Ultimate Recycling: Buying Nothing New for One Year?

41 Comments

I recently came across this article in Princeton Alumni Weekly magazine, edited here for length. How would your life change if you bought nothing new for a year? How much of it would be good change vs. bad?


Princeton friends John Perry and Sarah Pelmas had debated repeatedly with their San Francisco buddies about the impact of the U.S. consumer lifestyle on the planet and on their own quality of life. In late 2005, they decided to do something about it: The 10 friends challenged each other to see if they could all go through the whole of 2006 without buying anything new.

The group called themselves The Compact, after the Mayflower Compact, and pledged that for the entire year, they would purchase secondhand or borrow everything they needed, except for food and essentials like toiletries and medicine.

“We thought that if we stopped participating in the cycle of disposable consumption and empty shopping, we could tread a little more lightly on the planet,” says Perry, a communications director at a high-tech company, who majored in English at Princeton.

Sounds hard? They say it wasn’t. They shopped less overall and got creative when they needed specific items. They reserved “shopping” for times when there was something they really couldn’t do without. When Perry needed a pressure cooker to prepare vegetarian dishes for his partner and their two children, he found a used one on the Internet. Pelmas and her husband, who are renovating their home, found secondhand appliances and recycled wood for baseboards and cabinets. But they were stumped by how to find used nails, screws, and hinges, and broke down and bought them new instead — the only time they cheated. Pelmas also struggled with finding sports sunglasses for rowing. Never able to find a used pair, she taped up her old ones and kept using them instead.

“It seems impossible and daunting, but it really isn’t,” says Pelmas, who studied English and creative writing at Princeton and now works as a school administrator. One of the benefits of ditching recreational shopping was more time for friends and family. “It’s completely changed the way we look at things,” Pelmas says. “Most things don’t seem necessary anymore.”

The Compact unexpectedly morphed into a national — and international — phenomenon after the media in San Francisco caught wind of the project. Before the year was out, stories about it had run in dozens of U.S. and international media outlets. The Compactors started hearing from people around the country and around the world, including environmentalists and people concerned about global warming, but also from parents worried that their children were becoming too materialistic, and people troubled by the consequences of U.S. oil dependency.

About 8,000 people have joined the e-mail list The Compact created to discuss the project, and groups modeled after The Compact have sprouted in 38 communities across the United States and in countries including Romania, New Zealand, and Japan. You can read more about The Compact on its blog at sfcompact.blogspot.com.

The project was supposed to wind down at the end of 2006, but Perry and Pelmas plan to continue living in the spirit of The Compact. “When you stop engaging in ‘retail therapy,’ you realize how much you have and how little you really need,” Perry said.

By E.B. Boyd ’89
E.B. Boyd ’89 is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Posted on: November 28, 2007.

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41 comments on “Ultimate Recycling: Buying Nothing New for One Year?

  1. As a professional organizer I see first hand what “buying new” does to someone’s home. It is very sad that the cost of repairing an item is often more that the cost of the item itself (which is why many people buy new).

    Personally I only shop when I need something. I think in the past year I have only been to the mall about a dozen times and each time we went it was because one of my kids had worn out a pair (or pairs) of shoes. Unfortunately, just like it is impossible to find used nails, it is impossible to find used kids sneakers!

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  2. There’s a great resource that I use to get (and get rid of) all kinds of free stuff second hand… http://www.freecycle.org/

    One of my friends recently picked up a free stove/oven worth over 2,000 Euros off of the network. We’ve given away cots and cribs and toys and received dvds, a 40″ TV and lots more. We’ve cut our expenses drastically.

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  3. Steven: freecyle rocks, good of you to mention it. Craigslist is also a good place to get free stuff or swap.

    It would be great to see more people trying this idea. It really isn’t that hard to do especially if you live in an urban area or can get things shipped to you for reasonable prices e.g. via ebay. Almost anything can be bought secondhand.

    If anything, this will broaden horizons and make people appreciate their purchases *more*.

    Jacob

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  4. For a long time my mom and I lived like this, though it was more out of necesity. We ended up in a network of other people in our town where things people didn’t want or need ended up just being passed around until someone needed it, much like freecycle but more personal. Alot of my clothing I have now is still from all of that and even though there’s not a whole lot she needs people still come and drop stuff off on her porch all the time lol. It just gets sent back into the circulation.

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  5. It would be more interesting to buy nothing for a year, period. What kind of food would you stock up on the year before, versus growing your own? How would you plan ahead for the unexpected? How would your entertainment change? What kind of vacations would you take?

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  6. I hope they don’t break down after that year and go compensate for it in some massive shopping.

    I’ve always had this impression about Americans being heavy consumers. We can’t afford being that in Morocco. No generalization here, I am talking about average Moroccan citizens. Like a working father, earning a monthly salary of $700, a housewife and 3 kids. You can’t but be frugal in such cases. You’d be buying clothes twice a year, and major purchases (TV, refrigerator or washing machine in most cases, no dishwasher or vacuum cleaner) are scheduled every dozen of years, if not more.

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  7. This is great — after reading 4 Hour Work Week I’ve been thinking about how some of the tips and tactics you mentioned happened for me more or less accidentally over the last several years. Getting rid of almost everything was the first key to becoming one of the NR. I’d been a slave to a *giant* suburban house in Colorado, then got divorced, left CO and gave up half of everything. I wanted to keep things then b/c it felt like I was losing so much else.

    Suddenly got a job in Europe a year later and decided to sell everything except what fit in a 7′ by 7′ box. Giving up everything was freeing and exciting then — starting over fresh and light. Life’ll never be the same. I cannot recommend the experience enough.

    I’m tempted to get rid of the rest of it now and truly master mobility. Almost no bills and I can go anywhere in no time flat. I can’t even remember now why I had all that expensive stuff — exclusive living room *and* family room furniture seems kind-of crazy now.

    Perfect timing with this post just before the holidays. It’s still tempting to buy stuff… especially for other people!

    Rebecca Self, Ph.D.

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  8. I have lived in different countries and noticed that Americans are huge consumers. The problem is labor in the US is expensive while goods being produced in cheaper countries are cheap which causes people to throw away stuff that can be repaired because fixing them is expensive and people would rather spend a little more and get a brand new similar item.
    I lived in Egypt and people use cars and appliances and repair them several times until the stuff truly can’t be repaired anymore. To me that’s a good way of recycling.

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  9. One thing to be considered is that they’re coming from an area like the Bay Area where there’s an abundance of resources for swapping goods and enough people around where it’s almost dumb to NOT buy things second hand. When I moved to the Bay Area I didn’t buy anything new because there’s such a high availability of like-new or decent goods.

    I’d like to see this attempted in a more isolated environment.

    Craigslist does rock though, when you can buy something used for a fraction of the cost, why not? You do realize that once you take something out of a package, it’s used anyways. Might as well save some cash and buy second hand…

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  10. I think it’s a great idea. I’m sure I’d have to cheat a few times, but I’ve been thinking of trying to recycle and buy used more often, and I’ll have to get into that habit for 2008.

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  11. Great poll idea! I voted “relieved and liberated.” All I really need is my computer and books, if I’m honest with myself and a few clothing items from REI. The rest of it can all go. It’s just dead-weight which drags you down and decreases your freedom.

    Quite frankly, as INTP I have always been attracted by the Walden Pond lifestyle.

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  12. Interesting. I haven’t been in a mall in years, often go to secondhand stores but do buy new items occasionally. Not religious about it, just don’t see much need to spend, spend, spend. I usually make baked items or other things for gifts or give second hand books or other in excellent condition, including an mp3 player to a nephew. He didn’t care and loved it that I would get something for him he had wanted for a couple of years. Gave my niece nice new jammies though, no need to be rigid.

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  13. When I was 19 I decided to up and move across the country for no particular reason. I guess it was mostly a dare. But, I threw everything I thought was essential into my car – my non-perishable food, a tent, clothes, blankets, toiletries, etc. I didn’t think to bring a can opener or dishes. But luckily I had grabbed my coffee can full of spare change :) I learned a lot about how little you actually need during the few months I lived that way. And how nice it was not to have any bills to worry about paying. But really – if you dont have a DVD player, then you dont have to buy DVD’s – no computer means no bill for internet access, no software to buy. So much simpler.
    Plus, once I had moved back home, I was staying at my moms house in my childhood bedroom. It was completely empty besides a chair, a desk, and a mattress on the floor. It was so peaceful, like a sanctuary. I didn’t have to clean all my stuff up, keep it organized, hunt for it. It was great. I definitely was a reformed pack rat after that experience. At least I can actually let go of things that I have lying around that I don’t actually use, like, or need. I still have the unfortunate tendency to buy more stuff that I probably should. I think I’m going to have to take that “buy nothing new” pledge.

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  14. One of the hardest – and best – things I’ve ever done was letting go of all my ‘stuff’ (both material and mental).

    8 years ago my husband and I were both employed, both commuters, and both wanting out.

    Within 2 years we were both downsized and dancing out the door into a new life, golden parachutes in hand.

    A year after that we were in business together.

    Last year we sold our house in the burbs of one of Canada’s largest cities: 5 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, three cars – every square foot filled with 20 odd years of north-american-family-style stuff.

    Now, we work from home and live in a 525 square foot cottage on the south-east shores of Lake Huron. No dishwasher, no dryer, no central air or central vac. We barely drive a ‘new’ 2nd hand car – just off a lease, saved us thousands – and don’t even have a furnace.

    There’s just us and our dog, everything we truly need and the pleasures of leaving footprints we’re proud of.

    It is shocking what life will show you isn’t actually as true – or as necessary – as you think it is.

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  15. When I was 39 years old I dumped 80% of my belongings and loved it.

    I was planning a cross country move when I realized I was moving a bunch of replacable stuff like furniture and a cars.

    In the next 48 hours I sold or gave away everything I owned on Craiglist and Freecyle.

    The only things I kept were some clothes and a few momentos, which I shipped via UPS in 9 boxes.

    The final step was to board a plane to my new home on the other side of the country.

    Michael
    http://www.familyhack.com

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  16. There’s one product I want to buy and I want to buy it now. PX Method for speed reading. Can someone just post something, anything about the product and specifically WHEN will it be available. Some of us are trapped in grad school and could use the help!

    ###

    Hi Standard,

    Thanks for the question. The reality is: the PX Method page is just a demo page for people to use as a model! The product does exist and is about 80% ready, but it doesn’t have a target date for launch, as I just have too many other projects of higher priority. Sorry for any confusion. In the meantime, get Howard Berg’s trade paperback to get you started. Some of it is hype, but there is some solid advice that will increase your speed.

    Good luck!

    Tim

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  17. Tim,

    I know this really has nothing to do with this post, but I just need a simple little question answered. My muse is a nutritional supplement, and I was just wondering what manufacturer you used to first produce BrainQuicken, and is there any specific company you would suggest?

    Thanks a ton,
    Andrew

    ###

    Hi Andrew (and everyone else who has asked me this),

    Sorry, but I use a very particular manufacturer I prefer to keep private. That said, it’s not hard to find decent manufacturers. Read the muse chapters’ resources for more information, and in this case, take a look at “Vitamin Retailer” magazine to do the research and find firms to help.

    Good luck!

    Tim

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  18. Tim,

    Interesting idea, but really just a more extreme version of the old school concept– “saving money.” I’d be interested in seeing how much money they saved instead of buying things new.

    I came across an idea that I’d like your feedback on. I read somewhere that it takes 21 days to make a habit and 18 days to break it. Further research showed some variation on the latter number– 21, 30, some other comfortably round numbers. Is there any scientific basis to this? Other than 3 weeks is a pretty long time? And is there any benefits to breaking habits vs. modifying habits into productivity? ie: bad habit- procrastinating while aimlessly surfing the web. not so bad habit- procrastinating while surfing the web for news/interesting things you’d be looking at later?

    Drop a line if you have time. Saw the article in NYTimes, congrats! Looking forward to reading your break over the holidays.

    Warmly,
    jenny

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  19. I’m more or less doing this right now. I’m moving on Saturday for an unknown length of time, and have spent most of this week putting things that can’t be replaced in storage (primarily artwork). I’m giving everything else to my best friend (furniture, kitchen gadgetry, etc), but taking a computer, clothes and some books. I’m looking forward to the simplicity and the opportunity to focus exclusively on what is most important in my life.

    Beyond that, the extent to which I holistically value an item and the experience of procuring it is more important to me than any single variable. Not only what we choose to have, but how we choose to purchase, interact with and care for our possessions speaks volumes.

    So – to actually answered the question you’ve posed – good change vs. bad change…
    While I like The Compact concept – I do not like arbitrary rules, even when drawn with the best of intentions. That’s really the only negative I see. Since I don’t shop for entertainment or distraction purposes, I don’t think my life would change much. It would be kind of annoying to take the extra time to find used versions of software, books, etc – but it certainly wouldn’t be unbearable. And, I’d definitely be looking for loopholes – like does a PDF book count? It’s a file, so it’s not new, and it’s not creating physical waste…???

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  20. I’m curious…what did they do for Christmas? Did they just not count new stuff that was bought for them as gifts? Also, it’d be interesting to know what kind of gift ideas they came up with for friends and family (assuming they stuck to the rules when giving gifts to others).

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  21. Whew, I’m glad I’m poor and don’t have to worry about this. Basically all that I purchase is food and toiletries. My clothes are all Christmas and Birthday presents and I think I could manage to find things like books and music free online.

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  22. Can’t I choose “all of the above”?

    Indeed, we have been doing exactly that — getting rid of tons and tons of stuff that we don’t really need or use. At first it can feel devastating, particularly getting rid of things that represent memories or hopes and dreams. Then it’s liberating, when you realize that all those things are inside you and you’re freed from the clutter and weight of things. Finally, it does feel like being a student again… but in a good way.

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  23. This is cool. What would be also be cool would be to revisit this group 20 years from now after they have families and see if they are still at it.

    I think they can do it if they stick together!

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  24. Good stuff. My wife and I tried a variant on the theme. We agreed to only eat food (and drinks) that did not come in a package. The results – I lost 20 pounds in less than one month, my blood pressure returned to normal, eliminating my need for blood pressure medicine, and my cholesterol improved.

    Pierre

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  25. I would like to have your permission to translate this post to Portuguese and posy it in my new blog (indeed, it would be the first real post). I would obviously link the post to your website for those whom speak English.
    Thank you very much. You are a big inspiration for many people.

    ###

    No problem, David. Go right ahead.

    Um plazer,

    Tim

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  26. very interesting post. for many years, i actually lived by it, and yes, it was much better than the consumerist lifestyle of some of my friends.

    even today, i rarely ever end up buying clothes and stuff for myself. i live off presents and the occasional hand-me-down. most of my expenses are things like phone bills (yeah, i’m a real phone addict) and eating out/traveling/vacations.

    my only exception is stuff for my pc. if i had to cut down on those, i would probably feel pretty deprived.

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  27. Tim,

    I just finished reading 4hr work wk and all I can say is “what a great book!” I am currently 46 and wish I had read something like this years ago. It’s so funny because I am already in product marketing, have always wanted to tango, am into martial arts, am a Brit living in LA and always wanted to travel the world. So.. we have a little in common! I realized after reading your book that I should be asking myself what would make me happy. I spent years trying to find the perfect business and relationship instead of living a life I would love, doing what I want.

    This morning I decided that I want to spend my time golfing, snow boarding, learning new languages, traveling and meeting new people all over the world. Argentina sounds great, I might even start there. I recently sold my house and have 5 months left on a lease which should be enough time to implement some of your wisdom.

    Once again many thanks and I wish you all the happiness that life can offer.

    Cheers,

    Rob T.

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  28. WOW! Buying Nothing New for One Year? I can think of all the money I would save, but not be around to spend it. I am envious of all who have that kind of disipline.

    Dell Computers is partnering with Goodwill to offer computer recycling services, in New Jersey, with a program they call Reconnect. The Reconnect Program is designed to help protect the environment by responsibly promoting computer recycling and reuse of computer equipment. At the same time the Reconnect program will work to connect lower income people with much needed technology products. This may also be available your state.

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