Second hand furniture helps with zero waste
Zero waste shopping Bay Area

7 tips on how to furnish your home second hand (zero waste style)

When we moved to the US a couple of months ago, we left all our furniture and household items behind in the UK, as we didn’t want to cause unnecessary shipping costs and emissions.

As we arrived in California, we realized that the supply of furnished apartments was limited (and even more mind-boggling expensive), so we rented an unfurnished place and started to look for furniture: all second-hand to maintain our zero waste lifestyle.

Unless you’re using your move to go completely minimalist (i.e. no furniture at all), you’ll still need some items to sit, eat and sleep on/at. By sourcing these second hand, you’re not only re-using what’s already out there and saving loads of CO2; you’re also saving a lot of money.

Here are some tips on how to approach furnishing your apartment second hand, zero waste style:

  1. Check out local thrift shops
  2. Shop online market places
  3. Hunt at garage / yard / moving / estate sales
  4. Take a walk in your neighborhood
  5. Ask your friends and family
  6. Consult the world (online)

1 Check out local thrift shops

Thrift stores (charity shops for the UK reader) are a great resource – they often sell everything and anything, from furniture to home accessories and zero waste equipment like glass jars, reusable coffee cups, sandwich boxes, jute bags, etc. for a fraction of the cost of buying them new.

How to start zero waste using thrift shops
The Vincent St. Paul’s thrift shop in Fremont is great for buying used furniture

2 Shop on online market places like Nextdoor, Facebook, Craigslist, etc.

I realize this is a bit of a no-brainer and you’re probably already doing this to save money, get stuff second hand etc. But it wasn’t until we moved to California that I recognized the full potential of these networks.

It’s amazing what people give away for free or sell for next to nothing. In fact, it seems like the more advanced and/or wealthy an area is (Silicon Valley in our case), the crazier it gets.

People just put stuff out on their street for free, take a snapshot of it and post it on Facebook/Nextdoor/Craigslist. Then it’s first come, first serve. Or they sell perfectly good furniture for very little money because everyone is moving in or out of this area all the time.

3 Hunt at garage / yard / moving / estate sales

A cousin of point 2 above, garage / yard / moving / estate sales are often advertised on the social networks mentioned above. They can be a bit hit and miss – we once turned up at what can only be called a horder’s or messy’s yard, and all there was was… junk. But who knows – one’s person’s junk can be another person’s treasure!

A yard sale
One of the yard sales I visited… I didn’t buy anything here, I hasten to add…

I went to a moving sale where an elderly lady moved into a home, and I managed to pick up a really nice mid-century brass flower stand for a fiver ($5) – bargain!

In general, they’re great for household items such as cook ware, glasses, crockery etc., or decorative items such as paintings, vases, rugs, place mats etc.

And they’re great for haggling. Usually the person moving out or wanting to sell the house is under time pressure, so they’re keen to get rid of stuff. That means they’re usually open to (reasonable) offers. I haggled down a set of four place mats from $5 to $1.

4 Take a walk in your neighborhood

As you’re exploring the area around your new home, you may be able to spot furniture or household items just left out in the streets to be picked up by whoever gets there first. This seems to happen a lot where we first stayed in an AirBnB, in Menlo Park over in Silicon Valley.

VW van parked in Palo Alto
Unfortunately this beauty was not left out for free on the curb in Silicon Valley
Photo by Charlie Deets on Unsplash

If you happen to be in Germany, google something called “Sperrmuell” – usually the local authority will collect unwanted furniture on one specific day during the month in a particular neighborhood. Ahead of that day, lots of people will put out their stuff in the streets and you can just walk or drive around and pick your fancy.

5 Visit flea markets

Slightly more institutionalized than a garage or yard sale, a fleamarket attracts professional and hobby re-sellers of furniture, clothes, collectibles or antiques. Get there early for the best finds, and stay until the end for a chance to haggle for a real bargain.

In the Bay Area, the Alameda Point Antiques Faire is really impressive – an entire ex- air field full of merchants selling all sorts of stuff, plus food vans all around.

6 Ask your friends and family

I think sometimes people are afraid to ask or embarrassed to accept what might seem like a “hand-me-down” or donation.

A lot of my zero waste equipment (=jars) was donated by a friend

But if you think about how much stuff people acquire during their lifetimes, and how much junk people keep in their houses / garages / attics / cellars or even have it stored in paid (!) self-storage, it’s likely they’ll be happy to part with some of those items if you have a better use for them.

7 Consult the world (online)

Amplifying the idea of asking friends and family (#6 above), use social networks to get a wider reach and put out what you’re looking for. I managed to borrow a bicycle, helmet and lock just by asking on Facebook if anyone had a spare one.

At best, people will spread the word for you and you might be able to obtain things from people you didn’t even know before (thus making new acquaintances). At the least, you might get some more tips on where to find good used items in the area.

How much does it cost to furnish your apartment second hand (zero waste style)?

Here’s an example of how we’ve been able to furnish our apartment second hand and at what cost (this is from a mix of thrift shops, online marketplaces and friends and family ):

  • Large mirror, storage shelf: $35
  • Hair dryer: $10
  • 2 large framed pictures, mugs, baking tray: $48
  • Sofa table: $50
  • Dining table and four chairs: $150
  • Occasional chair, side table: $45
  • Champagne flutes, baking tray: $8
  • Plant stand, place mats: $6
  • Side board, shot glasses: $40
  • Pots, pans, kitchen implements: $39
  • Area rug: $75
  • Lamp, outdoor lounge chair, framed picture, side table: $70
  • Indoor lamps, smart bulbs, iron, indoor and outdoor plants: $100
  • Gas BBQ: $20
  • Plates: $20
  • Brand new Brita water filter: $15
  • Glasses: $8
  • Entire guest bedroom including queen bed frame, mattress, side table, bedside table lamps: $300
  • Balcony furniture: $40
  • Knife sharpener, juice squeezer, reusable water bottles, sugar bowl & spoon, sink implement drainer/dryer (not sure what you call that thing that holds your washing up brush and sponge and cutlery for drying): free, spotted on the curb in Menlo Park
  • Toaster: $10

I admit, we didn’t scrimp here, we bought stuff we liked when we saw it, with a bit of haggling where possible. I’m sure a very frugal, experienced hunter probably could have gotten similar items for a lot cheaper. Also I need to work on my priorities… how come we have a full set of shot glasses but no master bed yet? LOL…

Second hand furniture helps with zero waste
Our living room. The sofa is new(ish), everything else was bought second hand.

But the point is that we’ve managed to buy almost our entire household equipment second hand for less than $1,000 ($974 to be precise) so far – it would have been at least 5x more had we bought everything new.

Some of the second hand furniture we've bought
The sideboard and pictures can stay, the dining table (right bottom corner) had to go again… we didn’t like it.

We’re not finished yet, so the total is likely to increase, and we did buy some new stuff too, because we felt it’s just nicer to have it new (bedding and towels, for example) or because we couldn’t find what we wanted second hand (a new battery powered, hand held vacuum cleaner, for example).

I had to buy a new vacuum cleaner
Me finally loving housework thanks to my new cordless vacuum cleaner… NOT

And I think that’s OK. The point is that we saved a lot of stuff from going to landfill and encouraged our sellers to continue selling stuff and making money from it rather than just throwing it away.

Let me know if you have any experience in buying furniture or household items second hand, and what your tips or challenges are, by posting in the comments below. For more useful zero waste tips, personal views on the topics, and encouragement to make a difference and challenge others, please subscribe to this blog. Cheers, Bettina

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