Goodwill Doesn't Want Your Broken Toaster

May 6, 2021
Originally published on May 6, 2021 7:12 pm

Cars begin lining up outside the Goodwill donation center in Seabrook, N.H., around 10 a.m. most mornings.

Well-intended patrons are here with truckloads full of treasures.

"We hope everyone brings great things that help our programs, but we know some people make some questionable judgments about what is good to donate," explains Heather Steeves, spokesperson for the 30 Goodwill locations in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

She holds up "a lampshade, which is stained and disgusting and literally falling apart."

There's a small table missing a leg, cracked purple food-storage containers and a used sponge. They're just a representative sample of the useless stuff dropped off the day before.

Broken glass is among items people donate to Goodwill.
Heather Steeves

Along with simply being gross, these items cost Goodwill money.

"All this trash adds up to more than $1 million a year in a trash bill, and it's been growing every year for the past five years," says Steeves. And that's just for the 30 stores she oversees.

Goodwill does recycle lots of what it can't sell. The nonprofit reuses textiles and refurbishes some broken electronics. But last year, it threw away more than 13 million pounds of waste — technically other people's garbage — across its locations in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

One cause of this growing trash problem is a phenomenon called wish-cycling, "where people are hoping that something is recyclable and therefore they put it in with their recycling," explains Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a recycling group.

Americans have been trained not to throw anything away but haven't been schooled in how to get rid of items properly. But resellers like Goodwill don't want to take too hard a line.

"Nobody wants to discourage the donations," says Cindy Isenhour, a professor in the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, where she studies the reuse economy. "So I think everybody feels like they are walking a very fine line here."

And so, Goodwill is doing a bit of a media tour, asking people to be more careful. It's timing is strategic.

"Spring cleaning is always very busy. The only busier time we have is when Marie Kondo comes out with a new TV show," says Steeves.

In the donation line outside the Seabrook location, Ron Davitt pulls up in an SUV crammed with donations.

"All of it is in pretty good shape. Actually, as I look at this," he says, pointing to a plastic storage unit, "there is no drawer. I'll probably keep that and throw it away."

But Davitt also has clothes in good condition, as well as a few dog costumes. He holds up a brown number with yellow and red trim.

"This is for our dachshund, who is in the car: hot dog."

See, this is not trash.

"Oh, yeah, that dog costume will go within one minute of being on the sales floor," says Steeves.

She adds that the key question to ask before dropping something off is: If you needed it, would you buy it in this condition?

"We have seen comments on our Facebook page recently that are like, 'If you wouldn't give it to your judgmental mother-in-law, don't donate it.' "

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Some Goodwill stores are facing an unexpected challenge - fast-growing trash bills. It's the result of unsellable, broken and non-recyclable items ending up in donation bins. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman has more on what may be behind this costly trend.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can we donate this?

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: I'll set the scene. I'm outside the Goodwill location in Seabrook, N.H. It's a bright, sunny day, and they are about to open up for donations.

HEATHER STEEVES: We hope everyone brings great things that help our programs, but we know some people make some questionable judgments about what is good to donate. And so we're talking about the literal trash we sometimes see slip through in the donation stream.

BOOKMAN: This is Heather Steeves, spokesperson for the Goodwill locations in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. Steeves is armed with trash examples - items they received just the day before.

STEEVES: A lampshade which is stained and disgusting and literally falling apart.

BOOKMAN: A small table missing a leg, cracked Tupperware, a used sponge.

STEEVES: Dental medical tool.

BOOKMAN: I can't believe you're touching that.

STEEVES: I can't believe I'm touching it either. It's really, really, truly disgusting.

BOOKMAN: Goodwill does recycle lots of what it can't sell. It reuses textiles and refurbishes some broken electronics. But last year, just the 30 locations in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire combined to throw away more than 13 million pounds of waste - technically, other people's garbage.

STEEVES: All this trash adds up to more than a million dollars a year in a trash bill, and it's been growing every year for the past five years.

BOOKMAN: So what is going on here? To some extent, it's a phenomenon called wish-cycling.

REAGAN BISSONNETTE: Where people are hoping that something is recyclable and, therefore, they put it in with their recycling.

BOOKMAN: This is Reagan Bissonnette with the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a recycling group. We've been trained not to throw anything away but not necessarily how to get rid of it properly, and a lot of what we buy we don't even need in the first place. Cindy Isenhour is a professor in the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. She researches the reuse economy from yard sales to thrift shops to Goodwills.

CINDY ISENHOUR: They are absolutely inundated with stuff.

BOOKMAN: The challenge is these sellers rely on people dropping off their items.

ISENHOUR: And, of course, nobody wants to discourage the donations, so I think everybody feels that they're walking a very fine line here.

BOOKMAN: And so Goodwill is doing this - a bit of a media tour, asking people to be more careful. Heather Steeves says their timing here is strategic.

STEEVES: Spring-cleaning is always very busy. The only busier time we have is when Marie Kondo comes out with a new TV show.

RON DAVITT: Spring-cleaning, yes.

BOOKMAN: Ron Davitt is dropping off a trunkful of items.

DAVITT: All is in pretty good shape. Actually, as I look at this, there's no drawer. I'll probably keep that and throw it away.

BOOKMAN: He's got clothes in good condition, some housewares and some items from the back of the closet.

DAVITT: A dog...

STEEVES: Oh, dog costumes.

DAVITT: Yeah.

BOOKMAN: Very small dog costumes.

DAVITT: This is for our dachshund, who's in the car - hot dog.

BOOKMAN: See; this is not trash.

STEEVES: That dog costume will go within one minute of being on the sales floor.

BOOKMAN: Steeves says the key question to ask before dropping something off is, if you needed it, would you buy it in this condition? Or another way to think about it...

STEEVES: You know, we've seen comments on our Facebook page recently that are like, if you wouldn't give it to your judgmental mother-in-law, don't donate it.

BOOKMAN: Your mother-in-law - she'd love that dog costume.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.