The best thing you can do is not buy more stuff
December 8, 2019 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Adam Minter is an opinion columnist with Bloomberg where he writes about China, technology, and the environment, an author (Goodreads), and self-described junk man (personal website, Shanghai Scrap), as seen columns and books. In 2013, he wrote Junkyard Planet (Amazon; Goodreads), as covered in a long interview with NPR where he described how Christmas lights in the U.S. were turned to slippers in China. With his new book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale (Amazon; Goodreads), he talked to NPR again at length, about a range of topics, from the rise of "cleanup" companies, to how unwanted donations from the U.S. end up for sale in Asia and Africa (a separate, short NPR story). More on the the impacts of, and attempts to stop, importing used clothes in Africa below the break.

And just as China stopped taking much of the potentially recyclable waste from "developed" countries (previously, twice and thrice), the governments of the East African Community (EAC) — the regional organisation that comprises of Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda — planned to outlaw all secondhand clothing imports by 2019, in a bid to boost domestic manufacturing (Business of Fashion, 2017). In Feb. 2018, Deutsche Welle (DW) reported that with the US threatening consequences, EAC leaders agreed to a compromise. Instead of banning imports of used clothes and shoes, import taxes would continue, and in some cases, would continue to go up. Rwanda had previously raised taxes on imported secondhand clothing, from $0.2 to $2.5 from 2016 to 2017, at a 12 percent increase (The Borgen Project, July 2019). That article also provides context on the scale of the impact of importing used clothing:
Imports of used clothing are estimated at around 540 million pieces per year versus the 20 million pieces of clothing created domestically each year in East Africa.
Most recently, EAC Council of Ministers failed to decide on the ban of second-hand clothes (The East African) but approved the Final Draft Cotton, Textiles and Apparels (CTA) Strategy and its Implementation Roadmap, as well as the Final Draft Leather and Leather Products Sector Strategy and its Implementation Roadmap (EAC press release, Dec. 2019).
posted by filthy light thief (68 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
While the long NPR interviews are new, some of the other links have been presented previously:

Discards, dumping, downsizing, and the afterlife of our stuff (May 25, 2019)

Christmas Light Recycling (December 27, 2011)

Farce Pavilions (May 1, 2010) How could this happen? A Reporter’s Guide to the USA Pavilion Debacle at Expo 2010.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:24 PM on December 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Final late-night notes: sorry for the typo above the fold, that should read "unwanted donations from the U.S. end up for sale in Asia and Africa...".

And the post title comes from Minter's latest NPR interview, and doesn't necessarily apply to both his topics and the adjacent/ related topic of local and regional fashion in (East) Africa vs. buying of imported, used US/EU clothing.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:38 PM on December 8, 2019

Is there a list of wanted donations these countries?
posted by parmanparman at 1:31 AM on December 9, 2019

Rwanda had previously raised taxes on imported secondhand clothing, from $0.2 to $2.5 from 2016 to 2017, at a 12 percent increase

I've read this on the context of the linked article five times now, and my takeaway is still only that something is wrong here - how is going from 20 to 250 cents 12%?
posted by Dysk at 2:44 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Can't wait to dig into these. Thanks for a solid post!!
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 3:15 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Is there a list of wanted donations these countries?

I don't know once they become exports, but warm clothing, waterproof jackets, underwear and socks are the most in demand items in the US and are the least likely to be exported.

And two of those aren't going to be accepted if they're used.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:44 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Great post; thank you.

A small part of this ties to my professional life — librarian, occasionally having to make retain/store/toss decisions about low-use books. The feels people have about books and their inherent value are occasionally challenging.

It hits home harder personally — demographic inevitability has been catching up with my family in recent years, and I have sorted through so many closets. Dusty or terribly smoke-stained clothing is bad, but the inevitable back-of-the-closet stretch of stiff, crispy, or crunchy polyester, Dacron, Orlon, Rayon, Ban-Lon, etc. is a testament to the non-sustainability of synthetics. Passing that stuff on to Rwanda would be passing on a burden.

The big lesson on the interview (don’t buy more stuff) resonates with me more every year.
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:47 AM on December 9, 2019 [14 favorites]

I've long been of the opinion that being able to just dump stuff into a recycling bin or drop off at Goodwill or those clothing donation boxes around US cities is a way for Americans to feel less guilty about the excesses of their lifestyles. If we can tell ourselves a story that our trash will get used by someone else (usually someone poor and far away), it's not so bad that we keep buying new things and throwing away 4.5 pounds of stuff per person per day (in 2013). China's retraction from recycling makes the endeavor seem even more like a shell game.

I'll continue recycling, of course, but I always count it as a win when our recycling bin goes to the curb less than half full (and our trash is usually less than a quarter full). I don't know how others generate so much waste to necessitate the 50 or 60 gallon barrels our town provides, and some people need even more waste volume than that. It boggles the mind.

As always, reduce and reuse are much better than recycle.
posted by msbrauer at 5:17 AM on December 9, 2019 [18 favorites]

Thanks for making this a FPP! I found the interview fascination and wide-ranging in a good way. I mentioned it in the plastics thread, but it's a much bigger issue than just plastics, obviously.
posted by freecellwizard at 5:47 AM on December 9, 2019

Thanks - I found Rowan Moore Gerety's article on the junk trade on the Miami River from earlier this year fascinating, so look forward to digging into the links here.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:28 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

From the Fresh Air interview: "you will see some of this very nice oak furniture ... end up in the landfill." So corollary to "don't buy more stuff": When you do buy stuff, buy used, especially stuff that would otherwise be dumped. (Unfortunately, the intersection between "stuff I will enjoy and use" and "stuff that no one else wants" is pretty small.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:32 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Is there a list of wanted donations these countries?

My understanding (and someone please correct me) is that many of the countries in question don't need/want "donations" as a vague catch-all, for the sort of reasons in the FPP. Individual organizations of course have specific needs that they aren't able to meet locally. But even then, I'm reminded of the paternalistic/colonial impulses lurking in donations. The AMS used to advertise (in the Monthly, I think) for donations of math books and journals to send to Uzbekistan (why Uzbekistan, I don't know--there are many countries where building an academic library is unrealistically expensive) and had to specify that they wouldn't take old copies of the Monthly itself, i.e. the stack of junk paper that accumulates in mathematicians' office.
posted by hoyland at 6:37 AM on December 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

Is there a list of wanted donations these countries?

Cash to invest in local businesses.

/originally heard from an Ethiopian agricultural expert speaking on the subject of food aid.
posted by jb at 6:46 AM on December 9, 2019 [24 favorites]

I try to donate clothing and things to local women's shelters or animal charities instead of goodwill. The shelters are always looking for larger sizes in women's clothing especially outfits that can be worn for a job interview along with the expected seasonal outerwear. Blankets, slightly ratty towels and stuff that is beyond repair or whatever becomes rags for cleaning messes at the animal shelter. I donated an old laptop to a girl guide troop. They'd been looking for older electronics for a project related to one badge or another.

It's a bit more time consuming than just dropping a bag off at the donation bin, but a lot of times organizations in your own community will gladly give your old stuff a new life.
posted by peppermind at 6:51 AM on December 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Here in Denmark, when you donate clothes, they usually go to second-hand stores locally, so it's the money, not the clothes that go to aid. Only a really shady organization sent the clothes out, where they were processed in some way I forget.
My youngest daughter almost only wears second-hand clothes, because she's a climate warrior. And I always hated shopping and prefer wearing my clothes to shreds, so like this new attitude. You know, back in the day when I came to work in a ten year old sweater, people would think I was sloppy. Now they think I'm political...
posted by mumimor at 6:59 AM on December 9, 2019 [13 favorites]

Dysk: I've read this on the context of the linked article five times now, and my takeaway is still only that something is wrong here - how is going from 20 to 250 cents 12%?

Sorry, lazy linking on my behalf. That article also fails to mention what quantity is being taxed, so it's unclear if the 12% refers to something else.

Here's a cleaner citation: Rwanda raised its per-kilogram import tax in 2016 from 20 cents to $2.50, per the Washington Post, in their coverage of Trump's March/April 2018 decision to suspend Rwanda’s participation in a program that allows African countries to export apparel to the United States on a duty-free basis, based on that country's increased second-hand clothing tax.

DW has follow-up coverage: When East African countries announced a ban on the import of secondhand clothes to help their own textile industries, this irked US President Donald Trump. All but Rwanda have now backtracked.
Trump threatened to retaliate, saying the tax goes against the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). At the end of March, Trump announced he would suspend the application of duty‑free treatment to all AGOA-eligible goods in the clothing sector for the Republic of Rwanda within 60 days.

Rwanda didn't budge and let Trump's deadline run out last week. That means the US is now likely to impose tariffs on textile products and shoes from Rwanda.

"Legally speaking, the US has the right to impose a penalty because, within AGOA, Rwanda is supposed to remove all barriers to US goods," Christopher Kayumba, an analyst and senior lecturer at the University of Rwanda, told DW.

"But the spirit of AGOA is to help poor countries to evolve," he added.
"Rwanda doesn't really export very much. They don't have large-scale, domestic manufacturers," said Ben Shepherd, a consulting fellow with Chatham House's Africa Program.

"There are big cost implications for them, because they are such a long way from ports whereas Kenya has a significant manufacturing industry; Tanzania to some extent and Uganda as well," Shepherd told DW.

"So the fright of a trade war with the US in terms of reciprocal power, getting into a difficult trading relationship with a major international player, you can see this would make them a bit more concerned because there is more at stake," he said.

"Rwandans can afford to pick a fight, because there is less to lose in terms of trade for them," Shepherd added. "They don't like to be pushed around and they don't like to see themselves being pushed around and are emerging as something of a leader in terms of an African confidence to push back against impositions of the outside world."
'It's about our dignity': vintage clothing ban in Rwanda sparks US trade dispute (additional coverage from The Guardian).

The Economist also covered the topic in May 2018 ( mirror, in case you can't access the original article), noting that "in most rich countries the supply of used clothing far outstrips demand. Less than half of donations are sold locally. Most of the rest are sold to exporters." The article goes on:
In Britain a tonne of textiles from a bin fetches £170-315 ($225-420). At Savanna Rags, in Mansfield in the English Midlands, 500 tonnes of old clothes glide along conveyor belts each week. The workers, mostly eastern European immigrants, sift items into categories depending on the market, such as “childrenswear” and “Asian clothing”, transforming a jumble of fabric into plastic-wrapped bales.

In Africa, these motley bundles are a valuable commodity. Men’s clothes are pricier, since fewer arrive. American pieces are often too large and have to be resized by tailors. No matter. “A person would rather buy second-hand from America, instead of buying a new Chinese product,” says Nelson Mandela, a Ugandan trader [...]. Shoppers complain that new Asian clothes damage easily and look like uniforms, without variety. Hucksters sometimes dunk Chinese imports in dirty water to pass them off as used ones from Europe.
But for the countries that import used clothes, the volume of these western hand-me-downs is only one problem. The other is the ability for people to buy local clothes, which are more costly.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:13 AM on December 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

Is there a list of wanted donations ?

Cash donations help the people who receive them and appear to benefit the communities they live in too.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:35 AM on December 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think it’s quite a bit more comfortable to talk about donations, and it doesn’t surprise me to see the conversation taking that turn. Not buying more stuff is a radical undertaking, particularly during this season. It doesn’t matter, particularly, what you do with your current stuff so long as you don’t buy more. Capitalist Resistance.
posted by stoneweaver at 7:49 AM on December 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

"Reduce" comes first in "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" for these reasons!

The ascetic lifestyle is going to have to kick in for a lot of the population at some point in the near future, less religiously compelled so much as just logistically coerced.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:58 AM on December 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

"The ascetic lifestyle" doesn't have much to do with "compelled".

You can force austerity but you won't get the results you want. There is some hope that a lot of it can be taught if someone wants to learn. The "wanting to want" (less) is the problem. Lots of answers. But they've been known for a long time. Always there if people want to turn to them but the people have to do the turning. Not much of that happened for quite a long time. More of that was going on when I was younger.
posted by aleph at 8:15 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

An idea - there are several local "Buy Nothing" groups on Facebook, usually each confined to a specific town or community. People post their "I have this to offer free" and "I am searching for this thing if anyone has one they want to part with" messages, and other members connect with them to hash out details. I got rid of an unneeded office chair that way, and I know of at least one couple that's furnishing an adoptive baby's nursery that way (the baby is coming a little sooner than they thought).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:23 AM on December 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

The "free" list on Craigslist used to get a lot of activity. Haven't looked in quite a while. Don't need much stuff anymore.
posted by aleph at 8:26 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I work in a very casual office in a casual field, but I still have to replace clothes quite a bit before they are entirely worn out in order to be seen as dressing acceptably. I know most workplaces are less casual and people therefore buy clothing accordingly.

But the big picture seems irrefutable, reduced production and consumption need to happen, and donations and recycling (when recycling even happens) are not enough.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:42 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

We don't take used donations at the homeless shelter I work for because we serve youth and part of our programming dictates that they shouldn't feel like second hand people, and be given second hand clothes just because they are on the streets/in the system/etc. That said, I can't afford new clothes and buy everything at thrift or consignment stores.

People always get confused when I explain to them that we can't take a bunch of used clothes and sift through them because we have children to counsel/raise funds for/feed and we fall under strict licensing guidelines.
posted by lextex at 8:44 AM on December 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

This summer I joined a challenge to not buy any new clothing over summer. I failed: I was camping, I was cold, and the only store that was closeby was a supermarket. I bought a pair of leggings.
But it's December now, and the only new clothes I bought since those leggings are 2 pairs of knee socks. Not so bad!

I'm trying to wean myself off of buying stuff. It's not easy, and I stumble a lot, but I'm working on it.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:16 AM on December 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

The public library I used to work at was regularly offered donations of mountains of old National Geographic magazines that someone's parents/grandparents had "collected" over the years. One time, a caller was seriously appalled that we wouldn't take them and said: "Why couldn't you just scatter them on the tables for the homeless people so they could at least look at the pictures?"
posted by majorsteel at 9:16 AM on December 9, 2019 [13 favorites]

"Why couldn't you just scatter them on the tables for the homeless people so they could at least look at the pictures?"

When people act like they're doing homeless people a favor by passing along old magazines and half-used bottles of freebie hotel shampoo*, it says so much about who they are.

*I have fished many of these out of the 90-gallon storage tubs used to store donated toiletries for the warming shelter.
posted by sobell at 9:23 AM on December 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

As my grandmother, who ran a thrift store herself, used to say, "better good used, than cheap new."
posted by brookeb at 9:25 AM on December 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

mountains of old National Geographic magazines that someone's parents/grandparents had "collected" over the years.

My parents took out a subscription. I'm kind of appalled. They have kind of a hoarding problem with newspapers and books and magazines - not that serious, it's not like the floor is covered and you can't walk, but there is a lot of clutter from it - and they really don't need to be saving years of NG in special boxes. I also discovered that they still pay to receive the World Book Science Year and Year In Review, 40 years after we bought the Encyclopedia. It's going to fall on me one day to dispose of this archive. Some of their stuff, like the mathematics books, I probably really can donate to a library, but what do you suppose the market is for 40 years of World Book Year In Review?

I've reached a point where I have to take a breath and remind themselves that this is their life and controlling it is not something that I can or should try to do.
posted by thelonius at 9:26 AM on December 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

"... that this is their life and controlling it is not something that I can or should try to do."

I just try to think of it as cheap mental therapy. At least in the non/pre-horder versions. It makes them feel better to do it, even if it's not for the reasons they think. You have to have a threshold for things like this before you intervene.
posted by aleph at 9:48 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's going to fall on me one day to dispose of this

Yes, same, big-time. Also because I am a professional archivist(™) and have a reputation in my extended family as "liking old stuff," so everybody already gives me their old paper goods--photos (excellent, yes please) all the way down to old newspapers and National Geographics and mass media paperbacks by Ann Coulter (barf/yikes). To deal with it, I have a stubborn fantasy of giving some of it a new life via mixed-media art and collage, and sometimes that's fun and interesting, but it's not like...high art, or anything I could dispatch as home decor, so then it's still clutter but in a different form. And once I apply glue or gel medium to the paper, it's not even recyclable.
posted by witchen at 9:51 AM on December 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure Americans are ever going to be culturally primed to reduce their consumption. We're a country founded* on the premise that resources are abundant and thus can be consumed without stewardship or moderation**. To act like resources are finite and should be mindfully used is anaethema to the land of plenty.

I'm also not sure how we undo several generations of aggressive post-war marketing. I can remember looking at Real Simple back when I was gifted a subscription and being surprised at the front of the book section which posited that buying an array of useless crap "solved problems," most of which weren't actual problems or even annoyances. It seemed so antithetical to what the magazine was alleging its position was (simplifying).

In the U.S., we really have successfully indoctrinated people into believing that they can buy their way out of systemic stressors or bigger problems. I can remember my mom marveling at how many widows in her support group had developed shopping compulsions -- but they were using the shopping as a way to build in some structured and guaranteed social interaction (since they had lost their primary source), they were using the shopping to foster a feeling of preparedness for disaster (especially the women whose husbands had died suddenly), they were using the shopping as a substitution for achievement or to give them a sense of meeting goals ... nobody needed that many towel sets on sale but they all needed something else and had no idea how to get it -- or couldn't get it -- so spending money on stuff filled that void.

I wonder if we'd consume less if our national origin myths stressed the waste and exploitation. I wonder if we'd consume less if we lived in a country where we could be sure of a solid social safety net. In the U.S., our rampant consumption is tied to big societal issues that need to be fixed. Telling people to shop less only works if they can fix the thing that shopping's making less painful.

*stolen from several existing nations
** too bad about 19th century whale populations, the California grizzly, the passenger pigeon, the American buffalo, etc.
posted by sobell at 9:53 AM on December 9, 2019 [15 favorites]

It's inefficient to manufacture t-shirts in VietNam, Indonesia, or wherever, print with really stupid crap, ship to WalMart, sell, donate to Goodwill, ship to Africa. It has become difficult to buy plain tshirts for my grandsons, and I won't buy tacky slogans, It used to be possible to buy non-gendered baby clothes, good luck with that. You sell more if they're strongly gendered.

Minter is a National Treasure. He's doing good research, understands the economics. His thinking is decidedly non-wooly.

The United States has a massive oversupply of consumer goods. It drives the economy and it drives Climate Crisis and waste. I have some Quaker background, and try to live Simply. Grew up as kid#5, daughter#3, and wore hand-me-downs almost exclusively. I buy used clothes, furniture, household goods, and get excellent quality, cheap, and reduce my impact. When I moved, I got rid of stuff on, and sometimes I've gotten stuff I've needed on there. Resisting Consumerism feels like an act of resistance.

Great, thorough post, timely with the Christmas buying season in full swing. I'm driving for the holidays, but only buying for grandsons, mostly books and music, lots of it used.
posted by theora55 at 10:01 AM on December 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

I've reached a point where I have to take a breath and remind themselves that this is their life ...

Gah. Remind myself.
posted by thelonius at 10:10 AM on December 9, 2019

"I'm not sure Americans are ever going to be culturally primed to reduce their consumption"
Americans are not monolithic. There have been many groups/movements that emphasize reduced consumption that wind their way through all of the *other* groups who celebrate consumption (in different ways). They come and go. But the "unlimited resources" (burn it out and move on) crowd is getting a lot more squeezed nowadays. And the other groups are susceptible to the periodic religious revival that sweeps through the US regularly (and provides a lot of counter-motivation to the consumption crowd). We'll see.
posted by aleph at 10:18 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Someone on the radio said: consumption is fine. You just have to move your focus from products and plane travel to local experiences. Get yourself a massage every week, go to a restaurant, to the movies, buy an online subscription. I'm in a place where I can't afford anything beyond the basics, (and I am not poor), but I don't think we are the people who need to reduce our consumption. So if his idea can spread to the consumers, I support it.
posted by mumimor at 10:57 AM on December 9, 2019

"You just have to move your focus from products..."

That's one way. Replace more superficial ones with more intense/meaningful ones. It still has (roughly) the total conserved quantity. :)

There are other ways. But they tend to be very personal choices to make.
posted by aleph at 11:05 AM on December 9, 2019

fantastic video from village in india where many clothes end up. wonderfully observational and no western talking heads.
posted by danjo at 11:09 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

We seem to have ended up on a clothing tangent, and rightfully so. Cloth (especially synthetics, which don't decompose) and plastics are the bane of recycling. Metal has inherent value, and can be profitable to reclaim, but the days of natural fibres being costly to produce are gone, and there isn't really a rag trade to reclaim them.

Clothing, especially the most fashionable stuff made at a breakneck speed, is the product most often of unsafe sweatshops (why, there's been whole books written about it).

Cotton most often is the product of truly toxic agricultural and political systems.

Focussing only on the afterlife of clothing products is to avoid the conversation on the many many problems of their actual production in the first place.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Caveat: I'm a man and I work from home. None of society's fashion stigmata attach to me, and I dress accordingly. None of the above is meant to imply that your choices are wrong because society requires you to dress like you didn't crawl out of the discard bin behind the free pile.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

It also doesn't help that there isn't really an ethical clothing option, other than purchase as little of it as possible. And even then, most clothes these days aren't really made to be worn for long, much less repaired once you wear a hole in it (patching something requires the fabric around the hole to be relatively sturdy).
posted by dinty_moore at 11:54 AM on December 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

I work for a domestic violence org with a shelter and every day people take the opportunity to dump their unwanted stuff on us. It gets frustrating. For a while we had a policy that we would only take new things in the original packaging but people got so upset that we have relaxed that. So right now there are eight giant trash bags of worn clothing, beat up shoes and half used hotel toiletries on our conference table. Just as an aside the donor valued this (the donor must make the valuation for our in-kind donation receipt) at $500. Eye roll emoji. We have nowhere to store it and nobody to sort it but now we will have to take it to the community thrift store four blocks away. The donors will not make that four block trip. They want to give it to US so they can feel good. Sigh.

You would probably not believe that people "donate" half tubes of toothpaste, half used lipsticks, used eyeshadow and even used toothbrushes but they do and the list goes on and on. I just made someone on the phone mad because I would not take her unwanted newborn gift box - we do have kids in shelter! We need kids' stuff! - but everyone wants to unload the newborn sizes because babies grow out of them so quickly and we are full up. We could really use toddler diapers but curiously nobody wants to donate those.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:57 AM on December 9, 2019 [17 favorites]

My rule of thumb is to just imagine something in a landfill at the end of its useful life. I work in a homeless shelter too and have traveled extensively in underdeveloped countries. There is such a manufacturing excess, nobody anywhere needs my cast-off crap.

So the first rule is to try not to buy stuff, the second rule is if I have to buy stuff, to buy really quality stuff that has a really long life before it ends up in a landfill. Sometimes it means buying used quality instead of new crap. There’s a lot of repair that goes on at my house but goddamn it my kids will grow up knowing how to weld, thread a needle, look for replacement parts, and take their shoes to get resoled.

I got this way because I grew up with parents who continue to this day to be the exact opposite. Every trip they take they bring us souvenir tshirts that number in the hundreds now. They shower their grandkids in plastic Chinese crap that my wife and I now filter through before giving the kids. Without placing any restrictions on my kids’ candy consumption, the accumulated amount now fills a garbage bag. It’s a boomer thing. They just think they’re incredibly fortunate to have access to a wealth of stuff that their parents couldn’t give them and they have no idea there’s nowhere for it to go.

And they even like the film Wall-E.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:41 PM on December 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

I'm reminded of something Douglas Adams made up for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the Shoe Event Horizon.
The Shoe Event Horizon is an economic theory that draws a correlation between the level of economic (and emotional) depression of a society and the number of shoe shops the society has.

The theory is summarized as such: as a society sinks into depression, the people of the society need to cheer themselves up by buying themselves gifts, often shoes. It is also linked to the fact that when you are depressed you look down at your shoes and decide they aren't good enough quality so buy more expensive replacements. As more money is spent on shoes, more shoe shops are built, and the quality of the shoes begins to diminish as the demand for different types of shoes increases. This makes people buy more shoes.

The above turns into a vicious cycle, causing other industries to decline.

Eventually the titular Shoe Event Horizon is reached, where the only type of store economically viable to build is a shoe shop. At this point, society ceases to function, and the economy collapses, sending a world spiralling into ruin. In the case of Brontitall and Frogstar World B, the population forsook shoes and evolved into birds.
It's a depressingly positive correlation.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:57 PM on December 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have some relatives who subscribe to the "buy shit on sale and who cares if it breaks, it was on sale, ergo it was a value" approach -- and that's how they approach gift-giving.

It's possible to be appreciative of the sentiment behind a gift while also deploring the waste of resources that gift comprises. It's such a waste of money and materials -- one well-made item costs less per use! And stays out of the landfill! And is to our taste! -- but because it was on sale, the purchase is, of course, the very height of fiscal savvy to these people. We are the ones who don't understand the value of anything in their eyes.

Then they get mad when the item shrinks the first time it's washed or breaks on the first use and instead of holding on to something we can't use, we strip it down and reuse what we can and recycle/dispose of the rest. Because the minute it actually ceases to be useful, the item has moved from great bargain to investment, in an economic principle I have yet to fully comprehend, and we're now squandering their investment.

I loathe that other people's jacked-up relationship to consumerism and money is somehow something I'm expected to manage. And I'm a little torqued that we're going to have to tackle this on a global level. Our relationship between what an item's retail price is and what its actual cost is has been profoundly warped.
posted by sobell at 1:16 PM on December 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

I just made someone on the phone mad because I would not take her unwanted newborn gift box

My charity regularly had people lose their tempers when I wanted to sort their donations for things we could actually use. "I wish I could afford to pick and choose what people give me for free" was a common enough refrain that I had to develop a couple mealy-mouthed stock responses (because I couldn't really just tell them to fuck off).
posted by aspersioncast at 2:36 PM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

So is taking stuff to the Salvation Army or Goodwill just a futile exercise in cost-shifting?
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:50 PM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

So is taking stuff to the Salvation Army or Goodwill just a futile exercise in cost-shifting?
Not at all, just don't bring your used underwear, clothes that are beyond repair or stuff you have only worn once because it is really tacky. And only bring clean clothes.
posted by mumimor at 3:21 PM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

It depends on the item! If it's something that you'd use except for (mitigating factor that wouldn't affect another person) - doesn't fit anymore, recently gifted to you but not your style, moving and can't store furniture - bring it in. Good coats that are still in style are useful. But like, if it's torn or has a weird stain, make it into rags or toss it. Newborn stuff moves faster person to person.

And this is for Goodwill, when they're specifically saying you can donate these items. It can be better than tossing them yourself.

Also, as we learned previously, TI-83s are good to donate.
posted by dinty_moore at 3:28 PM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Maybe the better lesson instead of 'should I donate to Goodwill' is 'should I shop Goodwill', where the answer is yes, if only to normalize shopping secondhand. I wouldn't worry about people who can afford it taking all of the cheap used clothes anytime soon.
posted by dinty_moore at 3:33 PM on December 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

When I was on a tight budget or unemployed, I've tried shopping Goodwill. Unless something's changed, it was mostly terrible clothes, absurdly overpriced for what you got, and hard to find in my (large) size. I assume the really good stuff gets siphoned off before it hits the racks.

So I buy new, mostly cotton, and wear it until it's worn out.
posted by tavella at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2019

Going to goodwills in better neighborhoods does make a difference. I'll do Goodwill for $5 office pants, with the occasional blouse/cardigan/sweater. There's a specific salvation army near me that takes the Target castoffs that's decent. (I also used to raid older shapeless sweaters for yarn)

I do get the impression that Marie Kondo made a difference in the sheer amount and quality of donations.
posted by dinty_moore at 5:10 PM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I do a ton of online shopping at (to the point that it's become a go-to procrastination method). Highly recommend nonetheless. I've gotten some awesome work outfits there, including dresses with POCKETS. My collection of thrifted zip cardigans also all have pockets.

Agree that Minter's work is great and it's neat that he can draw on his family background in the scrapyard trade.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:01 PM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

What's the seed of a more sustainable future that exists today in your own life? I teach at a university and in during the last week of class, we talked a lot about sustainable futures. A student and I both confessed that we are composting* via the bushes, that is, throw coffee grounds, torn up banana peels, etc onto the dirt under the bushes in the apartment complex rather than chuck compostable items into the trash which goes straight to the landfill. *I don't have a yard to set up a compost bin though I'm thinking of asking my friends who live nearby if I can start a compost pile in their yard.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:03 PM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unless you live somewhere that bananas grow, those peels aren’t composting or even breaking down for a very long time. Neither are orange peels or pineapple rinds. Apples might, but it will take months. Please don’t just throw your fruit rinds in the bushes. Somebody better than me at composting can speak to putting them in a real compost bin, but tossing them in the bushes is not a great idea.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:09 PM on December 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

Seconding the "Please don't throw your food scraps in the bushes outside your apartment" message. The most likely result of your actions is not lovely compost but rather the food scraps drawing rats/cockroaches/racoons to the area. Even under ideal conditions (with proper layering, moisture, heat & periodic turning) it takes months to years for food waste to fully compost.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 8:22 PM on December 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

Oh man. You guys are right. I used to live in a tropical climate and it took 10 days for banana peels to disintegrate enough to be unrecognizable in our yard compost bin (calling it a bin is generous. I twined chicken wire around some sticks). Daily newspaper + fruit rinds + tropical sun and rain = beautiful beetle and gecko habitat compost heap. I no longer live in a tropical climate. Organic waste breaks down differently when its not 85 degrees every day. Alack. I'll bug my friend about borrowing her yard for a proper compost heap.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:13 PM on December 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

(but coffee grinds are good for certain plants yes? can I get my treehugger certification back?)
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:14 PM on December 9, 2019

I listened to the two NPR Minter interviews today. Thank you for this timely post, filthy light thief. I just sent the following to a clothing company that relies a lot on synthetics (the FPP is a lot broader than just synthetic clothes, but I've got them on the brain right now because of the recent microplastics FPP).

Feel free to critique, or copy/paste for your own use:


I would like [Clothing Company] executives to look into

1. eliminating the use of synthetic textiles, which contribute to microplastics in oceans. Or, at least, eliminate virgin synthetic textiles from your product line, and use recycled synthetics instead;
2. doing a takeback program to repurpose used [Company Name] clothes from customers who can no longer use them. Eileen Fisher is doing this.

I have loved many of your designs and still enjoy wearing my [Company Name] purchases made out of synthetics. I don't enjoy their high carbon footprint that goes into manufacturing them, or the fact that when I wash them, I am contributing to microplastics in our oceans. Going forward, as much as possible I'm buying clothes secondhand, or new from companies like Eileen Fisher, Toad & Co, and Patagonia that are transparent about sustainability successes (and setbacks too -- I understand that this is not a simple ask). I just want to see that a company is making consistent, serious efforts)."
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:47 PM on December 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

About composting in the city: now we have a municipal bin for organic waste, but before that I would take my compostable waste to the nearest cemetery, where they have compost bins on every corner.
posted by mumimor at 3:27 AM on December 10, 2019

Coffee grounds are confirmed okay for plants. I've even seen "save your coffee grounds for your houseplants" as a homemaker's tip.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:42 AM on December 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Coffee grounds are confirmed okay for plants. I've even seen "save your coffee grounds for your houseplants" as a homemaker's tip.

Starbucks gives away coffee grounds for plants. And I disagree with not throwing your apples/bananas/etc into bushes, assuming that your entire apartment complex isn't doing it in the same bush. Especially with an apartment complex, there is a giant dumpster less than a quarter mile away that is drawing animals/bugs to the area and most apartments don't have recycling requirements much less composting.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:24 AM on December 10, 2019

Lack of convenient composting does not mean it's a good idea to dispose of food waste in random non-trash non-compost places. Banana peels do not decompose as fast as we might think they do. (Linked above by mygothlaundry).

Pack it to take to a compost bin where convenient, and otherwise work to get your cities to facilitate recycling and composting for multifamily housing.

(and to any of my coworkers who might be reading this: who the fuck told you you could recycle orange peels the compost bin is literally right next to the recycling bin)
posted by asperity at 9:27 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Well, this is weird. I just met Minter at a holiday party this past weekend! I knew nothing about his work until then (we chatted about sewing needle factories in China), and am just now, in this post, discovering how well known he is. He was on Fresh Air! I would've totally like to ask him about that....
posted by touchstone033 at 9:44 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

And now I want to hear more about sewing needle factories!
posted by asperity at 9:53 AM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

there isn't really an ethical clothing option, other than purchase as little of it as possible.

If you have the money and/or can do the research you can very much pay for higher quality clothing. Not only does better quality stuff last longer, it's usually much more reparable, and it's often produced somewhat more ethically, at least in terms of labor. A decent pair of bench made shoes, for example, can often be re-soled until the uppers wear out (a pair of chuck taylor's might last a year if you wear them every day).

I've always been pretty broke, so I very much take the "better used and good than new and cheap" to heart.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:58 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

A recent episode of Patriot Act talked about this issue, as it relates to "fast fashion", and Hasan Minhaj revealed some eye opening facts.

I had no idea donation centers threw away so much stuff and that a lot of it ends up in Africa, and then they're the endpoint where they already paid for our "trash", and they have to just burn what they can't sell. It's really really disheartening. I bought maybe 10 new items of clothing this year and donated about 20 and I feel terrible.
posted by numaner at 10:16 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Price of Recycling Old Laptops: Toxic Fumes in Thailand’s Lungs
“Every circuit and every cable is very lucrative, especially if there is no concern for the environment or for workers,” said Penchom Saetang, the head of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand, an environmental watchdog. [...]

Thai officials say that some incinerators may still be burning because factories are working through old stockpiles. Plants may also be processing domestic rather than foreign refuse, they say.

But neither explanation is likely, according to industry experts. Hoards of imported waste wouldn’t last this long. And the amount of electronic trash that Thailand produces is far outpaced by the number of new factories.

Foreign e-waste might be smuggled into the country mislabeled as scrap, said Banjong Sukreeta, the deputy director general of the Department of Industrial Works. [...]

Locals who fought against the deluge of trash have been attacked.

“Why don’t you in the West recycle your own waste?” said Phayao Jaroonwong, a farmer east of Bangkok, who said her crops had withered after an electronic waste factory moved in next door.

“Thailand can’t take it anymore,” she said. “We shouldn’t be the world’s dumping ground.”

Phra Chayaphat Kuntaweera, a Buddhist abbot, has watched as several waste-processing factories opened around his temple. Two more are under construction.

First, the monks began to cough, he said. Then they vomited. When the incinerators burned, their headaches raged.

“Monks are people, too,” he said. “We get sick from the fumes just like anyone else.” [...]

In Thailand, millions of undocumented workers from poorer countries like Myanmar and Cambodia are vulnerable to abuse, environmental watchdogs say, adding that the need for such laborers will only intensify.

Of the 14 factories granted licenses to process e-waste this year in Chachoengsao Province, six are in Koh Khanun. Five are linked to the man whose name is associated with New Sky Metal, or with his wife.

“We can’t choose the air we breathe,” said Ms. Metta, the eucalyptus farmer. “Now there will be even more factories. We are all going to die a slow death.”
posted by tonycpsu at 12:06 PM on December 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

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