'The Best Thing You Can Do Is Not Buy More Stuff,' Says 'Secondhand' Expert

Dec 4, 2019
Originally published on December 5, 2019 8:06 pm

Author Adam Minter remembers two periods of grief after his mother died in 2015: the intense sadness of her death, followed by the challenge of sorting through what he calls "the material legacy of her life."

Over the course of a year, Minter and his sister worked through their mother's possessions until only her beloved china was left. Neither one of them wanted to take the china — but neither could bear to throw it out. Instead, they decided to donate it.

Waiting in the donation line at Goodwill, Minter began wondering what would happen to the dishes: "It occurred to me this is a very interesting subject," he says. "Nobody really knew what happened beyond the donation door at Goodwill."

Minter had spent nearly two decades reporting on the waste and recycling industries. Now he began looking into the market for secondhand goods, both domestically and in Africa and Asia.

"Your average thrift store in the United States only sells about one-third of the stuff that ends up on its shelves," he says. "The rest of the stuff ends up somewhere else."

Minter visited Goodwill donation centers in the U.S. and watched as employees engaged in a sophisticated sorting and pricing system. He noted that while designer clothes might be set aside as "boutique" items, other products — including heavy wooden furniture and outdated exercise equipment — were often destined for the dump.

"A 300-pound oak dining room table ... becomes a problem," he says. "You will see some of this very nice oak furniture, if it can't be sold, it will end up in the landfill."

Minter's new book, Secondhand, explores the afterlife of donated clothes and electronics. His previous book, Junkyard Planet, was about the recycling industry.


Interview Highlights

On the rise of "cleanup" companies, which help people sort through and dispose of their possessions

As populations age, and children move away from home, you have an increasingly elderly population in the United States, for example, that wants to downsize for whatever reason into retirement. ... And that means that they need to get rid of their stuff that they've accumulated for a lifetime.

This profession has existed for centuries, in a sense — there's always been scavengers going to people's homes as they leave them. But now it's taken on sort of a new tint. And what they do is they sort of counsel people on helping them get rid of the things, sometimes encourage them, sometimes nudge them, and then help them make the move. ...

The very best of the cleanup professionals that I spent time with, they kind of reminded me of therapists. Again, it was having to sit with somebody and explain to them, "You don't need this." And that person explaining to the cleanup professional, "This wedding china, when it was given to me 50, 60 years ago, I was going to keep it forever and now I'm downsizing. You're asking me to let go of this wedding china, which isn't just this material thing that I put in a cabinet and looks pretty, but it's really a part of my identity."

And what's so emotionally jarring ... [is] that you see people really taking apart their identities, because in contemporary America, [and] in Japan, where I spent a bunch of time, I mean, we increasingly sort of build up who we are on the basis of the things that we have owned and acquired over the years.

On how the proliferation of storage units affects the reuse industry

It's really troubling in some ways, because depending on where you are, people can actually pay more per square foot for a storage unit than they would for residential rental space. So we're actually paying more to store our stuff than we are to store ourselves.

For the reuse industry, it's sort of a mixed blessing. The reuse industry thrives on having access to stuff — in particular good stuff. But increasingly, what we see in the United States in particular is that the quality of the stuff that people are acquiring — because we're acquiring more every year — is declining.

So all that stuff that's filling up these storage units isn't necessarily what my grandmother would call "merchandise." It's stuff that's going to go in the donation door at a thrift store — and ultimately going to find its way into a dumpster or a recycling bin. It's not going to be reused.

On the declining quality of electronic goods

If you think back say, 20, 25 years ago, a television that was 10 years old was something that could be reused. It could be refurbished and reused. ... They were very heavy, but they were also very robust. But these days, you can go and you can buy yourself a flat-panel television at an electronics retailer. I saw it over the recent Black Friday period and you can buy that flat panel for $150. But in a sense, you get what you pay for. You get a cheap television that maybe will last three years.

When you go to storage units and see these flat-panel TVs sitting in them, somebody may have [thought], "I'm just going to store it here for a couple of years." By the time it's opened up and people say it's time to donate the stuff, that's not merchandise. That's something that's going to go to an electronics recycler. And that kind of phenomenon is increasing. The volume of stuff is increasing, but the volume of good stuff among the stuff, if you will, is declining.

On observing the sorting process at a Goodwill donation center

It's amazing the things that come through the door at Goodwill. I would literally follow it, walk with it to the sorting areas. It was really surprising to me. I didn't know what I was expecting, but I didn't expect the level of sophistication of sorting that you find at a Goodwill. ...

There'll be large carts full of clothing and they will go to sorters who, first of all, ... have almost like a flowchart. ... I think it's around 85 to 90 brands on there. And they will tell the sorters how to price those. But on top of that, they go through and they feel the fabric. Is it thin? Does it feel like something that's gonna fall apart after one to five washes? ...

And then you will go through there and you will find garments that simply don't even belong going to the rag-makers. ... That may be something that's just so badly soiled that you couldn't in good conscience send it to anybody, so it would go into the trash bin.

There's an objective side to it. But there's also sort of the subjective side that requires the sorters in these rooms — just talking about apparel — to use their subjective knowledge that they've acquired as they spend time with thousands and thousands of garments over periods of time to make that call.

On how the environmental impact of stuff is more on the manufacturing side

A "life cycle assessment" is basically where somebody goes and looks at the full environmental impact of a product — say a smartphone — from manufacturing to disposal and looks at what the air pollution impacts are, the mining impacts, the carbon impacts. The one thing we do know is that the biggest impact of most products is the manufacturing side. So if you want to reduce the environmental impact of your consumption, the best way to do that is to not manufacture more stuff. In that sense, the best thing you can do is not buy more stuff.

If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your consumption, the best way to do that is to not manufacture more stuff. In that sense, the best thing you can do is not buy more stuff. -

The longer that your product lasts, the longer that you use that smartphone, the less likely it is that you're going to be buying a new one. So the goal really should be to keep your stuff in use for as long as possible, whether it's by you or somebody in Ghana or somebody in Cambodia. So in that sense, it's a really good thing, because if somebody in Cambodia is using your phone, they're probably not buying a new cheap handset there.

On where goods go to die

They end up in the landfill or the incinerator. I mean, there is no green heaven, if you will. Everything wears out eventually and everything gets tossed out. ... That's the fate of stuff. That's the fate of our consumerist societies. If we spend our time thinking this is going to be used perpetually, forever, even the best-made garment, the most robust smartphone, we're deluding ourselves a bit. Eventually, everything does have to die. ... It's sort of the ultimate story of consumerism and it's the dark side. We can't really delude ourselves into thinking everything lasts forever.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After you clean out your closets and drawers or downsize to a smaller home, what happens to the clothes, furniture and electronics you drop off at the Goodwill or your neighborhood thrift store? More specifically, what happens to the stuff they can't sell? And there's plenty of it. My guest Adam Minter has tried to find out the answer by traveling to the places where secondhand goods are collected, bought, repurposed, repaired and sold in the U.S., Asia and Africa. He's the author of the new book "Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale." His previous book, "Junkyard Planet," was about the recycling industry. Three generations of his family were in the junk business. He's reported on the waste and recycling industries for nearly two decades. He's now a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and is based in Malaysia.

Adam Minter, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I interviewed you after your previous book, "Junkyard Planet," was published. And in preparing for the interview today, I read that your mother died two weeks after publication of that book. So I don't know; I think I probably spoke to you before that. Anyways, I'm sorry. You talk about this in the book, in the way that it's relevant to the book, in that you were living in a small apartment in Shanghai at the time, and after your mother died, like, you couldn't take her stuff to your home. There was no room. It was too far away. And that was one of the things that got you thinking a lot about reuse.

ADAM MINTER: Yeah, it was - I remember it quite clearly. She was at the reading that we had in St. Paul, and a few days later, she passed away. And you know, what happened is what happens to a lot of American families. There's sort of two periods of grieving, in a way. There was the grieving of my mother passing, but then you're sort of left with the material legacy of her life - you know, her property, the things that were in her small apartment, the things that we found out were stored in relatives' basements. And it became the responsibility of my sister and I to figure out what to do with those things. And neither of us really were in a position to take anything. She lived in a small apartment in New York. As you said, I was in Shanghai.

And so it took over a year of us coming in and out of town, occasionally, you know, giving things away, maybe taking a piece or, you know, something - a picture - out of the boxes. And finally, we got to the end of it, and we were left staring at her china. And neither of us wanted to let it go because we knew she loved that china. And it was sort of a, you take it; no, you take it; no, you take it. And finally, we said, let's take it to the Goodwill. And when we were, you know, waiting to drop that off in the drive-through drop-off at the Goodwill in Hopkins, Minn., it occurred to me that this is probably the start of a book.

GROSS: Do you know what happened to the china?

MINTER: Well, I didn't. I was sitting there thinking, you know, I don't know what happens to this. I follow waste and recycling all over the world. That's what I've been covering for years. But I don't know actually what happens once that china goes through that door. And so it occurred to me, this is a very interesting subject, and I'm probably the person to do it. And so I started talking to people about, you know, if they knew what happened to that stuff. And nobody really knew what happened beyond the donation door at Goodwill.

GROSS: Yeah. And I just want to say about that, for - I think for all of us who have somebody in the family who died, you know, you go through their stuff. The stuff that you give away, you want to really believe that, like, it's going to find a good home, (laughter) you know?

MINTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Get to - you feel like your parent or, you know, whoever cared about it; it was a part of their lives. You don't want to just, like, put it in the trash. And on the other hand, what are you going to do with it? So yeah, you give it to the thrift store, and then, like, you never know. But it has a special meaning, and you want it - you want to think it found a good home.

So as part of your research for this book, you went to a Goodwill in Arizona where people were bringing in carloads of stuff from the flea market because they couldn't sell it at the flea market. So these are the things that, like - nobody really wanted to buy them.

MINTER: Right.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now they're all at the Goodwill. So what are the standards at Goodwill and Salvation Army and, you know, private thrift stores that you went to?

MINTER: Sure.

GROSS: ...Because they don't keep everything that we give them.

MINTER: No. And that's exactly what I did. I literally sat on a chair sometimes at the donation door at Goodwill in Tucson, Ariz., and watched the stuff come through the door. And it's amazing the things that come through the door at Goodwill. And I would literally follow it, walk with it, you know, to the sorting areas, and it was really surprising to me. I didn't know what I was expecting, but I didn't expect the level of sophistication of sorting that you find at a Goodwill. You know, I think we just sort of think of it as, well, whatever's trash, they'll throw in the trash, and then the rest of it gets put on the shelves.

But they're very sophisticated about how they price these things for the community that surrounds the particular Goodwills. They, you know, look at the quality of the objects, decide if certain things belong at their boutiques. Goodwill increasingly has sort of a higher-end secondhand outlet, you know, within their system, and so they can maybe price the stuff higher and make more money from it. So it - they really know what they're doing, and the level of knowledge of what we throw away is extraordinary. I mean, they're - I think of them almost as anthropologists, the sorters in those rooms.

But the astonishing thing to me was, even with all that sophistication of sorting, your average thrift store in the United States only sells about one-third of the stuff that ends up on its shelves, and the rest of the stuff ends up somewhere else. Now, it may not end up in the trash. In fact, more often than not, it doesn't. There's other outlets - literally, outlets where - for example, at Goodwill, they'll send them to what's called an outlet center and sell that stuff by the pound rather than individually priced, or it goes into the export markets, in many cases, and goes overseas.

GROSS: I was surprised to read about some of the things that don't sell at thrift stores, things that you'd think - at least that I'd think - had value. Like, the examples you give are, like, oak dining room sets, exercise equipment. A big old oak dining room set has very little resale value in a thrift store.

MINTER: Well, there's a couple problems with a big oak dining room set. One, it's really, really heavy, and it's really hard to move. And people walk in, and they may say, well, you're going to give me that oak dining room set for, say, $25, and it might have cost hundreds, if not thousands, years before, but I'm going to actually have to put that in my car or in my pickup truck and move it. And, you know, in contemporary America, a lot of the people who are shopping these thrift stores and buying, you know, furniture out of them are people who move a lot. So, you know, someone who moves a lot isn't going to necessarily want to be moving, constantly, a 300-pound oak dining room table.

GROSS: And what about exercise equipment, used exercise equipment?

MINTER: For some reason, people just don't like to move it. One, it's really kind of awkward. A treadmill is not an easy thing to put in the back of your car unless it's one of those ones that you collapse.

GROSS: So true (laughter). Yeah.

MINTER: You know?

GROSS: So what happens to the oak dining room set and the old exercise equipment that the thrift store cannot sell?

MINTER: So the exercise equipment, a lot of that stuff ends up - if it's - if there's a lot of metal in it, it might go to a recycler, and they'll break it apart and at least get some of the metals out of it. Sometimes that stuff may, though, end up in a dumpster, and it's just going to end up in the landfill. The oak dining room set, depending on where you are, it may then move to another charity.

And that's something that surprised me as well, is that we think of, you know, a Goodwill or a Salvation Army as the final destination, but in some cases, there are other destinations beyond them. There are, for example - you know, here in the Twin Cities, there is a charity called Bridging, which will actually take furniture - heavy furniture from other thrift stores, thrift operations, and then give it away or help, you know, immigrant families or destitute families furnish their homes with it. But it is the case - and I really looked into this - that you will see some of this very nice oak furniture - if it can't be sold, it will end up in the landfill.

GROSS: Wow. So, you know, we started off talking about clearing your mother's home of her possessions after her death and how kind of challenging and emotionally fraught that was. So many people are in that situation, and a whole industry has developed out of that and also out of people moving a lot and they can't or don't want to take everything with them. So why don't you describe this new clean-out industry that's developed?

MINTER: Sure. And it's not just in the United States; it's international. But it's been driven by two factors, really - demographics and affluence. So as populations age and children move away from home, you have an increasingly elderly population in the United States, for example, that wants to downsize for whatever reason, you know, into retirement housing or some other kind of senior housing. And that means that they need to get rid of their stuff that they've accumulated for a lifetime. So this profession has existed for centuries in a sense. There's always been scavengers going to people's homes as they leave them, but now it's taken on sort of a new tint. And what they do is they sort of counsel people on helping them get rid of the things, sometimes encourage them, sometimes nudge them, and then help them make the move.

So in the United States, there's actually a association, the Association of - National Association of Move Managers with over 600 members, companies, that belong to it. And they are constantly helping people reduce their stuff and encouraging them to do it. And I also document a similar phenomenon in Japan where you have thousands of these companies, and it's slightly different there because Japan's population is shrinking so there aren't necessarily even heirs for this stuff. So it's a - it's an even more pressing duty, if you will. And in some cases, they're hired by governments to just help clean-out these apartments and figure out where to put this stuff.

GROSS: So do people in the clean-out industry decide for you what you should keep and what you should throw away?

MINTER: Well, no. I mean, in the back of their minds, they certainly do. I mean, they'll walk into a home and they've seen a lot of these and they'll say, you know, you don't need your grandmother's china and your mother's china and probably you don't need yours. But the challenges in many cases with seniors as they downsize is sort of convincing them of that fact. And so, you know, one of the things you see happen during these kinds of clean-outs is sort of nudging them along, you know, telling them that, hey, we can bring this somewhere where it will get reused. And over and over you get the sense, if you're around clean-outs and you're around move managers, and you're around people who are downsizing, or in many cases, if they're downsizing what was left behind by their parents after they've passed away, there's almost this primal need to feel that your stuff or your parent's stuff or your grandparent's stuff is wanted and used. And so part of - I wouldn't say the - I would say it's not a trick, it's more technique - is to, you know, sort of nudge people along and say, yes, there is somewhere for this stuff to be used. We can take it somewhere. I'll ensure you that somebody will want this, and that's a really big part of it.

GROSS: So the clean-out industry is basically like, I'm moving, I'm downsizing, whatever. Here's all the stuff I don't need, I don't want. I don't want to have the burden of figuring out what to do with it or taking it someplace. I'll hire you; you deal with it.

MINTER: Yeah, in many respects, that's true. But you'll deal with it. But sometimes, you're going to come in and deal with it with me and you're almost like a counselor. I mean, the very best of the clean-out professionals that I spent time with, they kind of reminded me of therapists, you know. And again, it was, you know, having to sit with somebody and explain to them, you know, you don't need this. And that person explaining to the clean-out professional, you know, this wedding china, you know, when it was given to me 50, 60 years ago I was going to keep it forever, you know. And now I'm downsizing and you're asking me to let go of this wedding china, which, you know, isn't just this material thing that I put in a cabinet and looks pretty, but it's really a part of my identity.

And what's so emotionally jarring and I found myself many times in the course of these clean-outs that I witnessed, you know, feeling emotional as well, is that you see people really taking apart their identities. Because, you know, in contemporary America, you know, in Japan, where I spent a bunch of time, I mean, we increasingly sort of build up who we are on the basis of the things that we have owned and acquired over the years. So that's why you sort of need this counselor, this therapist, in many cases, to help you do this or to help your parents or grandparents do this.

GROSS: There's also the whole Marie Kondo phenomenon where, like, you're supposed to keep what brings you joy and discard everything else so that you can downsize. Do you think that that whole - that whole approach is having an effect on the reused business?

MINTER: Well, you've certainly heard from Goodwills in particular that when the Marie Kondo television show was very popular, you know, back in January I believe it was, that they saw a surge in donations and that's continued. But sort of anecdotally, what I think has happened is, you know, people have decluttered, but it's more often than not just given them more room to acquire more stuff. And, you know, and that's very interesting because I think some folks sort of embraced Marie Kondo as almost a sustainable movement, an ecological movement - downsize your stuff. But interestingly, she's never been somebody who's sort of embraced that view of what she does. In fact, it's just in recent weeks that she's announced her own product line of organizing, you know, materials, boxes, et cetera, et cetera. She's always been more about sort of personal edification and, you know, and in these contemporary consumer societies, you know, personal edification is often revolves around consumption and so I don't think it's helped.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Minter. He's the author of the new book "Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale." He's also the author of the earlier book "Junkyard Planet." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Minter. He's been covering waste and recycling for nearly two decades. He's the author of the new book, "Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale." So one of the things you point out in your book is that as of 2017, there were 54,000 mini storage sites in the U.S. And I know just driving around Philadelphia, there are these storage sites, like, all over. And I think that's in part because so many of us live in apartments or homes, you know, that are just really too small for our needs, and there's no closet space. So you rent a closet space. I think a lot of people know this drill. Or, you know, you've just moved to town and you need a place to store your stuff until you actually find a place to live. But what impact is that having, all these mini storage sites, on what you're looking at, which is the reuse industry?

MINTER: Yeah, well, it's - there's sort of a - you know, the mini storage sites are sort of a symptom of this metastasizing accumulation that we do. And that's why you see them continue to sprout up. And I actually went on clean-outs that were in storage units. After we finished, you know, cleaning out the house, then you go to the storage units. And I opened the book with one of these storage unit clean-outs. And it's really troubling, in some ways, because depending on where you are, people can actually pay more per square foot for a storage unit than they would for residential rental space. So we're actually paying more to store our stuff than we are sort of to store ourselves.

You know, for the reuse industry, it's sort of a mixed blessing. I mean, the reuse industry thrives on having access to stuff, in particular, good stuff. But increasingly, what we see in the United States in particular is that the quality of the stuff that people are acquiring - because we're acquiring more every year - is declining. So all that stuff that's filling up these storage units isn't necessarily what my grandmother would call merchandise. It's stuff that's going to go in the donation door at a thrift store and ultimately going to find its way, you know, into a dumpster or a recycling bin. It's not going to be reused.

GROSS: Because the quality isn't good enough to be reusable?

MINTER: Exactly. I mean, it's just - it's a decline in quality overall. I mean, if you think back, you know, say 20, 25 years ago, a television that was 10 years old was something that could be reused, it could be refurbished and reused because those were tube televisions, CRTs, as they're called in the industry. They were, you know, they were very heavy, but they were also very robust. But these days, you can go and you can buy yourself a flat panel television at an electronics retailer - I saw it over, you know, the recent Black Friday period - and you can buy that flat-panel for $150. But in a sense, you get what you pay for. You get a cheap television that maybe will last three years. So, you know, when you go into storage units and see these flat-panel TVs, you know, sitting in them, somebody may have thought, well, I'm just going to store it here for a couple of years. By the time it's opened up and people say, it's time to donate this stuff, that's not merchandise. That's something that's going to go to an electronics recycler. And that kind of phenomenon is increasing. The volume of stuff is increasing, but the volume of good stuff amongst the stuff, if you will, is declining.

GROSS: OK. So let's get back to the thrift stores. How do they sort to decide what's going to the trash or the landfill and what's happening to the rest of it?

MINTER: Sure. Well, if - let's use apparel as an example. If you go to the donation rooms and sorting rooms that I spent time in in Tucson, you know, there'll be, you know, large carts full of clothing, and they will go to sorters who, first of all, sort of have almost like a flow chart. It's a list of brands. There'll be some, I think it's around 85 to 90 brands on there. And they will tell the sorters how to price those. But on top of that, they go through and they feel the fabric. You know, is it thin? Does it feel like something that's going to fall apart after one to five washes? And that's really important because you can tell these sorters there's a brand here and it should be priced $2.99, but the sorters will tell you, you know, these brands are declining in quality, and I had that conversation over and over. They would refer to a brand and say, well, it used to be a pretty good $2.99 brand, meaning we'd price it at $2.99, but we really feel it now because it's not as good as it was when it was first labeled $2.99. And when that happens, it'll go into perhaps a bin that isn't designed to go out to the store, but it might go to what is called an as-is bin, which would be something that's sold to a rag maker, or maybe sold as stuffing, recycled in that sense. It's not recycled for use. And then you will go through there, and you will find garments that simply don't even belong going to the rag makers or the stuffing. That may be something like undergarments, that may be something that's just so badly soiled that, you know, you couldn't in good conscience send it to anybody, so it would go into the trash bin. So it's a very - you know, there's an objective side to it, but there's also sort of the subjective side that requires the sorters in these rooms just talking about apparel to use their subjective knowledge that they've acquired as they've spent time with thousands and thousands of garments over periods of time, you know, to make that call.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Adam Minter, author of the new book "Secondhand." After a break, we'll talk more about the afterlife of the stuff you donate to thrift stores. We'll talk about recycling and about growing up in a family that owned a junkyard. And Ken Tucker will review the comeback album by Hootie & the Blowfish. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS NEWMAN SONG, "WALL-E")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Adam Minter, who covers the waste and recycling industries and is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. His new book, "Secondhand," is about what happens to your clothes, furniture and electronics after you've donated them to the Goodwill or thrift store, with an emphasis on what happens to the stuff no one wants to buy. His previous book, "Junkyard Planet," was about the recycling industry. When we left off, we were talking about the sorters, the professionals who sort through thrift store donations to determine what can be sold and what can't. The garments that are too stained or worn to be sold can often be recycled into rags.

So if a sorter determines that an article of clothing or a blanket or whatever is no longer usable but it can be recycled for, like, rags or stuffing, does the fabric make a difference in what the afterlife is going to be? Is cotton going to be recycled differently than polyester or vegan leather?

MINTER: The answer to that is yes. I always have wanted to report on what's called the rag industry. And it's - I call them the original recyclers, and they've existed for a couple hundred years as an industrial enterprise. These are companies that take old clothes, old hospital gowns, old bed sheets, and they cut them up into rags that are then sold to everyone from hotels and bars to wipe down counters to car washes to wipe down your windshield. And it's usually the last use of a garment or a bedsheet.

And historically, they haven't really had to worry that much about the quality of the fabric coming through their doors - fabric that may be bought from thrift stores, may be bought from hospitals, may be bought from hotels. But in the last few years, that's changed, and it's changed because clothing became cheaper. And the way it became cheaper, one of the ways it became cheaper, is that manufacturers started weaving polyester into the cotton.

And if you talk to rag-makers - and it's a really big industry in the United States and around the world. It handles probably one-third of the clothing that's tossed out every year. If you talk to them, they'll tell you it used to be that you get something labeled 100% cotton and it really was 100% cotton. But increasingly, 100% cotton doesn't mean 100% cotton, and that has a real impact on the recycling. So if you make a rag that, say, has some polyester in it with that cotton and you sell it to, say, an oil and gas company to wipe down leaks, as we all know, polyester picks up static electricity, and so that becomes an explosion risk.

GROSS: Wow. And I guess a more obvious problem about polyester is that it's not absorbent for a rag.

MINTER: Right. Exactly. And, you know - and the rag industry, again, it sounds like it's sort of this, you know, very rudimentary - I don't want to say primitive - but very basic kind of industry. But it's not. There's a level of sophistication there. Again, a rag, as Todd Wilson of Star Wipers - that's the company I spent time with for the book. He told me it's a tool, and you need to be able to customize that tool for its use. And so if you're looking to create an absorbent rag, no, I mean, polyester doesn't absorb anything. And that gets really interesting.

So one of the things I saw when I was with Star Wipers - they're based in Newark, Ohio - is they were actually importing castoffs from textile T-shirt factories in Bangladesh. And I believe they were getting a load every couple weeks. And so these are cuttings from factories in Bangladesh. And they come in, and they were cotton T-shirts - maybe they had some poly in them. I'm not exactly sure. But, you know, when you buy a new T-shirt, you know, it feels kind of rough. And a new T-shirt doesn't absorb really well. The best T-shirts are the ones you've run through the wash over and over and over.

So one of things that Star Wipers will do that I found fascinating is they actually have their own laundry. It's an incredible laundry machine. It's like a giant caterpillar. And they will wash these new textiles so they become soft like an old T-shirt, and then they are more absorbent, and they can sell them as merchandise.

GROSS: So what happens to all the polyester clothes? How are they recycled? Are they used for stuffing?

MINTER: So in many cases, yeah, they're used for stuffing. And there is - you know, that's another side of, you could say, the rag industry, is there is a large stuffing industry. And so polyester clothes can, you know, serve as great stuffing material, you know, like chairs and sofas.

GROSS: So every step along the way in the world of recyclables, stuff is weeded out for use, and other stuff is sent to the next destination because nobody in the previous destination could figure out a use for it. So where do the goods go to die at the end of (laughter) this long run?

MINTER: Yeah. I mean, they end up in the landfill or the incinerator. I mean, there is no green heaven, if you will (laughter). Everything wears out eventually, and everything gets tossed out. I mean, you know, we don't have many artifacts and many things that have - you know, were - you know, from the Colonial period in the United States that are in daily use anymore. They're in museums or they're in, you know, Colonial landfills, if you will. And that's you know, and that's the fate of stuff. That's the fate of our consumer societies.

You know, if we spend our time thinking, you know, this is going to be used perpetually, forever - even the best-made garment, you know, the most robust smartphone - we're deluding ourselves a bit. Eventually, everything has to die, and that's sort of the dark side of consumerism. Certainly, metals can be recycled over and over, but you even lose a little bit of metal every time in the recycling process. So it's sort of the ultimate story of consumerism, and it's the dark side. We can't really delude ourselves into thinking everything lasts forever.

GROSS: Does it make environmental sense that the goods that can't be sold in the thrift stores in the U.S., many of them get exported to distant countries and they might get exported yet again to another country after that? I mean, when you think of all of the fuel being used to transport these possessions - well, former possessions (laughter), this stuff - I mean, does that make sense?

MINTER: It does. And there's a couple reasons for that. One is we know just from doing what is called a life cycle assessment of products. A life cycle assessment is basically where somebody goes and looks at the full environmental impact of a product - say, a smartphone - from manufacturing to disposal, and, you know, looks at what the air pollution impacts are, the mining impacts, the carbon impacts. And the one thing we do know is that the biggest impact of most products is the manufacturing side.

And so if you want to reduce the environmental impact of your consumption, the best way to do that is to not manufacture more stuff. In that sense, the best thing you can do is not buy more stuff. And so the longer that your product lasts, the longer that you use that smartphone, the less likely it is that you're going to be buying a new one. So the goal really should be to keep your stuff in use for as long as possible, whether it's by you or somebody in Ghana or somebody in Cambodia. So in that sense, it's a really good thing because if somebody in Cambodia is using your phone, they're probably not buying a new cheap handset there.

In terms of the shipping, that's a really interesting story. And one of the reasons why you've seen globalization of recycling and reuse work over the years is because people are buying so much new stuff. Let me give China as an example. You know, during the boom years of sort of the China-U.S. recycling trade, you saw so much U.S. recycling moved to China in part because China was sending so many boxes, so many shipping containers of new stuff to the United States, and they wanted to get those containers back to China so they could send Americans more new stuff.

So what would happen is the shipping companies would massively discount those containers to sometimes around 10% of what it would cost to send something from China to the U.S. So it made it very cheap to send stuff there, but in a sense, it was a free ride because those containers were going back anyway. So many of the places that are buying used goods from developed countries sort of have that same relationship. Japan and Malaysia - Malaysia exports a lot of new stuff to Japan. Those containers need to get back to Malaysia, so why not fill them with new stuff? It's kind of - I always think of it as kind of almost like a carbon-free free ride.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Minter. He's the author of the new book "Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Minter, author of the new book "Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale." And he's been covering the waste and recycling industries for nearly two decades.

So your family - you had, like, three generations of people in the junk business?

MINTER: Yeah, dating back to my great grandfather.

GROSS: Who came here and was a rag picker. What did that mean then?

MINTER: Sure. Well, when he arrived in Galveston, Texas, from Russia, he didn't speak English, didn't have any skills. He did what, you know, so many immigrants did - they literally started looking for value where no one else did, and that meant walking down the streets of Galveston looking for, you know, pieces of clothing that he could sell to a recycler. And as you, you know, get a few pennies in your pocket, then maybe you start going door to door and asking people, you know, at their doors, do you have some, you know, old clothes that you'd like to sell that I could buy? And then he would go and he would upsell those.

If you're good at it, go from, you know, carrying around rags in a backpack to carrying them on a handcart to carrying them on a horse-drawn cart to a truck and maybe, at some point, acquiring a piece of land where you can do this business. He eventually made his way up to Minneapolis. You know, he would deal in anything used, anything that other people didn't see value in but he knew he could upsell in some way. And he ultimately started specializing in scrap metal, and so he founded a scrap metal business up in the Twin Cities.

GROSS: And your family had a junkyard, too? Was that the scrap metal junkyard?

MINTER: Yeah. The family junkyard, dating back to my great-grandfather, sort of split, and there were two. There's one still there. And my father - we actually had to sell off the old junkyard in Minneapolis because the city wanted the land. But my father, who just turned 78, he's in the business still, sort of still growing it.

GROSS: And the scrap metal junk business, was there, like, a car flattener to junk cars?

MINTER: Oh, sure. So we - Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, a scrap yard is - (laughter) you know, the - OSHA's probably going to hate this, but a scrap yard is a wonderful thing for a small child to grow up in (laughter). You know, it's a wonderland, if you will. I loved, as a kid, watching our car flattener. You know, we were in the junk car business. And the cars would come in, and people - you know, we'd pull out the motors, and then it would go into a flattener, and you'd see these cars flattened. And then they'd be piled up on trucks and driven, you know, to the steel mill, where they'd be, you know, melted into new steel.

We had a warehouse, which I loved to walk around in. You know, I have very clear memories as a toddler walking around that warehouse and looking into boxes and barrels. And, you know, there'd be plumber scrap, or there would be electrician scrap, or there would be, you know, defective molds from a factory that was making, you know, it could be, you know, figurines, brass figurines. And so it was a real wonderland. And as a child, it really impresses upon you that there is so much value out there in the world that other people don't see, and that value is an opportunity for yourself and your family.

GROSS: Are there objects you've saved from your childhood, when you were roaming through the junkyard?

MINTER: Oh, absolutely. You know, the - one of the great treasures I have - and I still can't believe I have it - is a sign from the Great Northern Railway, which is now a defunct railway. And there are railway collectors out there all over the world, and something like that is a real treasure. I have little animal figurines, brass figurines. We used to get a lot of those for some reason, and so we would always want to grab those.

And, you know, oftentimes the best stuff, you know, was stuff that I would find with my grandmother, who would take me out into the warehouse, and she would go snooping in the boxes, often much to the chagrin of my father, and he would worry about her out there. And we would find all kinds of - you know, of great things. Oftentimes just figurines and - or, you know, bits of toys or just interesting - even - I can remember just interesting brass plumbing scrap. You know, there'd be an odd-shaped pipe, and we'd grab it out of there just because we thought it'd be interesting to put on a shelf.

GROSS: So I've watched too many movies, but did you ever find a dead body?

MINTER: We did not find a dead body. But I remember very clearly - soon as you brought that up (laughter) - one Halloween - seriously, one Halloween, the Minneapolis Police Department towed in a car in which there had been a shooting in the back seat, and it was a bloody, bloody mess. It was exactly what you expected to turn up at your scrap yard on a Halloween. And then we flattened it. And, you know, we didn't get much of that business. But I've talked to other scrap yard owners over the years who, you know, have recycled that kind of thing over and over. It exists and people don't want to keep those cars.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you saw it as a kid?

MINTER: I was fascinated, you know, as an 8, 9-year-old child would often be. It didn't scare me, I think, or upset me. I think it would upset me a lot if I saw something like that now.

GROSS: So I have a recycling question for you.

MINTER: Sure.

GROSS: I am really confused right now about what's happening to the plastics and paper that I recycle. I've heard that China isn't accepting our recycling anymore, at least not as much as they used to. I don't know where it's going instead. I'm not even sure which plastics are considered recyclable anymore and what kind of paper is going to not be recyclable because if it has certain finishes on it, it won't be recyclable. So I just feel like I'm going through the motions and I don't know if I'm really accomplishing anything, so help me out.

MINTER: Sure. Well, you are definitely accomplishing something and recycling is still a very good thing to do. Metals and paper are still widely recycled. There are still markets for them. They are not as strong as they used to be, and that's in large part because the global economy and especially China's economy has slowed down. And they were really the engine for buying that stuff and using it in new goods. But if you put, you know, a piece of paper, a piece of cardboard in your recycling bin, it's going to be recycled in some form, in some place. Some of it will be recycled in the United States and there's more and more recycling capacity being built, you know, as we speak in the United States and that's really exciting. And in terms of paper, I mean, I just, you know, I always recommend people follow the guidelines from your municipality or whoever runs your recycling program. You know, everybody has different markets, every municipality has different markets. And they will tell you what they are capable of selling, you know, to mills and to, you know, whether they're domestic or overseas.

Plastics, in some sense is the same thing. You know, if they don't have markets for these kinds of plastics that you are generating at home, they're going to tell you whether or not that they can recycle it. And there are, you know, recycling programs in the United States who have started, you know, limiting the amount of plastics, the types of plastics, that they will be willing to recycle. In terms of plastics that can be really easily recycled, the one that is easiest and there is always going to be some kind of robust market for is PET. So that's, you know, the bottles you get, whether it be a water bottle, a Coke bottle. And that can be used in any number of different applications from, you know, bottle to bottle recycling, if you will. It's also used in clothing. PET is, you know, is a type of polyester in a sense and so it can be woven into clothing.

GROSS: If you're unsure about a plastic, should you recycle it or not? If you recycle it and they can't use it, are you going to be ruining that whole batch?

MINTER: So it depends on where you are. But generally, if you're unsure, I would say put it in the trash. And I know some of your listeners are going to hate hearing that. But the worst thing you can do to sort of your recycling program is to contribute what's known in the industry as contamination. So contamination just means it's a type of material that is not like the other materials. You have to think of recycling - ultimately, your recycling is it's not an environmental good, it's a commodity. And, you know, you're recycling program is all about creating a commodity that it can sell to manufacturers. So if somebody is buying, you know, pure wood pulp to make into cardboard boxes, they certainly don't want a bunch of, you know, M&M wrappers in it. Not to pick on M&Ms, but they don't want plastics in it. It makes it harder to manufacture, it may lower the quality of that wood pulp. And the same goes for, you know, a bunch of cardboard boxes, you know, that you may put into your recycling bin. The last thing you want is to have, you know, plastic wrappers in there that will make it harder to make a quality product from that cardboard.

So, you know, in the first book, I describe, you know, household recycling. It's not really recycling. Recycling is what happens at the paper mill. What you're doing in your home is harvesting. You're harvesting the stuff for the people who are actually doing the recycling. And so in a sense, to be a good harvester of your recycling, you want to make things as clean and pure as you can.

GROSS: Well, Adam Minter, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

MINTER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Adam Minter is the author of the new book "Secondhand."

After a break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new comeback album by Hootie & the Blowfish. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER BAND'S "I WANNA GET OLD WITH YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.