STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We now have the story of the Christmas gift that you just sent back. Many retailers let people return a gift that they don't like for a full refund - any purchase, as a matter fact. They do this even though returns cost them $260 billion per year. Somebody has to take in all those very slightly used goods. NPR's Dianna Douglas visited one of the companies that do.
DIANNA DOUGLAS, BYLINE: The Optoro warehouse in Maryland is a hoarder's dream. The building is packed floor to ceiling with returned merchandise. The CEO, Tobin Moore, stands neck-deep in stuff that people changed their minds about.
TOBIN MOORE: And this is probably 10 truckloads right here - Air compressors, power drills, lawnmower, I think, car seat down on the bottom.
DOUGLAS: You might think that when you return something it goes back on the shelf. But it's often too much hassle for the stores to sort and restock. Returns might go to liquidators or resellers or straight to the landfill. Optoro is trying to change that with something called reverse logistics.
MOORE: The real goal of reverse logistics is to try to get the products as fast as possible with the least amount of touches back to market. Whether that market is being sold online to a wholesaler, to a recycler if it's broken items, or being donated if it's - if it should be sent to a charity.
DOUGLAS: The workers here, about 150 of them, pick through every little thing in these stacks and decide where the stuff goes next.
MOORE: There are some things that you can put through very, very quickly, in a matter of seconds, especially if it's a new, unopened box.
DOUGLAS: Other things, says worker Greg Cole, need testing. He's sitting at a workbench, styrofoam packaging littering the floor, checking out a sleek new speaker system. Cole spends his day testing electronics like this. These speakers seem fine, so he sends a song through the cables.
GREG COLE: I haven't checked the subwoofer yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM SPEAKERS)
COLE: Yeah, it's working.
DOUGLAS: Sounds good. All the parts are there. It looks untouched. This will go on the website link.com at a fraction of the price. Products that are dented or don't have original packaging go into big bins on the loading dock, off to pawnshops or mom-and-pop store. Another worker, Glieson Wood (ph), points to one pallet, a hodgepodge of hundreds of things.
GLIESON WOOD: That pallet right there, we're asking for $1,835 for it.
DOUGLAS: The stuff on it sold for five times that much.
WOOD: A couple of tools, a juice extractor. I mean, myself, if I had a flea market, I would want it.
DOUGLAS: But you don't have a flea market?
WOOD: No. No, no, no. Not yet. Not yet.
DOUGLAS: Optoro has found a niche sorting returns. And the river of rejects is expected to keep growing as more stores offer free shipping both ways. Tobin Moore is benefiting from America's obsession with stuff. It also makes him uneasy.
MOORE: Both how we consume and how retailer's are dealing with returns isn't really sustainable.
DOUGLAS: The folks at Optoro will take in and send out 25 million items this year, more than double the number from last year. Dianna Douglas, NPR News.
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