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Jan Lee headshot

Savers Sponsored Series

Rethink Reuse

Rethinking Waste: The State of Reuse in North America

By Jan Lee

Most of us wouldn’t think twice about recycling unusable items. Ushering that defunct computer or broken toaster toward a business that can break it down for resalable parts has become a routine step in many communities, especially those with curbside pickup.

But how many of us make the same effort when it comes to donating old but perfectly good clothes, textiles and household products to charities and thrift stores?

More than half of us do, says the global thrift retailer Savers. According to a survey it conducted for its 2016 State of Reuse Report, 59 percent of North Americans take the time to donate their reusable items to thrift stores or charities -- and many do so to make sure their much-loved belongings go to good use.

Savers, also known in Canada and parts of the U.S. as Value Village, conducted the online survey in April of this year. A total of 3,094 respondents (1,634 in the U.S. and 1,463 in Canada) weighed-in on how and why they donate their reusable household and personal goods.

One of the aims of the survey, said Ken Alterman, president and CEO of Savers, was to determine North Americans' perceptions about their own clothing “footprints” and the role that thrift stores and charities play when people decide it's time to part with belongings. Did they bring those items to organizations that could repurpose their unwanted clothing and household goods, or did they throw them away? If they tossed them out, were there reasons why?

Not surprisingly, the survey found that many people feel they have too much stuff sitting in closets and rooms.  But their perception of just how much of those goods they take to the landfill revealed an interesting fact about North American habits: We vastly underestimate how much clothing we throw out each year and often aren’t aware of how much we own -- and how much impact our habits can have on the environment.

U.S. respondents said they ditched on average about 47 pounds of belongings a year. In fact, the nonprofit trade association SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles) found that the average amount of material U.S. consumers throw out is closer to 81 pounds per year – almost twice the amount that respondents reported.

Equally revealing was the fact that 54 percent of those respondents tossed discards in the landfill because they didn’t think donation centers would take them. Another 25 percent said convenience motivated their decision. Seventeen percent said they weren’t sure what to do with their pre-loved items.

In many cases, the survey found, consumers expressed confusion about what they could and couldn’t donate. For example, 51 percent said they knew many textiles could be reused or recycled. But 61 percent were misinformed about what donation centers would and would not accept. Another 21 percent admitted they either didn’t know or were unsure.

Altruism, or the idea that donating their belongings would help someone else, played a large part in why respondents donated clothing and other items. Forty-two percent of Americans and Canadians said knowing that their donations would help a nonprofit program or agency would prompt them to donate more.

Those statistics also align with the way consumers usually get rid of reusable items, according to the survey. Sixty-one percent said they chose to donate to thrift stores that were associated with a charity, and another 42 percent preferred to give to a community shelter or other nonprofit that benefited the local community. Charitable contributions and the ability to contribute their valuable belongings to the betterment of others are important driving forces when it comes to what people do with unused property.

At the same time, 35 percent said it was simply convenient to donate their goods. The often-touted perk of receiving a tax write-off was also a low priority for respondents.

And while very few respondents said they specifically donated in order to keep things out of the landfill (13 percent in the U.S. and 15 percent in Canada), a whopping 79 percent said they would pick a reused outfit over a brand-new one if it would cut down on environmental impact.  Baby boomers were particularly supportive of that idea, with 75 percent of boomer respondents affirming that they would choose a pre-used item over a new one if it were good for Mother Nature.

Education, the report noted, was at the heart of consumer trends. Irrespective of the difference between people’s purchasing and donating habits, the report found that most respondents agreed that educating consumers about the environmental and community benefits of donating and reusing pre-owned items was key to cutting down on waste.

“A promising finding of the survey was that nearly all respondents unanimously agreed that the concepts of reuse should be taught in schools to increase sustainability habits. Ninety-four percent of respondents endorsed this idea. Savers sees these misconceptions as an opportunity for the public and private sectors to work together to educate consumers and develop innovative solutions that promote and encourage reuse,” the retailer concluded in its report.

Images: Flickr/Mike Mozart; Flickr/Catiemagee

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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