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It turns out that one person’s trash is another person’s, well, trash.
When Mainers donate unused items that they don’t need anymore to organizations such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army or other local donation centers or charitable organizations, that is generally a great thing that can help other people and minimize waste. But this admirable process should not be a de facto garbage shoot for unusable junk.
Unfortunately, some of these organizations are seeing an overwhelming volume of unwanted stuff being donated — and not just stuff that the donors don’t want, stuff that nobody wants.
“They’re just getting so much trash,” Brie Berry, a Ph.D. student and researcher at the University of Maine in Orono who studies consumption and waste management, told the Bangor Daily News. Cindy Isenhour, a UMaine anthropology professor who leads Berry’s team, said that these organizations 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.”
“There’s a new assumption that every item is valuable to someone, and unfortunately it’s not true,” said Goodwill of Northern New England president and CEO Rich Cantz. He said that “something has changed in the last few years” in terms of what people are donating.
We’re all for Maine people embracing the spirit of giving. But Tupperware without a lid and old underwear don’t fit the bill. Unfortunately, these types of “bad donations” — items that an organization decides are unfit to sell — are on the rise. Goodwill of Northern New England threw away more than 17 million pounds of trash in 2019, which is nearly 7 million more than it tossed in 2015.
And if anyone is thinking that there’s no harm in being extra generous, even with items that might straddle the line between trash and hidden treasure, or that it’s no big deal to get rid of some throwaway items along with other actual donations, they should think again. Goodwill New England spent $1.2 million getting rid of trash last year. There is a big cost to these bad donations and it diverts money away from the organization’s other work.
Surely there are some larger forces at play here in the waste stream, with increased costs and increased volumes associated with waste disposal across Maine. China’s decision in 2013 to stop accepting a lot of recycled waste in particular has had a cascading effect on budgetary decisions, both in government (like towns turning to the pay-as-you-throw model for trash collection) and at kitchen tables. But when it comes to what people do or don’t donate, this is also a matter of individual responsibility.
When donating items to a particular organization, everyone should pay attention to that organization’s guidelines for what they accept and what they don’t accept. Goodwill, for example, has a long list of both acceptable donations and donations it cannot accept.
“Our stores take gently used items in good condition,” reads the donations page on Goodwill’s website. “Donations should be clean, safe and resaleable.”
Donations should not be used as a means of waste disposal. The reuse sector isn’t the refuse sector. Nobody should treat it as such.