AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Some Goodwill stores are facing an unexpected challenge - fast-growing trash bills. It's the result of unsellable, broken and non-recyclable items ending up in donation bins. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman has more on what may be behind this costly trend.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can we donate this?
TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: I'll set the scene. I'm outside the Goodwill location in Seabrook, N.H. It's a bright, sunny day, and they are about to open up for donations.
HEATHER STEEVES: 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. And so we're talking about the literal trash we sometimes see slip through in the donation stream.
BOOKMAN: This is Heather Steeves, spokesperson for the Goodwill locations in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. Steeves is armed with trash examples - items they received just the day before.
STEEVES: A lampshade which is stained and disgusting and literally falling apart.
BOOKMAN: A small table missing a leg, cracked Tupperware, a used sponge.
STEEVES: Dental medical tool.
BOOKMAN: I can't believe you're touching that.
STEEVES: I can't believe I'm touching it either. It's really, really, truly disgusting.
BOOKMAN: Goodwill does recycle lots of what it can't sell. It reuses textiles and refurbishes some broken electronics. But last year, just the 30 locations in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire combined to throw away more than 13 million pounds of waste - technically, other people's garbage.
STEEVES: All this trash adds up to more than a million dollars a year in a trash bill, and it's been growing every year for the past five years.
BOOKMAN: So what is going on here? To some extent, it's a phenomenon called wish-cycling.
REAGAN BISSONNETTE: Where people are hoping that something is recyclable and, therefore, they put it in with their recycling.
BOOKMAN: This is Reagan Bissonnette with the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a recycling group. We've been trained not to throw anything away but not necessarily how to get rid of it properly, and a lot of what we buy we don't even need in the first place. Cindy Isenhour is a professor in the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. She researches the reuse economy from yard sales to thrift shops to Goodwills.
CINDY ISENHOUR: They are absolutely inundated with stuff.
BOOKMAN: The challenge is these sellers rely on people dropping off their items.
ISENHOUR: And, of course, nobody wants to discourage the donations, so I think everybody feels that they're walking a very fine line here.
BOOKMAN: And so Goodwill is doing this - a bit of a media tour, asking people to be more careful. Heather Steeves says their timing here is strategic.
STEEVES: Spring-cleaning is always very busy. The only busier time we have is when Marie Kondo comes out with a new TV show.
RON DAVITT: Spring-cleaning, yes.
BOOKMAN: Ron Davitt is dropping off a trunkful of items.
DAVITT: All is in pretty good shape. Actually, as I look at this, there's no drawer. I'll probably keep that and throw it away.
BOOKMAN: He's got clothes in good condition, some housewares and some items from the back of the closet.
DAVITT: A dog...
STEEVES: Oh, dog costumes.
BOOKMAN: Very small dog costumes.
DAVITT: This is for our dachshund, who's in the car - hot dog.
BOOKMAN: See; this is not trash.
STEEVES: That dog costume will go within one minute of being on the sales floor.
BOOKMAN: Steeves says the key question to ask before dropping something off is, if you needed it, would you buy it in this condition? Or another way to think about it...
STEEVES: You know, we've 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.
BOOKMAN: Your mother-in-law - she'd love that dog costume.
For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman.
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