The great cycle of stuff struck Rachel Haven when she sorted through a garage that held a lifetime -- her late mother's belongings.

Her dear mom was so sentimental, she kept everything. Everything. Some cool stuff, such as old school desks, a collection of vintage milk glass. But also boxes and boxes of things, such as 60 years' worth of Christmas cards, some still tucked in their envelopes. It became Haven's challenge to purge, recycle and donate as much as possible.

And it ultimately became a cautionary lesson: Think before you buy.

"My mom's accumulation was overwhelming, mind-numbing," says Haven, a Danville mom of two teenagers. "It really made me take a hard look at my own household -- not only to get rid of items, but now, before I bring something new in, it's with a very purposeful eye."

Indeed, the stuff we own can own us. We may make our debut in this world with nothing, but then we're given a bunch of stuff. Then we spend our youth trying to get more stuff. At some point, we figure it's too much, so we put some in storage lockers -- an entire industry devoted to our excess stuff. And finally, we decide to streamline in anticipation of ultimate departure.

Even then, the stuff itself never really goes away. It lingers on somewhere, probably in a landfill, but preferably donated to a charity, recycled or used by an artist to create something beautiful.

This is not just the extreme stuff of hoarders or compulsive shoppers. It's from all of us. The late comedian George Carlin nailed it in his infamous "stuff" routine in the 1980s, noting that stuff is apparently the whole meaning of life. "That's what your house is," he joked. "A pile of stuff with a cover on it."

Hilarious, for sure. But this is serious stuff.

Talking trash

In 1960, Americans tossed about 2.6 pounds of trash per person per day. Now, it's about 4.6 pounds, "We've about doubled the discards in a generation," says Bruce Olszewski, director of the Center for the Development of Recycling for Santa Clara County, based at San Jose State University. "On top of that, there are more of us doing it. The world's population has more than doubled in that time, and the success of materialism is spreading around the whole globe."

This "throwaway" ethic creates an unnatural cycle, he says. We extract materials out of the environment, turn them into things such as paper, steel or glass to make products that are then marketed, bought, used and discarded.

"That's a linear use," Olszewski says. "No natural ecosystem works like that. All natural systems are cyclical. But humans manage to make pollutants out of natural resources."

The answer, many say, is to reduce consumption in the first place. Ask yourself, "Do I need this? Can I afford it?"

Ajay Bhutoria, an IT consultant in Fremont, says he and his family long ago adopted a philosophy of "traveling light" through life.

"I believe we came empty-handed to this world, and we leave empty-handed, and we carry our good karma with us. So my family has always lived simply, buying only what we need," he says, a concept he discusses in his book, "100 Life Management Tools for a Happy Life."

But even Bhutoria admits he's tempted when shopping. "My wife is better than I am," he says, chuckling. "I'll see a new jacket I like and she'll say, 'You have so many jackets in your closet.' I'll say, 'Yes, but this is a new design,' and she'll say, "So what?' "

Not anti-stuff

Don't worry. You don't have to live like those "Extreme Cheapskates" on TLC, who do things such as reuse old toothbrushes.

"Stuff is not inherently bad," says Allison Cook of the Story of Stuff Project, a Berkeley-based global effort to curb mass consumption (storyofstuff.org). "A lot of it is really great to have. It's just that our relationship to stuff has gotten a little out of control," she says, suggesting we start thinking about it in the framework of "reduce, reuse, recycle."

"There's a reason that 'reduce' comes first on that list," she says. "Often the more challenging thing to do is reduce the stuff we consume in the first place."

Cook notes that high-end outdoor-clothing store Patagonia is known for its "Don't buy this jacket -- unless you really need it," campaign. "It's so true. Most of us wear the same handful of outfits anyway," she says. "So, yeah, do you really need that shirt or those new shoes?"

Better stuff

The folks at the Story of Stuff also suggest, instead of just buying more, buy better -- things that are well-made, that don't exploit workers, that are honestly marketed, have a long life span and can be recycled in a way that doesn't trash the planet.

Story of Stuff founder Annie Leonard, in a recent Yes! Magazine article, promotes buying things that are "practical and meaningful," citing British philosopher William Morris, who said, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

Consider sharing stuff, cars, clothes, tools. "Libraries are great examples of sharing," Cook says. "People speak of the big fancy new entrepreneurial efforts, but sharing goes back a long time. Take advantage of tool-lending libraries, clothing swaps."

Fix stuff

"I've asked my students about things they get fixed, and it's almost like a foreign word to them," Olszewski says. To be sure, it's less expensive and faster to buy a new toaster than to have an old one repaired. An Alameda woman recently had a problem with her flat-screen TV and took it to a repair shop, which gave her a quote of about $800. She was shocked. "The original TV only cost $300!" she says.

Not everyone can fix a high-def TV, but there is a resurgence of interest in working on things yourself. It's even becoming cool, with online repair communities such as the "free repair manual" at iFixIt.com, and Repair Cafe, which holds "fixing" events around the world to help you learn to reattach a chair leg, sew up a torn seam or even work on electronics. Regular events have been held in Mountain View and Palo Alto.

Reducing stuff certainly has changed Haven's world. "It's been awesome, to take a hard look at our accumulation of stuff," she says. "We did a lot of hospice donations, or put stuff out for the local pick-up service.

"What really did it for me when going through my mom's stuff, there was this darling little antique hat box from Neiman Marcus. I thought whatever was in there must be special. I took off the lid and screamed -- it was all of our teeth and hair from when we were kids. Nobody ever wants to find that," she says.

"I kept the box as a reminder."

Follow Angela Hill on Twitter.com/GiveEmHill.

stats on stuff
  • The average person's consumption in the United States is twice what it was 50 years ago.
  • About 400 million electronic products are thrown out in the United States every year.
  • More than 100 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered to U.S. households annually.
  • We see more advertisements in one year than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime.
    Source: The Story of Stuff Project