The Recycling Dilemma: Strategies for the Environmentally-Conscious Hoarder

November 27, 2015 by

In honor of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last week, I thought it might be appropriate to write about two of the TOP TEN HOARDED ITEMS:

  • Excessive recycling materials that don’t get recycled
  • Plastic bags

recycling1While it is wonderful to applaud individuals who commit to recycling as a principle to help our environment, this lifestyle choice can create some added pressure for people who suffer from hoarding disorder. These individuals may mentally overcommit to keeping and recycling, and are unable to discard and follow through the recycling task to completion. In other words, the items to be recycled never make their way out of the home on garbage day, or they never get to the recycling depot, or thrift store. This problem may exacerbate an already cluttered environment.

The person may not have the space or enough large containers to hold the volume of items that they feel committed to recycle. Perhaps the kitchen or garage is not set up adequately. Without the right tools, the person uses whatever they have handy, such as grocery bags, to collect and store the items.

Before making a commitment to this lifestyle, it is important to make sure that you have the space, tools, and energy to follow through. If something negatively affects your life such as an illness, family crisis, or cyclical co-morbid factor, the volume of items you are so carefully storing to recycle can quickly get out of hand if you don’t have the energy to keep up with the work.

If you have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it is important that you SEE the items, so, for example, in the kitchen use open shelves, not cupboards to store the items. This provides a visual clue and reward so that you can go back and anticipate where to retrieve them.


While it is true in some communities that plastic bags cost 5 cents, if you keep those bags, but don’t take them back to the store with you, and then you spend another 5 cents for more, what has been achieved? I know we have all been guilty of this from time to time, but here are some strategies you might try:

  • Put the plastic bags in a small plastic container in the truck of your car so that they are always with you, or invest in a FEW reusable bags.
  • Get a small plastic bag caddy (not expandable) and fill it with bags, then recycle the rest. There is a very low probability that you will ever need more than this. And the probability is so low, it is not worth devoting extra space to all those extra plastic bags. Realistically, take a look at the last month, and see how many plastic bags you used.
  • Check to see if there are specialty stores in your area that carry dedicated containers for recycling. Invest in a few of these containers to create a recycling center in a space in your environment that would be appropriate, and available. This is a long–term solution that can help to reduce your fear that you won’t have enough of a temporary solution like plastic bags. A little investment in the right, long term, permanent tool can actually cost you less in money and aggravation. It will also help you to meet your recycling goals, and yield better long-term success for the lifestyle commitment you have set for yourself.
  • I hesitate to advocate against recycling, but if you feel overwhelmed and you're not keeping up with it, I would rather advocate for lessening the amount of material you bring into the home that you need to recycle, if you can't keep up with it and you're not prepared to invest in a more permanent, long-term solution that supports this commitment you want to make.

Check out for more information about hoarding and watch for the new book entitled Clearing the Path: Take Back Your Life When Your Things are Taking Over by Elaine Birchall and Suzanne Cronkwright COMING SOON. Follow us on twitter @Clearingthepath or Facebook at Clearingthepathbook.

About the Authors

Elaine Birchall MSW RSW

Elaine is recognized as the leading Canadian expert in the field of Hoarding. With over 20 years’ experience as a community based and clinical social worker, she has provided training and consultation to individuals, families, professionals, and community organizations across North America and internationally. In the last three years alone, Elaine has assisted 212 clients/families and over 130 peers, and offered more than 80 training courses and workshops on hoarding to individuals and professionals in North America. She is sought after as a keynote speaker and her work has received frequent acknowledgement in print, radio (U.S.A. and Canada), and television media, including features on W5, Canada AM, and 16x9 The Bigger Picture.  She recently hosted a six-part series with Canadian regional TV, Channel 22 in the Ottawa area.

Suzanne Cronkwright

Suzanne is a successful technical writer, editor, and instructional design professional with over 30 years’ experience in both high tech and government in Canada. She is recognized for her ability to translate complex technical subject matter into simple, clear procedures. Working with Elaine on Clearing the Path has provided a wonderful opportunity for Suzanne to fulfill a lifelong dream of using her writing skills to “make a difference” in the lives of those around her.