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Maine Thrift Stores Flooded With Costly, Unusable Donations

Nancy Mathieu of Greene donates dishes to the Goodwill store in Auburn. She also asked to donate some old sports trophies, but store employee Josh Whitaker had to turn them away.
Charlie Eichacker
Maine Public
Nancy Mathieu of Greene donates dishes to the Goodwill store in Auburn. She also asked to donate some old sports trophies, but employee Josh Whitaker had to turn them away.

It’s a busy afternoon at the Goodwill thrift store in Auburn. It’s early spring, and drivers are lined up in the parking lot, and one by one, they pull up to a set of bins. They’ve come to donate all sorts of stuff: books, blue jeans, CDs, dishes.

Many of them are cleaning out after a long winter and hoping someone else will find a use for their belongings.

Employee Josh Whitaker helps them sort it out — and, in some cases, take it back.

In recent years, Goodwill has received a glut of donations that can’t be resold: used propane tanks, broken furniture, old car parts.

Outside the Auburn store, Whitaker tries to stop those unacceptable donations from making it through the doors. Like when Diane Mathieu of Greene asks to drop off her family’s old sports trophies.

But as Mathieu unloads her car, Whitaker is advised of a Goodwill policy.

“Unfortunately, I just found out that apparently, we can’t do nothing with trophies,” he tells her, adding an apology. Mathieu understands the policy and says she’ll try to bring them somewhere else.

In this case, Goodwill avoided the need to send an unusable item to a landfill. (And they were also able to accept a matching set of dishes that Mathieu had brought to donate.)

But that’s not always the case.

The amount of so-called trash donations to Goodwill of Northern New England jumped more than 60 percent in the five years before the coronavirus pandemic, from 10.5 million pounds in 2015 to 17.3 million pounds in 2019. The store was closed for about three months in 2020, but averaged a similar amount of trash each month.

The Bangor Daily News first reported the uptick in trash donations to Goodwill, and the organization later issued a press release pleading with Maine residents to stop donating unusable items.

Workers at the Auburn store usually set aside multiple boxes of trash donations each day.

Heather Steeves, a spokesperson for Goodwill of Northern New England, points out some of the dozens of items that have recently slipped through the defenses: a used pair of underwear, two isolated Tupperware tops, a large used battery, a half-full bottle of cleaning material.

She says the nonprofit — which serves Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — pays more than a million dollars per year to safely dispose of junk and hazardous items.

“That’s a million dollars we could really put into our workforce programs this year. The pandemic has made those programs in more demand than ever,” she says.

Goodwill is a big player in the secondhand market, but it’s not the only one getting more junk.

Researchers at the University of Maine have been studying the state’s reuse economy, and they’ve found that many independent thrift stores have also been overrun, often to the detriment of various charities they support, such as a library fund or an ambulance fundraiser.

There are a few possible explanations. Cheaply made goods have flooded the market, and Maine households are producing more waste now than in the past. The team has also found that Mainers have a strong interest in giving their old possessions a second life.

Brieanne Berry, a PhD candidate in anthropology, has volunteered at community thrift stores as part of her research. She says that culture has made it even harder for those places to handle the deluge.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different groups who, just, they are agonized about having to throw this stuff away,” Berry says.

That culture is also on display back at the Goodwill in Auburn. Multiple donors say that they want their old stuff to end up with someone who needs it.

Shirley Martin, who manages the Auburn store, says that she appreciates their good intentions. But the next time they have an old pair of brake pads, or a moldy box of books, she asks them to call their local transfer station instead.

“Maybe some people just think that we’re miracle workers and even though we recycle, maybe they think that we can recycle their trash too. And that’s just not the case. It really just hurts our programs,” she says.

And for those who are still in doubt, Goodwill advises them to check out its website.