Cleaning out – that’s what many of us have been doing, making productive use of our time during our COVID staycations. No matter that there’s nowhere to take the stuff now that the dump, Goodwill and thrift stores are all closed and the whole idea of holding a garage sale is frankly horrifying. Somehow the idea of pawing through someone else’s junk/germs is not very appealing, when even the library is quarantining returned books for 72 hours before disinfecting them for re-circulation. I did my annual house purge back in snowy January and the stuff is still sitting in the basement and the gardening items are still in the garage, set aside for the spring horticultural sale, long cancelled.
So, I wasn’t much interested, when in my first curbside pickup of library books, there was one I had ordered eons ago – Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale – by Adam Minter. But after I had read it, I thought – where were you last winter when I needed you!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Decluttering. A parent’s death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country-or even halfway across the world-to people and places who find value in what we leave behind.
In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter takes us on an unexpected adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more. Along the way, Minter meets the fascinating people who handle-and profit from-our rising tide of discarded stuff, and asks a pressing question: In a world that craves shiny and new, is there room for it all?
Secondhand offers hopeful answers and hard truths. A history of the stuff we’ve used and a contemplation of why we keep buying more, it also reveals the marketing practices, design failures, and racial prejudices that push used items into landfills instead of new homes. Secondhand shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way, and what really needs to change to build a sustainable future free of excess stuff.
Why I Liked it:
This is not one of those how to declutter/reorganize/change your life manuals, but rather it’s an eye-opening look at what really happens to the unwanted stuff you donate. It certainly motivated me to rethink my “possession of things” in ways that those other books did not. Maybe it’s the current COVID crises and morbid thoughts of sudden death, but really in the end, it’s all just stuff and you can’t take it with you. So keep what you use and enjoy and get rid of the rest, and try not to buy as much in the future!
The author, Adam Minter, has done a great deal of research into the global secondhand industry, and being himself the descendant of junkyard owners, is well qualified to tell the tale. He also wrote Junkyard Planet-Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, a 2013 bestseller.
Much of the book involves his travel in places like Mexico, Southeast Asia and Africa – countries where the secondhand economy thrives, and where the stuff which doesn’t sell here is often destined. That old saying, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, is true. While there’s a widely circulated theory that by sending our clothes and electronic waste to third world countries we are harming their homegrown economies, the author debunks that myth. While undeniably some of it does end up in the dump, much of it is recycled and repaired to be resold to people who would otherwise have nothing. The author follows a container of discarded computers, cell phones and tube TVs to Africa and it’s thriving electronic repair shops – shops who would much rather have older recycled goods than new cheaper ones because they last longer and are made better. In one story, Greenpeace installed a GPS tracking device on a discarded TV in a shipment bound from England to Africa and then send a reporter to reclaim it at the other end, thus proving, according to their report, that it was destined for a digital dump. But it wasn’t – it would have been brought to a repair shop and then resold to someone who had nothing.
There’s a chapter on emptying the nest (professional estate cleaning crews), secondhand clothes, wiping rags (a whole separate industry), and why appliances don’t last, (remind me to buy a Speed Queen if my thirty year old Maytag washer/dryer ever wears out). Simple fixes such as making manufacturers release repair manuals for older models would do a lot to keep older electronics out of the dump.
I once donated an old 80’s radio/cassette player to the St. Vincent de Paul and the clerk thanked me as there were some seasonal workers in the store who were looking for a radio. They were Mexican, here to help with the pepper harvest. We smiled at each other. I was pleased too, as when we drop things off at the thrift shop, we hope they will be reused and appreciated by someone else – if not here than perhaps in some other country. In this world of have and have not, it’s comforting to know that sometimes happens.
PS. I’ve been thinking about my garage sale stuff and wondering – if things continue in recovery mode here and we don’t get a second fall wave – if I could just put some of the stuff out at the end of the driveway on a table some Saturday afternoon with a sign, Free for a Small Donation to COVID relief fund? That way it won’t sit in my basement until next year. A lot of what I have is winter stuff, Christmas decorations, wreaths, sweaters, etc. I only had a garage sale once, (advertised) and I remember people coming really early, like before I was awake!