On a recent project, one of our field team members who was helping a client decide what to throw away came across an old, stained shirt. He asked the client what she wanted him to do with it, and she told him to “just donate it.” He said, “Ma’am, a long time ago I was homeless, and we don’t want trash. We want nice things.”
Our client had good intentions, but this exchange illustrates a common response that’s creating a growing challenge for nonprofits that support the needy. When most people clean out a house or clear out a closet, their first inclination is to “just donate” whatever they don’t use anymore. As a result, literally tons of household items get donated or dropped off at thrift stores every day in the United States alone. But donations centers don't want most of it.
The next time you are trying to decide what to donate and what to throw away, think about your ultimate goal. Do you simply want to get rid of the items, or do you truly want to help your community? If help is your goal, consider other options for getting these three items out of the house and putting them to the best possible use.
The average American will throw away about 90 pounds of clothing this year, and 85 percent of that will end up in landfills, according to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), an association for the used clothing and fiber industries. To keep your discarded clothes out of the waste stream, sort through them yourself.
For items that are still in good condition (i.e., no stains, holes or frayed cuffs), call area homeless shelters and family service agencies. Ask them how to get these items directly to the people who need them the most. Make sure everything you donate is clean, and don’t forget to check all the pockets before dropping them off.
For everything else, go to SMART to find a local recycling center. Worn clothing can be cut down and used as industrial wipes or turned into insulation.
What to throw away in the entertainment room may surprise you. That console TV that you can’t move without a dolly? The wall full of stereo equipment? Most donation centers won’t take them. Your best bet is to check online for a local electronics recycler. If you’re lucky they’ll even cart them away for free. If there’s not a recycler in your area, call the landfill. Most offer electronic recycling services, but you’ll probably have to get it there yourself, go on a specially scheduled day or pay for a special pickup.
Fewer places accept books these days. Even libraries are having trouble getting rid of their old volumes. It's hard to believe books are what to throw away, so we recommend finding a book recycler. They may pay only 2 cents a pound, but that’s better than having to haul them to the dump, or even worse, pay to have these heavy items taken away.
If you can't bear to throw an item away, consider online resources such as Freecycle or Craigslist. You can list items to donate for free, giving reusable items a new life with people who want them. We recommend coordinating pickup in a neutral, public location, not at your house.
Cash-strapped nonprofits are up to their rafters in stuff they can’t get rid of, and they have to commit limited resources to sorting through it all. Much of what people donate still ends up in a landfill or in a container shipped to a developing country. If you really want to help, sell the more valuable items and donate the proceeds to your favorite charity. Because, at the end of the day, what most nonprofits really need is cold, hard cash. Not another bag of clothes.