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Listen Up, New Hampshire: Goodwill Doesn’t Want Your Trash

photo of employee reaching into donation bin
Todd Bookman/NHPR

Just before 10 o'clock most mornings, cars begin lining up outside the Goodwill donation center in Seabrook. 

They’re offering trunks full of treasures, yes, but also perhaps some unsellable, un-recyclable wares that also make it into the bins -- and strain Goodwill's trash bill. 

“We hope everyone brings great things that helps 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. 

 (Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.) 

Steeves is armed with trash examples that were improperly donated the day before. She holds up “a lamp shade, which is stained and disgusting and literally falling apart.”

There’s a small table missing a leg, cracked purple tupperware with no lid, and a used sponge. 

“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,” said Steeves.

photo of sign detailing what isn't accepted at Goodwill
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
A sign detailing what is and isn't accepted for donation at Goodwill.

Goodwill does recycle lots of what it can’t sell. The non-profit 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 northern New England locations. 

This story is part of By Degrees, NHPR's climate change reporting project. Get more stories like this in your inbox - sign up for our newsletter today.

“I think there is this very new thought... where nothing is trash, and everything has a second life, and of course someone wants to use my used spaghetti jar to make a vase for their flowers. But it is just not true,” said Steeves. “Some things, in fact, are trash.”

Some of this phenomenon has a name: “It’s called wish-cycling, where people are hoping that something is recyclable, and therefore they put it in with their recycling,” said Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Concord-based Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a recycling group. 

Bissonnette said that Americans have been trained not to throw anything away, but not trained how to get rid of items properly. And a lot of what we buy, we don’t even need.

She recommends “thinking a little longer-term when we are acquiring things in the first place.”

This issue of well-intentioned-but-ultimately-harmful items clogging donation bins isn’t limited to Goodwill. Cindy Isenhour is a professor in the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine where she studies the reuse economy, from yard sales to thrift shops.

“They are absolutely inundated with stuff,” she said.

When items can’t be resold, recycled or repurposed, they often end up in landfills, which emit greenhouse gases that warm the planet. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's solid waste and emissions calculators, the trash Goodwill had to deal with last year had a comparable carbon footprint of more than 220,000 gallons of gasoline. Plus, a lot of what we keep buying and throwing away is itself made from fossil fuels.

The challenge, Isenhour said, is these secondhand sellers rely on people dropping off their items.  

“Nobody wants to discourage the donations,” she said. “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. Its timing here 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,” said Steeves, the spokesperson.

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

photo of man holding dog costume
Credit Heather Steeves
Ron Davitt holds up a dog costumer--hot dog--that he's donating to Goodwill.

“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 that Goodwill needs.

And, he has a few dog costumes. He holds up a little brown number with yellow 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,” said 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?

Or another way to think about it: 

“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. That’s a pretty good guide stick.”

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Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.