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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

How to Keep Thrift Store Donations from Becoming Trash

used clothing donation bin outside thrift store

Americans increasingly report a desire to change in order to do better by the planet and the climate. But that should mean more than swapping traditional products for environmentally-friendly alternatives. It’s also a matter of changing our core relationship with stuff. In doing so, we can drastically reduce our carbon footprint and our contribution to landfills.

Unfortunately, many of us are under the mistaken impression that we’re doing enough to reduce waste as long as we recycle and donate our unwanted items. But placing our trash in recycling bins — or “wish-cycling” — and donating our used stuff to a thrift store doesn’t necessarily mean it is being saved from the landfill. Just as a sizeable percentage of what gets put in the recycling bin can’t or won’t be recycled, donated items may also end up in the trash, depending on what is donated and where.

While it may feel good to drop a load off at the local thrift store, this can amount to nothing more than absolving ourselves of responsibility for the waste we have generated, effectively making it someone else’s problem. Fortunately, there is plenty we can do to limit what will be trashed or shipped overseas.

Local thrift store owners struggle to cope with an overabundance of stuff

The vast majority of clothing that is donated to a charity thrift store never makes it into someone else’s closet, with estimates putting the rate of resale for clothing donations in North America at around 20 percent. Items that can’t be resold in the U.S. and Canada are often repurposed or shipped overseas — meaning they're likely to become rags or compete with traditional textile-makers in other countries. Shipping and repurposing these items is no doubt carbon intensive. And that’s on top of the emissions and resources that were used to produce them in the first place.

But clothing isn’t the only thing that is donated en masse to charity thrift shops, and statistics on what becomes of all of the other stuff when it can’t be sold are harder to pin down. My brother, Paul, salvages items from an independent charity thrift store dumpster in Oregon and finds a variety of things that still have plenty of use left in them. “I do see a lot of kitchen supplies — you know, plates, cups. I see a lot of artwork, like paintings that go on the wall. A lot of toys, like kids’ toys. So many kids’ toys!” he told me in an interview for TriplePundit.

He went on to list a slew of goods he has encountered: Christmas decorations, collectibles, food processors, Soda Streams, water purifiers and other kitchen gadgets, as well as electronics like tablets and printers. 

“I find TVs in there. Not super often, but those have — usually by the time I get to them — the screens are broken on them. So I don't know if they were no good and they just weren't able to sell them or if they were already broken,” he mentioned, adding that the cords on some items such as food processors appear to have been purposefully cut so that they cannot be salvaged. 

Clothing, on the other hand, makes up a tiny percentage of what he reports finding. “The clothing they do throw away, I think it’s because people are bringing it in dirty.”

Still usable items found in thrift store dumpster
From strollers to water purifiers and more, the author's brother finds all kinds of usable items in the dumpster outside his local thrift store, as small shops are inundated with more and more stuff.  

From thrift store to side hustle

While Paul can’t say for sure what percentage of excess stuff in the thrift store dumpster is actually still usable, he estimates it's about 30 to 40 percent. And it’s way more than he can salvage on his own.

“I go in for two things. No. 1, if it's money valuable to try and sell it. No. 2, if it's something I can use for the house, or I think one of my friends can use it," he said. "Often I've gone to the dumpster and gotten everything I want out of it and then a friend, you know, told me later they went and they got a bunch of stuff from it. ... It's all relative. It's like, you know, I didn't want that stuff, but it's still good stuff ... so other people end up taking it.”

How to be part of the solution 

The old adage "one person’s trash is another’s treasure" certainly rings true here. But it also begs the question: How can we take more responsibility for our stuff and ensure it doesn’t go from the donation bin to a dumpster?

Buy less. The first logical step is to stop and think before we buy. There's no hard data on how many tossed donations are the result of consumers upgrading to a newer version or changing out the aesthetic of their kitchen and home decor, but it is one possible explanation. And it’s well past time that we switch our mentality from buying whatever we want to focusing on what we actually need instead.

Kitchen gadgets are a prime example of this. Asking oneself a few key questions before making a purchase could help keep those small appliances from flooding thrift shops faster than they can be sold. Will we use it regularly, or is it just a novelty? How likely are we to keep it until it wears out? Do we already have something that serves the same purpose? These same questions can be applied to most of the stuff we buy.

Choose purpose over aesthetic. Likewise, before switching out dish sets or glassware, it’s a good idea to question our motivation. What’s wrong with what we already have? If it still serves its purpose, why replace it? Do we really need a new color scheme or design? Instead of replacing a set when a couple of items get broken or lost, consider buying replacements from a thrift store. After all, there is no shame in mismatched plates, utensils or anything else. 

This same idea can be applied to any number of household items — from towels to bedding and so much more. Consider that the desire to have the latest aesthetically pleasing and perfectly matched sets is the result of advertising. It doesn’t actually enhance our quality of life. Additionally, when it comes to household items, decor and stuff in general, the best bet is to embrace minimalism.

Reconsider that gift. Oftentimes people will give gifts just to give them — leaving the recipient to wonder what they will do with it in the long run. Before giving a gift, ask: Is this something that will add value to their lives? It is thoughtful and useful? Or do they already own something similar? If a gift is likely to just add clutter or be disposed of, consider giving an experience instead.

Rehome unwanted items. The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu suggests downgrading appropriate clothing to sleepwear or swapping unwanted clothes with friends instead of donating them. But the same concept can be applied to any number of items.

Paul agreed that a lot of the stuff that he sees thrown out could have been given directly to people in need. Consider contacting local churches and domestic violence shelters about donating to families that are getting back on their feet. Or list the item somewhere for cheap or free, such as Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor or Freecycle.

Check the shelves. Before donating, it’s a good idea to check the store’s shelves for an overabundance of similar items. Employees may also be able to say whether the donation is in demand or likely to sell. Don’t pass it on if it’s broken or missing pieces. And if it’s dirty, be sure to clean it first.

The bottom line: Changing how we see stuff

Finding a new home for unwanted items may take more effort than dropping them in a donation bin, but it’s one way to lessen the chances of more stuff ending up in a landfill. Even better, minimize shopping and focus on needs instead of wants. And while none of us are perfect, we can do our best to eliminate waste from unnecessary purchases. 

Image credits: Sikander/Wikimedia Commons and the author

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop. 

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