Donate, Recycle, or Toss? Problematic Trash in Your Thrift Store Donation Box

Boxes with donations

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Aspirational recycling—or "wishcycling"—is the well-intentioned act of recycling items that aren't actually recyclable, which can consequently wreak havoc on waste management systems. The same hopeful philosophy also applies to thrift store donations.

Mande Butler, senior director of special programs at Habitat for Humanity International, says that upticks in donations to the charity's home improvement-centered ReStore shops are both good and bad. "While this would normally be a good thing because the more items sold at ReStores means the more families we can serve in communities around the country," she said, "it also means that with the good and useable items that were donated, there were also more items that could not be sold."

The organization does what it can to save these unsellable items from landfills through traditional recycling efforts and partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits. Still, Butler said, "when unusable, broken, or unsellable items are donated, more resources are spent on disposing of those items than on items that can be sold." 

What Do Thrift Stores Do With Waste?

Trash piled up at a thrift store

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In May 2021, a Goodwill spokesperson told NPR that 30 store locations throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine alone threw out more than 13 million pounds of waste the year prior. This reportedly racked up a trash bill of $1 million, money that could have been put toward the charity's employment placement services instead.

According to the nonprofit Green America, Goodwill sends roughly 5% of donated clothes straight to the landfill, mostly because of mildew. Those that can be resold are placed on the floor for four weeks, then sent to Goodwill Outlets, where they can be sold in bulk for about a dollar per pound.

Lisa Tempel, vice president of the American Cancer Society, Inc.'s Discovery Shop enterprise, told Treehugger only 10% of donations to Discovery Shop locations are deemed unsellable. Even when items can't be sold, the organization passes them on to other organizations or upcycles them. "Books that don't sell are passed along to local friends-of library programs. We may donate bed and bath textiles to animal shelters. Our volunteer specialists may repair broken jewelry, deconstruct and upcycle them into new creations, or disassemble a necklace or bracelet, for example, and sell beads and charms in quantity to jewelry makers and crafter customers."

Sustainability is a priority for the charity, but Tempel says spending that extra time trying to divert waste from landfills does "reduce resources and dollars that could otherwise support our lifesaving mission."

What to Donate

Tempel says a good rule of thumb for donating to thrift stores is to give only what you would feel good about passing on to a friend or family member. Another piece of advice? Call the store first, especially if you plan to donate large items. While well-maintained furniture is appreciated and popular among Discovery Shop customers, Tempel says some locations simply don't have the floor space.

In general, donation centers accept the following:

  • Clean clothes and linens
  • Gently used shoes 
  • Bags
  • Working and up-to-date electronics
  • Books
  • Quality kitchenware
  • Toys and games with all their pieces
  • Sporting goods
  • Art and decorations

Habitat for Humanity ReStore also accepts appliances, building materials, opened cans of paint, and other items that some other stores might turn away. Even vehicles can be donated to certain Goodwill locations.

What Not to Donate

Most thrift stores follow the safety standards of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Avoid donating anything that is ripped, stained, broken, or has pet damage. 

Here are some items that are generally not accepted.

  • Large appliances and furniture
  • Mattresses, box springs, and bed frames
  • Building materials
  • Weapons 
  • Intimate apparel 
  • Personal hygiene items (even if sealed)
  • Pianos
  • CRT electronics
  • Magazines
  • Fragrances
  • Used pillows 

Check with the organization before donating used computers and cell phones.

Habitat for Humanity ReStore does accept some of these household items and building materials. Butler says items that are typically not accepted include anything that's broken or has missing parts, items geared toward children under the age of 12, items containing lead paint, mold, or asbestos, and expired or unlabeled products.

What to Do With Items That Can't Be Donated

Person putting a bag of clothes in recycling bin

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You can help ease the burden on charity shops by removing the middleman and recycling, upcycling, or outright pitching unwanted items yourself. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, electronics companies like HP, Xerox, Best Buy, Staples, Sprint, Sony, and Samsung offer recycling programs for used gadgets. Likewise, clothes and other textiles can be recycled via Terracycle's Fabrics and Clothing Zero Waste Box, the Council for Textile Recycling, and the American Textile Recycling Service.

Some brands, like Nike, Patagonia, and The North Face, have long accepted used clothing from their own labels. In 2013, H&M rolled out a Garment Collecting program in which old clothes from any brand could be dropped off via in-store bins in exchange for a discount voucher. It's important to note, however, that only a small portion of recycled clothing is made into new clothing. Often, the fibers are too weak to withstand the recycling process and are, as a result, downcycled into insulation or carpet padding.

A more productive way to extend the life of items you suspect can't be resold is to upcycle them—or at least give them away to someone who will. Hold a swap event or free giveaway. Contact local crafters to find out whether they accept scrap fabric, beads, and so forth, or post items for free on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, or your neighborhood group pages.

View Article Sources
  1. "Goodwill Has A Trash Problem We're The Cause." NPR. 2021.

  2. "What Really Happens to Unwanted Clothes?" Green America.

  3. "Donate Stuff." Goodwill.

  4. "Electronics Donation and Recycling." United States Environmental Protection Agency.