What Happens to the Things You Throw Away? The Answer Is Surprising
Wonder what happens to the items you throw away or donate? Expert Adam Minter shares the surprising truth about trash, donated items, and more.
Have you ever wondered what happens to your recyclables once they're picked up from the curb? Or those mattresses or old TVs we throw away? Where do all those clothes you put in a donation bin end up? Adam Minter knows the answer.
Minter is a journalist and author who has been covering the global recycling trade for almost 20 years. In this episode of Good Together, Brightly's co-founder and CEO, Laura, chats with him about where our recyclables and other discarded items go, why throwaway culture exists, and how we can reduce waste by buying less and buying better.
We've Been Donating and Recycling for Years
We hear a lot of conflicting information about what happens to our stuff once we've discarded or donated it. Take Goodwill, for example. As one of the largest donation chains, Goodwill sees a high volume of clothing and items daily. Some is sold in retail stores, and some goes to Goodwill auctions. At the end of the clothing's life cycle, most ends up at textile recycling centers, where it's cut into rags.
Although donating and recycling seems fairly new, we've been doing this for decades. Back in the day, the idea of picking up fragments of clothing, recycling them, and selling them to paper mills was a way to make money. In Europe, for example, if you'd go buy paper stationary, it would often be advertised as linen, because—in fact—it was.
Think Waste Reduction
Today, recycling looks a little different... and it can be pretty confusing. "For some people, it's the 'get out of jail free' card," Minter says. "It's like, 'Oh, well, I put it in the recycling bin and now that aluminum can is going to a green heaven where it'll be transformed into another can with no impact on the environment.' That's just not true." The alternative? Use less so there's less to recycle.
This concept can be applied to clothing and other items, too. "People donate a lot of stuff that can't be reused. That's not a good thing to do, because you're basically just offloading the responsibility to throw it away and asking Goodwill to pay for it," says Minter.
Roughly one-third of the "good" stuff you donate makes it on the shelves. So where does the rest go?
The True Journey of Donated Items
The clothing that doesn't land on shelves goes to outlets, where it's sold by the pound. If it isn't turned into rags, it can also end up being exploited, which is another common occurrence. "There's huge demand in emerging markets—places like Africa and Southeast Asia—for good quality, used clothes. And they pay for it," says Minter.
Demand is high for a couple of reasons. It's costs less than buying new, and in emerging markets, secondhand clothing is perceived to be much higher quality. In fact, Minter says what you typically hear about countries being overwhelmed with the amount of clothing they receive from the United States isn't exactly true.
"There's a few misconceptions here," says Minter. "One is that if the country is importing large volumes of used clothing, it's undercutting its own textile industries. There's really no proof of that. It's not the used clothing that has hurt them... it's low-cost, new clothing from East Asia."
When there's an influx in low-cost clothing coming from countries such as Bangladesh, you may notice that a lot of it ends up in piles in places like Ghana and Nigeria. "Oftentimes what you're seeing is clothing that has been paid for and imported into these countries that wasn't able to be sold," Minter shares.
Without that context, it's easy for people to misperceive what's actually happening.
The Origin of 'Throwaway Culture'
Throwaway culture, or waste-oriented culture, is the idea of discarding items after a short period of time—even if they're still useful. But where did this idea of throwaway culture originate?
According to Minter, it comes from affluence. "When you're affluent, you can essentially outsource your problem. 'This is torn, so it's just cheaper for me to go buy another one,' instead of spending the time when I get home to sew a new button on myself," he says. If you're in an emerging market country where you're just not making that much money, "the economic incentive is there to fix things and hold onto things longer."
We're realizing that our habit of "throwing away" isn't sustainable. As a result, countries such as the U.S., Europe, and China have started to adopt a more sustainable, economic mindset.
Demand for Higher Product Quality
If you go on YouTube, you'll find a countless number of videos teaching you how to fix the things you already have. And they're super popular, getting thousands of views. "We all reach a fatigue level buying stuff over and over again," says Minter.
This has led to an increase in people purchasing items that last longer. As online marketplaces like Poshmark and ThredUp become increasingly popular, consumers are purchasing well-made brands like Patagonia and Lululemon. "On average, if they can afford it, they're willing to pay about 15 percent more, if that ensures they have something that lasts longer," says Minter.
Buying Less, Buying Better
Working on his latest book, Second Hand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, Minter spent a lot of time with people who cleaned out homes and downsized. This left a major impression. "Now, I buy something with the idea that it will have a second and third owner," says Minter. "I'm just consciously buying with the idea that it doesn't end with me."
That's not to say that you'll never buy (or throw away) anything again. "All of us are going to buy new stuff. Somewhere along the line, I meet people who tell me they buy all their things from thrift stores. And I think that's great," he says. "But everything wears out eventually, even the best-built product."
As we continue to shift toward this "buy less, buy better" mentality, this can only mean good things for our mental health, our wallets, and the planet.
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