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The Emotional Charge of What We Throw Away


Adam Minter has a new book, Secondhand, about the global trade in secondhand and discarded goods. In an interview, he notes that “consumers actually care more about how their stuff is discarded, than how it is manufactured”:

I didn’t really appreciate that emotional landscape until I started spending time with people and companies in the US who help senior citizens “downsize” their property before a move to smaller quarters, typically a senior living facility. And what I saw during downsizing cleanouts is a lot of resistance to discarding by the very people who paid (handsomely, in most cases) to have someone come and help them discard. Before the owners would let go, they needed reassurance that the stuff will be valued and reused in ways that conform to their values…

The process is made even more difficult by changing tastes. The fine china and antiques appreciated by Americans born in the middle of the twentieth century aren’t in much demand from the younger generations. “People just don’t want it. But seniors want people to want it,” she says. “‘Oh, my kids will take it.’ No, they won’t.”

In the course of sorting someone’s stuff, her best tactic is to persuade the clients that stuff won’t be wasted. “Men won’t get rid of tools. Women, Tupperware. So we tell them the Tupperware can be recycled. The tools can be used by someone else.”

As Minter writes, “people in consumption-based societies assemble their identities via stuff, and become very emotional when those identities โ€” and that stuff โ€” is discarded in ways that don’t match their values.” (In Asia, end-of-life discards tend not to be donated, but sold, which makes for cleaner transactions all around.)