Are you spring cleaning? Want to declutter but don’t want to add to the landfills? You can donate your unwanted items without making garbage. But be careful. Finding the right place to donate your stuff can take time and planning.
There are good reasons to discard and donate ethically. Here is a snapshot of our landfills:
25 billion tons of textile waste (5% of MSW)
40 million tons of e-waste (75% of toxic waste/2% of landfills)
146 million tons of food waste (21% of MSW)
This guide will help you donate ethically whether you’re a sustainability-focused GenZer, a baby boomer helping an aging parent downsize, or you grew up during the depression and WW2 and have been reusing, repurposing, and donating your whole life.
Start close to home to place unwanted things. The further away from home you donate, the less control you have over what happens. The major advantage to putting thought into where you donate is that you can reduce landfill waste and get things directly to the people and organizations that can use them. The biggest disadvantage is it can take time. Make your ethical donation successful by setting aside time to research organizations that take donations and sorting them.
Donating from Near to Far
1. Start at home
As you’re decluttering, start to reuse and repurpose. An easy reuse is to cut up old t-shirts for rags. Or get really creative. Make a chair from an unused suitcase or shelves from an old ladder.
- Pro: Your stuff stays out of the landfill and you don’t buy more.
- Con: You need to find the time for these projects.
- Tip: Check out this curated list for repurposing from Bored Panda.
2. Give to Friends and Family
Let your loved ones know what you’re getting rid of. You might have something they need.
- Pro: Connect with friends and family.
- Con: Family might take things they don’t really want to make you feel better.
- Tip: Make sure you don’t push your stuff on those closest to you.
3. Stay in Your Neighborhood
Someone nearby may need the exact thing you want to discard. Gifting groups like Buy Nothing or Freecycle connect you to someone looking for specific items. Using social media, post what you have and get responses from people in your area who could use your unwanted stuff. It’s grassroots and local.
Kendra Eggert administers a Buy Nothing group in South Jersey that has over 3,000 members. Kendra discussed the pros and cons of Buy Nothing:
“The pros of Buy Nothing vastly outweigh the cons. It’s so great to know that something you don’t need anymore is going to someone who will actually find use for it. Especially with kids stuff–they outgrow things so fast. It’s great to keep things out of landfills. And the sense of community is great in our group. People know how old your kids are and tag you in a post for items that are relevant to you. People remember that you collect snowmen and tag you in snowman gives. And so on.”
“One of the cons of Buy Nothing is that it relies on the honor system. Everyone is supposed to live within your group’s boundaries, but some people want “better” stuff so they lie and join a group they think has better items. There’s always the risk of gifting to someone who is going to resell the item as well. Lastly, since Facebook is our platform, we have to abide by their user agreement and we can’t gift certain items they have banned (alcoholic beverages, medicine, vitamins, etc).” Kendra Eggert, Buy Nothing
4. Neighborhood Little Free Libraries
Share your books at a neighborhood Little Free Library. There are over 150,000 all over the country.
- Pro: A great way to cull your own library and get some new reads. It’s fast, easy and builds community.
- Con: There have been some issues with Little Libraries being emptied by people who resell the books.
- Tip: Include a message in the books that they are part of the Little Library system and are for gifting only.
5. Find a Specialized Organizations
Some organizations focus on one category, increasing the probability that things get donated and stay out of the landfill.
Bras: Free the Girls is a micro-entrepreneurship program for women who have been exploited. Selling bras in the second hand marketplace prevents bras from ending up in the landfill and empowers women.
Shoes: Sole2Soul promotes sustainability through the reuse of athletic shoes.
Coats: One Warm Coat provides coats to people in need while promoting volunteerism and environmental sustainability. Take advantage of their resources to run a coat drive and collect coats in your community.
Career Clothes: The Wardrobe serves the greater Philadelphia area, providing professional clothing for women.
Cell Phones: Cell phones for soldiers purchases international calling cards for troops using the proceeds from donated cell phones. You will need to collect 10 or more devices to donate using a prepaid shipping label. Big Sky Recycling also recycles phones for charity and gives the option of sending in four or fewer phones with self-paid shipping.
Electronics: human-i-t collects computer systems, handheld devices and office equipment from both companies and individuals. They refurbish and donate devices to “communities on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
- Pro: Aid goes directly to those in need.
- Cons: Time to sort and distribute to individual centers, need to collect multiple items or pay for shipping.
- Tips: Clean all clothes and electronics. This means erasing data from your cell phone. Some communities have bins to collect cell phones to donate.
6. Go National
Larger organizations like Goodwill and The Salvation Army have both drop off and retail locations that make donation easier. Make your donations more successful by checking with the organization first and taking only those things that are clean, in good condition and likely to be resold.
- Pro: drop off locations and pick up make donating easy.
- Con: Not everything will be resold. When you donate your clothes to places like Goodwill, only 20% gets resold. The other 80% will go to a broker who will sort through the textiles and about 50% will be downcycled. Unfortunately the other 50% will get sent to landfills or exported. 40% of the exported textiles is considered trash.
7. Retailer Recycling
Many retailers offer programs to recycle textiles. For Days is a circular fashion brand. Besides designing sustainable clothing they collect, sort and recycle used garments from any brand. Buy their Take Back Bag for $20 and earn the same amount in credit from their online store..
- Pro: Get a discount for clothes when you recycle and keep them out of the landfill..
- Con: Retailers are not always transparent about what they do with the clothes you send them.
- Tip: Check out your favorite retailer to see if they have a reputable recycling program.
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8. Third Party Recycling
Your municipality doesn’t recycle everything. Third parties like TerraCycle can recycle things left out of your curbside program. Free and paid options exist.
TerraCycle Home offers a paid subscription program. For $20 a month you receive bags to fill with in-between items that your municipality doesn’t recycle. TerraCycle Home picks up the bags. Spend $40-200 through TerraCycle and you can buy a Zero Waste Box to fill with hard-to-recycle trash. Print off a shipping label for your box and drop it off at your local UPS store. TerraCycle also has a free program that allows you to print a shipping label and take items to a drop off point. Subaru has partnered with TerraCycle to create a more sustainable retail experience and a cleaner world by collecting disposable cups and lids, snack wrappers, and coffee, tea, and creamer capsules at more than 580 participating Subaru retail stores.
- Pro: Turn trash into recyclables–including hard to recycle items like wrappers. snack pouches and beauty containers.
- Con: Time and money: the free program requires collecting and cleaning. Check out Sarah Lazarovic’s take on this system in her article Rabé Ragé! The paid program puts the financial responsibility on the consumer and lets producers and marketers continue to make and sell environmentally irresponsible packaged goods.