What really happens to all that unwanted stuff you donate?

Lisa Zeidner

THE WASHINGTON POST – We don’t need Marie Kondo to tell us that we stockpile way too much stuff. So you might ask why you should acquire another book, especially one that may not spark joy – actually, it’s more likely to spark deep dismay about the staggering amount of waste that contemporary consumers produce. Adam Minter’s Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale is a fascinating account of what happens to that sweater you bag for Goodwill or the totaled car your insurance company writes off, is eye-opening – and even surprisingly hopeful. Sometimes one man’s trash is indeed someone else’s treasure.

Journalist Minter, who hails from two generations of junkyard owners, makes his living from writing about reuse. His last book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, chronicled the fate of waste and international recycling. He carries on the work in Secondhand by following the merchandise – and the money – from objects discarded in Minneapolis or Tucson to ports as far-flung as Malaysia and Benin. The rag-and-bone trade is now a huge, complex international business.

Anyone who has had to clean out the houses of beloved parents, and deal with the reality that no one wants their cherished china or heavy wood furniture, will feel for the unloved objects Minter follows. He begins with the proliferating companies, like Empty the Nest, that help facilitate those poignant clean-outs. Then it’s on to a Goodwill in Tuscon, where he tracks a never-ending tide of objects. As he documents, by no means do most things donated to a Goodwill sell. Next stop for the remaining flood of stuff is Goodwill Outlet Centers, where they’re sold by the pound to specialists, many of whom will cross the border to resell in Mexico.

What doesn’t make the cut there is often shipped back to the United States (US) to be broken down into rags – who knew that rags are such big business? One company that Minter studies sold 15 million pounds of rags in the US in one year. And then clothes cross the ocean yet again, to be broken down and respun into new fabric in India. “A secondhand trade that once flowed in one direction – from rich to poor – now goes in every direction,” Minter wrote.

His chapter on Japan is particularly eye-opening. Japan has been a huge market for secondhand goods, partly because apartments don’t tend to be gargantuan, so there’s incentive to own less. But as Minter documents, the Japanese are also in the vanguard of the minimalist movement partly because their affluence has allowed them to accumulate so much, so fast. And Japanese birthrates have declined so precipitously that more people are dying than being born, which means there aren’t devoted relatives to clean out the apartments of the deceased. Japan has eight million empty homes, known as “ghost homes,” and the elderly are encouraged to practice shukatsu, preparing for their demise.

Of course, there are objects that are unlikely to ever spark joy again, like the 3.8 million unused fondue sets currently stashed in British homes. But in much of the developing world, secondhand shops are more common than shops selling new objects. Everyone knows about Cuba’s meticulously maintained vintage cars; less well-known is the fact that Ghana is a world capital for fixing up American cars sold at auction after accidents. In the South Bronx, damaged cars are packed with parts and shipped to Africa, where they’re repaired and resold.

Same goes for old tube TVs. In Ghana, “Tamale, a town of, officially, 350,000 people, has more than a hundred TV-repair businesses…In the big cities of Ghana and Nigeria – the most affluent parts of West Africa – the electronic repair shops are more common than cafes in Manhattan.”

Minter is no poet. His prose is statistic-rich and straightforward. He’s at his best in the chapters discussing the ecological impact of waste in terms of product durability, and encouraging companies to be more transparent about planned obsolescence. He reveals how some companies, like manufacturers of car seats, put expiration dates on their products and exhort people not to reuse them, even though there’s no hard evidence that “expired” car seats are unsafe. He reserves particular ire for companies which actively – and probably illegally – discourage consumers from learning to fix their own products by warning that doing so will void its warranty.

Paradoxically, a washing machine that lasts forever is not going to do much good for the economy – or for people in the developing world who can’t afford new ones. In terms of a philosophy of wise recycling, Minter exhorts the media to “stop stigmatising the trade in secondhand. It needs to recognise secondhand as a globally significant industry and start covering it as such. Secondhand is the consumer economy. But good luck finding any quality, consistent news coverage”.