October 2nd, 2013

The Other Side of Decluttering

Once the kids were in school, the schedule mostly stable, and the worst of the initial illnesses past, I did a solid round of Get Rid of Crap. That's probably mostly over for a bit (October 15 Looms, followed by Halloween, I'd love to do NaNoWriMo again, the Holiday Season, etc.). Monday's trash went out Full. A bike went to someone who is tremendously happy about it (along with a couple panniers, a lock, etc.). There will be ongoing small things headed out, but larger efforts will have to wait for a while.

Some people asked what happens to books and clothing donated at the Middle Class Guilt Reduction station. I thought I'd do a little research, because I thought I knew, but then figured it can't hurt to find out if someone else got some real answers.

The book donation bin is a little controversial with book people, because there is some competition for donated books from Friends of the Library operations. When you donate books to your library, they usually go to the Friends, who run book sales one or a few times a year. They'll sell them, usually at a flat rate per (type of) book or by bag of books. The proceeds are then donated by the Friends to the Library, often for things like Children's programming (as in, regularly scheduled and/or special events at the library whose intended audience is children).

People have always shopped at Friends sales (and charity shops) with the intent to find valuable books for resale. The number of people doing this took huge jumps up as the internet and 3rd party marketplaces including eBay and Amazon became widely available. Then most used bookstores closed their doors, moved entirely online, and crowded out the amateurs engaging in book value arbitrage. While Friends and Libraries have mixed feelings about these "cherry pickers", they also make use of them, especially when they can be convinced to take everything else along with the few valuable items.

The next step was for the people who were interested in making small amounts of money moving vast quantities of books along (NOT the typical used book store person) to move up the supply chain -- that is, cut out the irritating Librarians and Friends with all their rules and restrictions (and, honestly, their sometimes iffy storage practices. When you hold all your donations for months, the smoky, mildewed and silverfished ones will contaminate the more pristine items. If you sort and segregate at the beginning, that doesn't happen.). These are the people who set up book bins at Middle Class Guilt Reduction Stations: Better World books, Discover Books, etc. They get astonishing volume from people who would like to donate at libraries and charity shops, but find the donation hours or donation rules to be onerous (no textbooks, one bag or box per person per week, etc.), or perhaps were unaware that libraries and charity shops accepted books.

Friends and Librarians who were not overjoyed by the cherry pickers, but who were willing to work with them, are occasionally coming out in the press with complaints that donating to the bins is unfair to libraries. Okey-dokey. In the meantime, the rest of the book community has integrated with them, because there's really no other way around it.

So what happens once Discover Books or Better World Books provides a bin for you to dump all your bound paper into?

"Better World Books finds the best possible use for each book collected in support of our mission to promote literacy. Books are either sold to raise money for non-profit literacy programs, sent to one of our non-profit partners for use in their programs, or recycled if unsuitable for sale or partner use."

They sell it (extract the value you couldn't be bothered to extract), donate it (find someone who will take it and maybe use it -- or someone willing to pay to ship it somewhere else as a donation), or pulp it -- convert it into fiber for use in industrial processes.

Discover Books does the same thing, with a cute flow chart:

http://www.discoverbooks.com/index.php/how-it-works

I'm sure you can find other examples as well.

Discover Books and Better World books are among the biggest 3rd party book sellers on Amazon; I'm sure you can find more examples of this business model in action.

Similar things happen with clothing.

http://www.good.is/posts/ethical-style-where-do-my-used-clothes-go

The clothing may be resold somewhat locally, resold more distantly, or the fibers recovered as inputs to industrial processes.

The controversy with clothing donation seems to involve the damage it has done to the production and selling of traditional textiles in Africa. Given the incredible amount of labor (generally by women and girls) that went into those traditional textiles, it's kind of hard for me to feel very sad about that, and I guess I would have expected those labor-intensive hand crafting traditions to become elite-only over time regardless. But this isn't an area I'm all that familiar with.

I would add a few further observations. I talked to my sister recently about her strategy for Dealing With Stuff and she has a particularly enjoyable and efficient solution. She brings her daughters to the thrift store, where they get new to them clothes, books and toys relatively frequently and inexpensively. Each trip is combined with _donating_ things they no longer want _at the same place_, thus creating a market driven version of the "toy library" that many parents have longed for (a way to have toy and clothing turnover without the waste and expense). There is a nominal cost associated with this (libraries are "free to use", but of course we do all pay for them). It was interesting to notice how the market driven recycling of clothing and books is so highly competitive that it has consolidated. While it's possible that government initiatives might one day eat into this market, as happened with newspaper recycling, aluminum and steel recycling, in the past, it seems very unlikely.

[ETA: Wow! Already happening! I am so ignorant. I apologize for getting this so wrong and not checking first. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/20/recyling-clothes-expands-curbside/2092351/]

Here's what the EPA has to say about textile recycling: http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/textiles.htm

There's a trade association that the EPA page points to: http://www.smartasn.org/

SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, The Association of Wiping Materials, Used Clothing and Fiber Industries) produces things like a code of conduct for bin operators, as well as serving as a point for sources to connect with collectors.

http://www.smartasn.org/

I had underestimated the controversies associated with clothing binds. SMART spend some of the summer trying to defuse hostility towards bins. Sample coverage of towns trying to ban clothing bins follows. SMART is doing with trade associations do: offer some self-regulation when the threat of real regulation becomes, er, real.

http://www.lehighvalleylive.com/nazareth/index.ssf/2013/09/post_29.html

Bin in residential area, too close to road without a sidewalk.

http://www.mtairynews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?avis=MA&date=20130621&category=news&lopenr=306219979&Ref=AR

Wants to limit bins to commercial locations, and have them clearly marked whether for-profit or not-for-profit.

http://grnorth.wzzm13.com/news/news/159463-clothing-bin-ban-did-gr-cave-local-charities

Grand Rapids decided they were an eye-sore and got rid of them. Local news coverage suggests perhaps it was an effort to protect the thrift store community from competition for donations from outsiders who had placed bins in the community.

www.palmbeachpost.com/news/news/local/lake-worth-bans-drop-off-clothing-bins-as-nuisance

Short article: After hearing from the head of Goodwill Industries and several residents, commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday night to ban unattended drop-off clothing collection boxes, which sometimes overflow and are considered a nuisance."

http://www.alhambrasource.org/news/council-bans-donation-bins

This one has a photo of a clothing bin surrounded by clothing. Bins owned by a non-profit on their own site in town are okay.

http://voices.yahoo.com/dekalb-illinois-bans-clothing-donation-bins-638170.html?cat=48

Dekalb allows in industrial areas, or on property with a business connected to the bin. Coverage angle is the increased inconvenience to donors. As in some of the above cases, a basis was found in the zoning law so no new rules or bylaws were needed just a change in enforcement.

http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/policysocial-context/19821-masquerading-for-profit-clothing-bins-may-be-banned.html

Non Profit Quarterly wants them gone so as to reduce competition with charitable organizations.

ETA:

http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/09/08/2748894/new-clothing-recycle-boxes-worry.html

A really good comparison of what happens when the two textile recycling models collide.