Nonprofit thrift stores and the charities that run them are becoming less choosy about donated goods — and are making more money, as a result.
Many can now find uses for stained or worn-out clothing, broken exercise equipment, unwanted books, even broken china and glassware at one thrift store.
When Troy Isaacs became director of donations at Goodwill Easter Seals of Minnesota, he asked, "Why are we not taking everything donors want to give us?"
Goods and collectibles that it can resell online or in stores contribute the highest value to the organization. But the misfits that need to be salvaged or recycled contribute more than ever before, Isaacs said.
Even getting a penny per pound for salvage is preferable to paying 7 cents per pound if it goes into the trash. As much as 20 percent of what charities receive cannot be sold in their stores, said Paul Kroening, recycling program manager at Hennepin County Environmental Services. The goal is to turn as much of that unsellable merchandise into cash.
Isaacs and other thrift store operators search constantly for new and unusual sources that can contribute to the bottom line. When items such as shoes don't get plucked by a buyer even in the outlet, the life cycle remains in motion.
Goodwill, which used to amass unsold shoes in large plastic bags without any attempt to keep the mates together, changed their process a month ago. "We can get 15 percent more from a vendor because we've paired them," Isaacs said.
Cardboard boxes can be flattened and sold for about 3 cents per pound to paper companies. A wood dresser can be put in a chipper and the fragments then sold to energy companies, where they're burned for electricity.
"If it doesn't sell on the retail floor, we sell it to the de-manufacturer to chip it," said Tom Canfield, director of store operations for the Salvation Army in the Twin Cities.
Similar deconstruction is happening to small appliances. A broken vacuum cleaner or coffeepot made mostly of plastic may seem destined for the trash bin, but thrifts' recycling programs tear them apart for gold or other precious metals on circuit boards.
In May, Arc Value Village stores will launch new shops within its five stores called "DIY community" to get rid of broken china, beads, buttons, picture frames and candles. "Crafters find thrifty supplies and shoppers realize that they can often buy used items for DIY projects," said Laurel Hansen, director of the Value Village stores.
Clothing is the top seller at most secondhand shops, and what doesn't fly off the shelves can be sold or salvaged for other purposes.
The Salvation Army doesn't throw away any clothing, said Canfield. "We'll take a beat-up desk as long as the donor has a lot of clothing to give," he said. "We take the bad with the good because we're finding new ways to repurpose it."
Stained and worn clothing, bedsheets and curtains that once joined the waste stream are now taken out and used to make rags, automotive insulation and carpet padding.
Vendors pay from 9 to 24 cents per pound for 1,000-pound bales of clothing, some of which is sold to Mexico or Africa. Goodwill Minnesota last year amassed more than 15 million pounds of textiles that went to salvage or recycling.
Thrift store charities are still only collecting scraps from a much larger pile. Currently, about 85 percent of used textiles are going into landfills, according to Greg Nelson, division manager of the for-profit USAgain, which has 1,700 collection bins throughout Minnesota. They're collecting about a million pounds per month, about half of which is sent to thrift stores in other countries.
Nelson said that collecting textiles is desirable because they're easy to sell and recycle. There's also an environmental payoff since the manufacturing of textiles is more harmful to the environment than making plastics or paper.
The new recycling and repurposing programs are paying off in lower trash bills. Salvation Army's waste bill is down about 5 percent because of the new programs. St. Vincent de Paul's Twin Cities' trash bill is down nearly 18 percent compared with five years ago.
Arc's Value Village and Goodwill haven't reduced their trash amounts yet, but that can be attributed to an increase in donated goods and additional stores.
"We would be less profitable if we were unable to recycle the large volumes that we do," said Laurel Hansen, director of Arc's Value Village thrift stores. Last year, Value Village recycled 5,000 pounds of electronics, 250,000 pounds of books and 2.3 million pounds of textiles.
Does all this mean that people can drop off nearly anything at a local charity? Not yet.
Items such as mattresses, cribs and car seats are refused for safety reasons, as well as large appliances, carpet remnants and hazardous materials. But many charities are so in need of donations that they may be willing to take a dusty exercise bike off your hands — if you've got plenty of other good stuff along with it.