In Junk (Chicago Review, Apr.), journalist Alison Stewart investigates why Americans have so much stuff—and what we can do about it.

The idea of getting rid of it all seems to appeal to a lot of people right now. What brought us to this point?

Accumulation has been going on for a couple of decades, but we’re just hitting the tipping point, because of demographics. You have the Depression-era people who were taught to save everything—it was a matter of survival. Then in the 1950s, they were taught to buy everything. That’s a dangerous combination. In the 1980s and ’90s there was all this money, and also the free flow of cheap stuff. But Millennials might swing the pendulum back the other way. I went to a tiny-house meet-up and this girl held out her phone and said, “Everything I have is here.” She doesn’t need bookshelves. She doesn’t have an address book. She doesn’t have paper. She has everything in the cloud.

Is there anything inherently harmful about holding on to things?

Not if you know why you have it, and if you’re good with why you have it. I keep coming back to this idea of mindfulness. It’s an overused term right now, but it’s part of what Marie Kondo gets at. We have all this stuff around us, and we have to think, “Do I really want this? Is this going to enhance my life?” The answer might be yes. That “yes” is different for different people.

You spent time in the spring and summer of 2014 riding along with junk-removal companies all over the country. What did you learn?

What people pull out of their house really reflects the socioeconomic stability of the city. When I was in Austin, a woman was throwing away a piano out of her 5,000-sq.-ft. house. She didn’t want it to go in the trash, but it was in the way. We gave it to a kid from the [junk-removal company] owner’s church who couldn’t afford an instrument. In Akron, Ohio, the company I worked with clean out after evictions and when people leave rentals. It’s the rust belt, so it was very different stuff. In Portland, Oregon, I was with a company called Annie Haul, and [the clients] were grilling them: Where’s it going? It’s not going into a landfill, is it? How are you going to upcycle this?

Did anything surprise you in your research?

I was fascinated that a very American response to all this junk is to make business out of it, whether it’s self-storage, which is a $24 billion business, or junk-removal companies, or personal organizing, or the Container Store. There’s this thought that organizers support the Container Store and the Container Store supports the professional organizers. But some professional organizers, on the down-low, say, “I’m not sure it’s a great thing.” Making it pretty doesn’t make the problem go away.

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