin cans, scrap metal, glass bottles and jars, and appliances that do not contain freon or mercury. They do not accept windows or ceramics.

Berkeley Refuse Transfer Station Dump

1201 Second Street, Berkeley. 510-981-6350. Open 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sundays. They charge $9.50 for up to 260 pounds of trash and do not accept hazardous materials.

Some other options include:

General Waste

East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, 6713 San Pablo Ave., 510-547-6535. Will schedule pickups.


Alameda County Computer Resource Center, 1501 Eastshore Highway, Berkeley, 510-528-4052. www.accrc.org They accept any household or office electronic appliances, except those that are food-related like microwaves and refrigerators. They charge a small fee to cover their costs.

Styrofoam Peanuts

Peanut Hotline: 1-800-828-2214. An automated system will tell you the businesses in your area that accept used packing materials.

Hazardous Materials

Alameda County 1-800-606-6606

Contra Costa County 1-800-750-4096


Berkeley Bowl, 2020 Oregon St., Berkeley, 510-843-6929. Open Mon.-Sat. 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. and Sundays 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. They accept all canned goods and dry foods, but nothing perishable. -- Helene Blatter


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