Digging Into Urban Outfitters' Perfectly Good Trash

The other night around 9.30 pm, I was walking up 14th st. and 6th Ave. when I passed a bunch of boxes next to the trash outside Urban Outfitters. The boxes were all marked "Broken" or "Broken Glass." With my suspicion that their definition of "broken" was different from mine -- and with the H&M; saga fresh in my mind -- I pried one open.

Inside were all manner of your typical Urban Outfitters ephemera -- gag notepads, a disco ball, mugs, hipster tchotchkies, even an iPod speaker system. The stuff wasn't brand new -- some of it, like the mugs, was damaged; most of it was just worn or rough around the edges, and totally usable. I took some of it, including a hamburger phone (it worked), and kept on walking, expecting other passersby to partake. I didn't realize just what was still inside, and what would happen next.Shoes, Glorious Shoes
A few minutes later, I was on my way back to the subway when I decided to check out the boxes again. Now there are five people there, casually rifling through the boxes, their treasures lying at their feet: paperbacks, headphones, hats, calendars, posters, silly home decor items, and many many cheap sneakers, Keds-style canvas ones, neon-colored Nikes, some boots. (these came from boxes labeled "Broken Glass"). Within ten minutes, there were 20 people out there; it was a freegans' feeding frenzy. People were howling in excitement over their finds, trading things, and trying to find matching shoes.

But there weren't many -- most of the shoes didn't match, or hadn't been boxed together. Suddenly, a woman from the store came out and started yelling. "The cops are on their way -- y'all better leave now!" Mostly people did. I asked her what was wrong with people taking stuff that was bound for a landfill anyway. "It's not trash," she said. "It's going to the Salvation Army." I looked around at the mess we had left, a sea of sneakers with random cables and paper and semi-broken plastic toys and gag gifts, and felt bad. I dropped the one Nike I'd liked along with some other things (I kept a broken 50s-style metal toy robot, a slightly off-centered Obama bobble head statue, and a telephone styled like an old pay-phone).

And then I thought: why were they leaving all of this out on the street for the Salvation Army? Why not deliver it, or keep in storage? A bunch of heavy boxes taped up next to the trash are an easy target for New Yorkers of all stripes. My minimal knowledge of trash law, cribbed from a paper I wrote in college, makes me almost certain that this stuff was fair game, and that the police would have no power to force us trash pickers to stop.

Though a few municipalities have passed antiscavenging laws that make trash the property of the city once it's left out, the NYC Dept. of Sanitation's website acknowledges that scavengers may go through trash left on the curb.

Trash-Picking Chin-Scratchers
And to say nothing of the absurdity of most of the cheap plastic ephemera that stores like Urban Outfitters sells (and that many many people apparently buy?), how did it get damaged to begin with? I know that many retailers would rather destroy their goods a la H&M; rather than see them resold on the gray market. (The perfectly good food I've seen tossed out -- due to food safety laws -- is another topic, and worth its own exasperated blog post.)

I'm not even sure whether the Urban Outfitters detritus was going to charity. But if it was, would the Salvation Army want this stuff? And perhaps more importantly: what are the ethics of taking goods from the trash that are bound for charity, if the goods will still be used in some way?

I'm going to go back soon and find out more at the store. But if anyone knows about the practice of destroying unsellable goods, or how stores tend to donate to charity, I'd be curious to hear more.

Meanwhile, my two new land line phones are working fine. Not that I needed them or anything. Maybe I should bring them to The Salvation Army.

(Photo: Flickr/musici)

Tags: Waste

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