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Goodwill Doesn't Want Your Broken Toaster

A broken cat-scratching post poses a problem for Goodwill donation attendant Antonio Semiglia in Westbrook, Maine.
Heather Steeves
A broken cat-scratching post poses a problem for Goodwill donation attendant Antonio Semiglia in Westbrook, Maine.

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

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.' "

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio

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.
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