Andrea’s Pick of the Week: Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions this year about stuff? Buying less, decluttering, reorganizing? Do you wonder what happens to everything we donate or recycle? If you do, pick up this book. Secondhand takes us on a trip throughout the world to show where all that stuff goes. Believe it or not, that old t-shirt you donated might actually make a couple of transatlantic journeys!

Minter starts in a familiar place: the drop-off center at a Goodwill store in Arizona. Then through a series of firsthand accounts, he takes us through the global industry of recycling stuff: the burgeoning industry of home cleanouts, behind the scenes at Goodwill; the resale market in Japan. Much of what is donated in Japan is sold in the Philippines. And the stuff that doesn’t sell at Goodwill in the U.S.? If it doesn’t go to the dump, it is often bought by middlemen and shipped overseas to developing countries: Pakistan, India, Nigeria. Entrepreneurs haul secondhand goods to Mexico. Minter meets people involved in this industry and gives us a first-hand perspective, which keeps the story fresh and personal.

Sorting room at a Canadian textile recycler. Image by Adam Minter.

Lest you think this topic is too heavy, Minter handles it with a light touch. He’s not preachy, and he’s perfectly open about his own role in acquiring objects. He also presents some solutions: manufacturing and purchasing more durable things. Repairing what we already have, instead of junking it. They’re common sense, but not so easily accomplished in our consumption economy.

This fascinating and enlightening book changed how I think about all the stuff in my closets and basement and has convinced me to buy less this year. A great read to start off 2020.

P.S. Want to hear an interview with the author? Here’s a link to a segment with him on NPR’s Fresh Air.

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