Spring cleaning is hitting differently this year, Mainers have found. As they begin to emerge from a year of isolation, one year after the pandemic shut down the flow of their communities, Mainers are getting rid of a staggering amount of stuff.
The problem is no one knows what to do with it. The sheer volume of unwanted items brought to donation centers is overwhelming thrift stores and charitable organizations, as workers and volunteers are recognizing a common problem.
“They’re just getting so much trash,” said Brie Berry, a Ph.D. student and researcher at the University of Maine in Orono. Berry studies consumption and waste management and has interviewed hundreds of Mainers who work in the reuse sector around the state.
Lidless Tupperware, unpaired socks, old underwear and broken toys — Mainers are making more “bad donations” to thrift stores and charitable nonprofits than ever before.
Rich Cantz, the president and CEO of Goodwill of Northern New England, said “something has changed in the last few years” with how people have donated items.
“There’s a new assumption that every item is valuable to someone, and unfortunately it’s not true,” Cantz said.
Mainers have foisted more unwanted household items to charitable organizations like Goodwill every year for half a decade.
But increasingly those items are trash. In 2015, Goodwill of Northern New England threw away 10,531,000 pounds of bad donations — the industry term for donated items that the company decides are unfit to sell. That figure nearly doubled over the next five years, with Goodwill retail stores in the region — 18 in Maine and 15 in New Hampshire in Vermont — throwing away more than 17,275,000 pounds of trash in 2019.
Last year, the nonprofit spent more than $1.2 million throwing trash away, a 155 percent increase over what it spent in 2015, according to a company spokesperson. That money would be better spent on workforce programs, the nonprofit said in a statement.
Cindy Isenhour, an anthropology professor at UMaine who leads Berry’s team, has studied Maine’s reuse economy since 2017. She said it’s “a shame” that charitable groups have to pay to dispose of low-quality items.
Goodwill and smaller thrift stores “rely on folks to donate, but increasingly very strange things like broken lamps, Barbie heads, a single shoe come in that can’t be sold,” Isenhour said, adding that the issue partially stems from a surplus of products designed to be frequently replaced.
With the sheer volume of donations, the labors of determining the fate of unwanted items falls to thrift store workers and volunteers — predominantly older women. People often can’t bear to make the decisions themselves, so it’s up to these workers to decide if someone else’s stuff is worth keeping.
“For a lot of the women that are working in this sector, it’s a huge emotional burden,” Berry said. “People don’t want to throw away their stuff, so they have to do it for them.”
The decision to part with items can be agonizing, bringing into focus a generational shift of values about certain heirlooms and generational hand-me-downs. According to Berry, thrift store workers constantly agonize about what to do with fine china and other vintage dishware, which illustrate a generational gap between how items should be valued.
“The grandmothers are upset that no one wants it, the grandchildren are upset that they keep being offered it and have no place to store it, and the thrift shops don’t even want it because they don’t have a market for it either,” Berry said.
The popularity among older generations of online marketplaces and TV shows like Antiques Roadshow have also created a kind of antiques bubble, Berry said.
“A lot of people who work in antiques or vintage are lamenting the fact that everyone feels like they have something really valuable,” Berry said. “They don’t understand that what it’s listed for on eBay isn’t what it will go for.”
When they’re not handed down through families, china sets and other good donations can move through communities and achieve some reuse, but that cycle has been slowed by the volume of trash donations, and further hampered by pandemic-related store closures, which keep stuff on the shelves.
A “good donation” made to Goodwill — anything that isn’t trash — stays on store shelves for about four weeks. Then it goes on sale for half price, then a dollar, then it’s sold in bulk for pennies a pound. The nonprofit recycles cardboard, metal and plastic and refurbishes electronics, and turns unsold shirts into wiping cloths.
In general, getting rid of stuff costs more these days, for reasons external to thrift stores. The volume of trash going to Maine landfills and waste-to-energy sites has been on the rise the past decade, according to a 2021 report from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, partly because of global policy shifts in 2013 that limited how much the U.S. and other countries can offload recyclable scrap materials onto China.
That’s a primary reason why Maine is “not currently meeting its municipal solid waste and recycling goals,” the report states. Mounting waste disposal and recycling costs have been shifted to towns and cities, spurring some to abandon their recycling services, while many of the state’s landfills are projected to reach capacity in 10 years. Waste disposal services like Casella are also seeing a pronounced spike in cardboard disposal, spurred by quarantined customers ordering items from online retailers like Amazon.
Faced with the rising costs of disposing of appliances, demolition and household rubbish at landfills, Mainers have taken to offloading charitable donations as a frictionless way of getting rid of unwanted items.
The model of swapping goods through thrift stores, small nonprofits and other exchange goods is a smart one, in Berry’s opinion. It keeps items in communities, strengthening social ties and adding significance and meaning, and is less burdensome on the planet.
Non-transactional community groups — like local Buy Nothing groups on Facebook — have also exploded in the last year, offering a moderated forum where neighbors can post and pass off items to other neighbors. There, the pleasure of knowing someone else can actually use your unwanted item is more valuable than what they’ll get on the market.
“There’s a real sense of wanting something to be valued by someone else,” Berry said. “The meaning and value of these objects is really important. Without that there’s no good reason to keep them moving around.”