Saturday, July 7, 2012

Wanted: A Thriving American Reuse Market

Has your blogger been busy starting a store in the guest bedroom? No, this was just a sample of clothing, shoes, bags and other goods Steve and I rescued from a cruel and unusual fate in the landfill. Taking a Sunday drive to go to garage and estate sales to outfit our part of our new two family home, we happened upon a large pile of trash in River Edge, New Jersey, which we were drawn to because we saw a baker's rack and some other items. The woman saw us from her window and urged us to take anything. She needed to move in a hurry she said and was just getting rid of the items her and her three daughters (in their late teens and early twenties) accumulated. Luckily, Steve was driving a used minivan he bought this year, and we were able to take quite a bit. Later in the day, I told Steve, let's go back. I have a feeling there's a lot there and I can donate or give to my family and I can use some of it myself. We left with seven large contractor bags filled with goods. We saved so much, but it still haunts me what we didn't save here, and what's being thrown out every night in Anytown, USA.

A sampling of the bounty now NOT in the landfill:

For my mom: UGG boots (something she wouldn't buy new, but used, in good condition and free, yes!), several pairs of summer and winter shoes (she was actually shopping for the summer sandals and didn't have to spend a dime), some scarves and two tops.
For me: An Eiffel Tower decoration (what a lucky find for a Francophile!), a beautiful Irish wool sweater and matching scarf for winter, several tops, two handbags (I looked up one that said they retail for $1100, but I'm unclear if it's a copy), a beach towel, a blue throw blanket for our bedroom, brown suede boots, and more.
For my sister: A whole new summer wardrobe. I loved how she put it, "Who needs to shop when I have you?!"
My seasonal clothing swap: various sports shirts, Seven brand jeans, bags, other clothes. I co-organize four swaps a year at work, and much of what I brought was scooped up, the rest donated to one of our charities, including Housing Works Thrift Shops which helps out HIV positive and homeless New Yorkers.
Charity shops: The majority of it went to the Goodwill in Paramus, New Jersey, since they could handle the volume and it was convenient to drop-off, but some also went to CATS Resale Shop in Emerson, NJ and Cinema Verite in New York City.

Steve thought I was nuts, but I washed everything we found (except for some items that had tags on it, which gives them a higher resale value). I didn't know where it was stored or if it was clean, so in good faith all my clothing donations were freshly laundered. You don't want to go into the landfill Elmo, do you? No way, let's go to the Goodwill!
I felt bad for the woman. She was going through a divorce and had to move in a hurry. I think people don't declutter and this is what happens - they get overwhelmed and have to discard when moving. I spent a lot of time and energy on these items since I was distributing them to various places and people, but I can't believe there wasn't an hour in the day on the owner's part to run this stuff over to the Goodwill. Thousands of dollars spent, dozens of hours shopping, and then, I don't have an hour or two in my day? I'm really saddened that people are slaving away in other countries to feed the American appetite for cheap fashion and things go so readily into the landfill, some never even worn.
I don't understand all these little girls clutching logo bags (fake and real) around in one hand and their phone in the other. I don't even like logo bags for women. As for companies like Coach declaring their products are "handcrafted in China" I declare I will never give you a dime of my hard-earned money for your false status symbol bags you are conning American women and girls to buy. Katy Perry might be maxing out her credit cards in her song Last Friday Night, but I don't march in that army, and I don't have her bank account. What message our we sending about money when we are done using our latest trendy whatever, we throw it out when someone else could have gotten it for free at a clothing swap or from freecycle, or some great charities could have benefited.
It was a lot of work, but it was worth seeing my donations for sale at the Goodwill. These shoes were not my size or style (too bad they weren't 7 1/2 size ballet flat fans), but these were priced for $15 at Goodwill. Instead of the landfill, this shoe is giving an American a wage and keeping demand down for one more new pair of foreign made shoes.
Certain brand names always draw strong interest, but when I look at these Seven jeans, I just see another "Made in China" label and a clothing manufacturer charging a premium to the consumer.
There was a Dateline NBC piece recently about Americans who were now out of work and struggling financially, some having to go to food banks. Like anyone in hard times, cut backs were needed, but I found some of the items mentioned in the piece hard to swallow as struggling like cutting cable, eating meals at home and shopping at thrift shops. Each could warrant it's own blog post, but for our topic here, I'm tired of the media associated thrift shopping, like acts like hang drying laundry, as, "Oh, that's what poor people do." I don't understand the snobbery against second hand goods. There's a line in the Sonny and Cher song, "Baby Please Don't Go" where Cher sings in the character of a young struggling woman, "I never had no money. I shopped at the secondhand store." I shop at the secondhand store, and always will even though I have the means to shops at traditional stores. If people don't like my lifestyle, I'll compare credit card debt notes. I have none.

WalMart is running ads about their low-price guarantee. Why is it okay that we brag about low prices on some items (never mind no questions asked about how our food, clothes and other items are produced), but there's shame associated with getting something at a swap or from the Goodwill? Steve and I attend a black tie dinner each year with his chef's group, and this year I was thrilled to find a vintage dress at an estate sale for about $10. I got so many compliments that evening and he kept saying don't tell them where it's from, but I'm proud of who I am. I didn't go to Nordstrom and spend $200 for some Chinese made dress. I recycled and I got a huge savings.

Retail therapy, America needs it for sure. Just not what the traditional retailers want.

I always think back on the free shelf I saw in Telluride, Colorado. Why can't we have this in every community?
Steve and I ponder this issue often and how we can make a difference. I do the swaps, I buy the vast majority of our clothes and household items second hand, we rescue things from the trash. We're not registering for our wedding so I can rip open overpriced foreign made goods in front of my friends and family when I'm getting things for a dime at garage sales and recycling in the process. But we want to do more. I'm sharing this post with you in hopes that some seed will be planted somewhere.

I tried to plant a seed with the woman throwing it out. She came up with excuses about hearing the Goodwill or other places shreds things for rags. Even if they do that with a minority of items, at least it's being reused. I just wore at our Independence Day bbq a cute Old Navy summer dress from the Goodwill I paid about $6.50 for. I assure you that wasn't shredded for rags, and I'm so glad its previous owner took the time to drop it off. When I don't want it anymore, I'll give it, not throw it, away. When I mentioned what a shame it was so much was made in China and other countries, she said there's no way around it. This consumer respectfully disagrees. This isn't about being perfect and making ideal choices all the time, but I largely don't give these companies my money. Yes, sometimes I do, but mostly I swap. I rescue from the curb. I thrift shop or go to garage sales. I vote using (and not using) my dollar.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section about the epidemic of waste going into American landfills, and how we can solve it.

Find a charity shop near you at the
Find a Freecycle. group near you
Shop estate sales (where the entire contents of a house are for sale). Find one near you.


  1. Catherine, so happy to "hear" your voice again. I was wondering where you'd been -- figured you were busy with your new home. What a wonderful story about rescuing that pile of goods from the jaws of the garbage truck! I see that on a smaller scale on the block where I live. We own a townhouse on a block where many of these units are rented, and often to university students. Thus there is a lot of turnover. At the end of each semester, when students move, there are trash cans filled with "stuff." And I think the same thing: can't they take a few minutes to throw these items in a bag or box and drop it off at one of several local thrift shops? Ever year I look at the relatively new handles of mops and brooms sticking up out of those garbage cans, I imagine the scenario of their parents helping them set up house at the beginning of the year, and purchasing those household items for them -- only to have them all stuffed into the garbage can a few months later! I have often thought of contacting the University and trying to find the right person to suggest that they set up what could function as a student free box to encourage students to pass on items rather than throw them out. This post might be the push for me to do that!

    Also, as I drive around town, I've come up with a new method of predicting rain. Whenever I see that someone has put a couch or mattress in front of their house with the hope that someone will just come by and take it, there is a very high chance that it will rain within the next 24 hours! I cringe each time I see that! A couch or mattress, or upholstered chair, that would have been taken (sometimes even picked up!) by Goodwill, instead is now ruined out in the rain. There are times when I see a particularly nice item that I have then posted it on Freecycle (though I'm not sure if that is kosher or not!). I let them know it is just a spotted item, and not mine, but I let them know where it is if they are interested.

    I have been doing more and more clothes shopping for myself and my daughter at thrift shops (except for shoes which just doesn't work for my feet, but I always donate them after I'm done with them). We both enjoy it. Though the chances of us becoming a nation that wears only second hand clothing is slim, I still ponder the notion of how that practice can be truly sustainable if we are all depending on someone else purchasing new? But the truth is that there are still some things I buy new, and so I try to buy well -- meaning, not purchasing crap, but good quality. I don't know if my Patagonia fleece pullover top will ever wear out -- I bought it at least 15 years ago -- but it will either last me the rest of my life, or will disintegrate off my back!

    Switching to reading, I just got my copy of Beth Terry's new book "My Plastic Free Life." I've gotten so much inspiration from her blog, and the book is chock full of so much great information.

    Thanks again for another thoughtful post, Catherine!

  2. Hi Amy! Thanks so much for the comment! Yes, we've been pretty busy with the new house. I can't believe what I've been able to pick up from garage sales and thrift shops, everything from an oak wood kitchen set for $25 to picnic ware for our BBQs. Heck, our corn on the cob holders were from an estate sale! I'm even picking things up for our wedding in late September, like beautiful blank flower note cards we're going to get creative with and use for our invitations. Good thing the owners of all those things didn't just throw them away!

    That would be great if you could contact someone about a free space! When I see all the ads for all the items people need for their dorms, I wondered about that too. Couldn't there be more reuse here?

    Not long ago, there was an article in the New York Times about all the struggling tradesmen in the country and I wondered why can't there be more jobs refurbishing things. People throw things out with the slightest imperfections. Our side coffee tables are all from the trash, I found a cute white wicker side table for my cozy reading area, and I have a nice white wicker shelf in my bedroom displaying all my French fare (CDs, books, etc.) in my bedroom. Landfill, I don't think so!

    I've been finding a lot of shoes thrifted since I've been making an effort to look, but their life spans are definitely limited. New or gently used, most are brands from Payless or Target and they just aren't made to last.

    I haven't heard for Beth Terry. Will check out her blog for sure!

  3. Oh my, I CANNOT believe all of that stuff--some of it so amazing and useful--was going to go straight to the landfill!! I know it can be inconvenient to haul stuff to Goodwill if you have to move in a hurry and haven't decluttered, but at least post a "free" message on Craigslist when you put stuff at the curb, you know?

    So nice to see you here again.

  4. Thanks Cate! I know! Steve and I have our eagle eyes on the road all the time for random odds and ends but we don't go through people's garbage bags. In this case she encouraged us and seemed grateful it would be donated and used. Hopefully next time she'll have a charity shop in her thoughts or her daughter and friends who saw us got some kind of seed planted. When I see my Eiffel Tower next to my record player when I wake up, I think it was the universe's thank you.

    We also regularly see people throwing out garage sale items that didn't sell. Another pet peeve!

    I think at the very least, it's great when people put a "free" sign on the curb. Steve and I just passed by a house yesterday with a sign, "Free twin mattress and box frame" (someone had taken the mattress) and a box with some odds and ends (sneakers, a hat, some Christmas items).

  5. You always find the best stuff! I swear, you have an eye for finds.

    I think I've mentioned previously that a small women's college in my hometown used to have all kinds of insanely expensive items in their dumpsters at the end of the semester. Kids would throw out TVs, furniture--everything! (It was a wealthy kids' school, I should point out.) Eventually, they HIRED SECURITY to keep the townspeople from pulling items from the dumpsters. Yeah, that's right. Hiring people to make sure items went to the dump. INSANE.

    In reality, I think that shopping is just another compulsive behavior for tons of very unhappy people. We are led to believe that we can find happiness in the next purchase or absolve ourselves of crappy/absent parenting by buying our kids goodies. You'd think the never-ending emptiness would clue some folks in. Oy.

  6. Your story about security guarding the trash is the story to top all stories!

    I would be a lying if I wasn't upfront about this: I thoroughly enjoy shopping regularly at garage sales, thrift shops and estate sales. I love filling my home with beautiful things and dressing up nicely. I love the great things I come across. A recent find - several French-themed vinyl records at Housing Works thrift shop, including An American in Paris and the Umbrellas of Cherbourg soundtracks for relaxing nights at home. The cost, $1 each.

    I'm not anti-consumer, more a conscious consumer. Not be perfect all the time - but be aware where things come from and how they are produced and not just say, oh those greedy corporations without taking a look at our own demand. Looking at all those union and Made in the U.S.A. labels on clothes I see at estate sales, it's like, what happened? Above all, I support doing the right thing when we are done with the items we use. That means not just dumping it in the trash.

    As for children, I wonder in the post-Great Recession world have we learned any lessons about saving for those rainy days (which I've had in my life and I'm sure might come again). I love to shop, but I love seeing my savings account balance and my retirement funds statement just as much. Do these kids know about saving? And you know how I feel about all these devices being shoved into children's hands in the name of "technology" but are they just consumers in training who think everything they have is an entitlement, not a luxury?