Whether you approach spring cleaning with dread or a sense of positivity is entirely up to you, but either way, it has to get done. With a bit of preparation, the right tools, a good attitude and some information, you can zip through your cleaning quickly and feel great about it afterward.
Prepping for spring cleaning
Materials to have on hand: Clothing to cover skin, gloves, bucket of soapy water, trash bags, recycling bin, pencil and paper for notes
When undertaking a dirty and demanding chore like cleaning the understory of your home, have what you need before you start. There’s nothing worse than getting covered in dust only to realize that you forgot something at the store.
Set aside a long-sleeved shirt and pants that will cover your skin and that you don’t mind getting dirty. Sometimes there can be toxic stuff in a basement or garage (there’s some in mine left by previous owners), and it’s easier to clean clothes than one’s skin of paint, glue or random unidentifiable dripping materials circa 1997. I always put my hair back and cover it too, as my basement is very dusty and sometimes hair can get caught when moving things around awkward spaces.
Make sure you have a set of good thick gloves (plastic kitchen gloves or something non-permeable is best) to deal with materials that may irritate skin. Keep a bucket of warm soapy water and plenty of rags on hand. Be sure to have trash bags (especially if you expect a lot of trash) and a couple boxes for recyclables of various kinds. Lastly, keep a paper and pencil handy to make a list of items you might need to refresh, repair or otherwise remind yourself to deal with later.
Rule: If you pick it up, you have to find a place for it.
It can be daunting when you first walk down the stairs and see the mess and jumble of useful stuff and what you know is garbage. The best way to begin is to pick the furthest corner from the door and work in a grid or quadrangle, if your basement is relatively square.
Try to avoid walking from one area to another picking up random stuff. Make it a rule that when you pick something up, you don’t put it down until it’s in an appropriate pile, put away where it belongs or in the trash/recycling.
Sorting and tossing
Create categories: garbage, recycling, keep, sell/give away
As you pick up each item in the grid or quadrangle you are working in, ask yourself if you can put it in one of four categories: garbage, recycling, keep, sell/give away. Force yourself into choosing one of the four categories for each item.
For items you are keeping, try to group items that are used together in one area of the basement. For example, pots, cloth gloves, rakes and seeds should all be together in a gardening section. Paint brushes, caulk, paint, trim and your toolbox can all go together as they are most often used for minor home improvement projects.
Use available wall space to hang things so they are within reach, and any unused bookshelves or tables can be repurposed to display categories of things so you don’t have to dig through boxes; camping equipment or winter sports gear is easier to get to if you can see just what you need.
Dispose of items that are broken and can’t be fixed, or are too old to be of use to anyone. Donate items that are usable, and be sure they are relatively free of dust and dirt (basements can be musty) before doing so.
Earth911.com has lots of great resources for figuring out where to recycle in your area, so for anything not covered below, use the search box on the top of this page to figure it out. Below are some common basement-dwellers that can (usually) be recycled:
Otherwise known as e-waste, defunct electronics can be one of the more confusing things to know what to do with. This includes old TVs, computer monitors and CPUs, phones, cords and peripherals. They contain some very toxic components, so DO NOT throw them in the regular trash. Many retailers will accept e-waste for recycling, including Best Buy and Staples, and if you have an old Apple, Dell, Sony, or HP product, they will all accept their old stuff for proper disposal. All types of rechargeable batteries can be recycled through Call2Recycle.
[search type="recycling" what="electronics" whatlabel="electronics"]
Paint is another common material that can – and should – be recycled, since it is made from toxic materials. Many people still think pouring paint down the drain is OK, but the combination of chemicals that holds color for years and enables one to clean it with a cloth can wreak havoc on water health – paint becomes part of the water supply if it is poured down the drain and will end up in your local lake, river or sea. Read more about recycling paint.
[search type="recycling" what="paint" whatlabel="paint"]
Lumber and wood
Lumber and wood are commonly found in basements, piling up after new shelves are installed or getting pulled out when improvements are made. It seems like wood is recyclable, since it’s easy to do so with paper…but it’s not. It has to be reused. Some ideas include donating it to a local high school that has a shop class, or to Habitat for Humanity (locate one in your area here) to help reduce their buying costs for new lumber. There are also home construction waste recycling companies popping up across the country.
[search type="recycling" what="construction materials" whatlabel="construction materials"]
Used sneakers can be recycled through Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program, and polyester fleece jackets, blankets and pants can be sent or brought to a Patagonia store for recycling through its Common Threads program. Old skis and snowboards can be made into benches or shelves (remove the bindings first) or donated for other rad reuse ideas.
[search type="reuse" what="sporting goods" whatlabel="sporting goods"]
Toilets and other fixtures
Bathroom fixtures and porcelain get put in the basement when new ones are installed (hopefully low-flow, water saving options!), and most dumps won’t accept toilets. What to do if your contractor has left the old one behind? This is one that really depends on your community. There are some companies out there that grind porcelain and glass up and make fill, paving or other materials (like CPRC in Maine). In Virginia, old toilets were used to create homes for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.
[search type="recycling" what="porcelain products" whatlabel="porcelain products"]