Mainers don’t like to throw anything away – just look at the community “swap shops” found at most town transfer stations.

Some items donated to Goodwill Northern New England’s Auburn store are bound for the trash: aerosol cans, a bunny with a smashed face, a broken laundry basket and a used zebra-print thong. After a spike in its trash bill last year around the region, the nonprofit is asking people to check the list of welcome donations before they give. Goodwill Northern New England photos

But that knack for thrifty conservation is causing headaches for the folks at Goodwill Northern New England, as well as other places that accept donated goods.

Increasingly, too, it’s a way of life at odds with an economy awash with cheap goods and waste.

First, the donations. Goodwill, as most know, accepts from the general public donations of a wide variety of gently used household items. The organization sells those items through its stores – there are 17 in Maine – and uses the money to fund workforce training and placement programs for people who face a number of barriers, and to advocate on their behalf.

But when donated items can’t be used, they go to a landfill along with all the other trash. And that’s happening a lot more lately – Goodwill NNE last year logged 13.2 million pounds of bad donations, up 155 percent from 2015, even though donations were closed for three months because of COVID-19.

To dispose of all the waste dropped at their doorstep, Goodwill paid more than $1.2 million. Instead of helping people at a brain injury clinic, or giving someone the skills to get a construction job, the money went out the door in tipping fees.

The uptick in bad donations – things like damaged furniture, brake pads, moldy books – is partly the result of the pandemic. With so many people stuck home in 2020, it was like a year of spring cleaning.

And while a cynic may say that people saw the Goodwill donation boxes as a good place to get rid of their trash, Goodwill officials don’t think so. Instead, they say, people want to see their old goods put to good use, and whatever the condition of the item, they think maybe someone can do something useful with it.

It’s a good impulse – and somewhat in the bones of people who live in Maine, where flea markers, yard sales and home-based repair shops can be found everywhere. University of Maine research has found that the state has a longstanding culture of thrift and reuse, with residents seeing both the environmental and economic value of using something again – often, people in one study said it was a “crime” to see things wasted.

Unfortunately, we live in a time of unprecedented waste, when seemingly everything comes in mountains of packaging and is built to be disposable, or to become obsolete.

So many of us are surrounded by so much extra stuff, with new stuff coming in all the time to replace it. No wonder people want to get rid of things – and being Mainers, no wonder they think it would be a shame to see those things thrown away.

Of the two, Goodwill’s problem is the easiest to solve. With any luck, people have seen the news about the bad donations and will take a extra look in their pile before they drop it off – go to the Goodwill website for a guide.

There are no easy solutions for the ever-growing amount of waste, however. We can and should reduce the amount of packaging used, and when possible value quality over low price, or reuse or repair instead of buying a new product.

But cheap goods are plentiful, you can get something from a thousand miles away just as easy as down the street.

Those are powerful forces for waste, and they are winning out – even in Maine.


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