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What happens to the set of heirloom china no one in the family wants? Where does your iPhone 5 end up? And do those pilled jeggings from Zara really find a second life?
Adam Minter answers those questions and more in his riveting new book, 'Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.” Minter, the son of a Minneapolis scrap dealer, has worked in and written about what most of us consider garbage for most of his life. Now a Malaysia-based columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, he's followed his first book, 'Junkyard Planet,” with a travelogue that takes readers from Minnesota to Ghana, with stops in Arizona, Japan, Ontario and Benin.
We talked with Minter about garbage, guilt and why quality matters in our mass-produced world.
Q: You've got a lot of experience with castoffs, correct?
A: I say I was born in a junkyard. My family has been in the scrap business in north Minneapolis since the 1920s. Most of my time there was working in the office. But I have very early memories of being in the warehouse and separating plumbing parts.
Q: You left Minnesota but retained your interest in junk. Why?
A: It's what I know. I lived in China for 14 years and worked as a foreign correspondent, writing for scrap and recycling industry magazines.
Q: Was that your inspiration for 'Secondhand”?
A: One of the roots of this book was our struggle to deal with belongings after a family member passed away. It was a personal quest. I wanted to find out where my mom's stuff went after we dropped it off at the donation center. It's also about how our stuff affects us economically, socially, spiritually.
Q: I expected your book to be a tirade against wanton consumerism, or at least a guilt trip about our throwaway culture. But you didn't go there. Why not?
A: It's pretty clear that if you start telling people what to do it doesn't work. The environmental community has tried to get people to consume less for decades. People like shiny new things. I don't know why. Maybe it's built into our genes. I wanted to show people what the consequences are of getting rid of stuff.
Q: What are those consequences??
A: From an environmental perspective, the best thing you can do is make something last as long as possible. But we live in an affluent society that has access to disposable fashion, disposable furniture. We - as Americans, Japanese, Europeans - are just throwing out more than the rest of the world wants.
Q: I like to think that when I make a donation to Goodwill, Salvation Army or Arc, I'm helping someone out. Am I?
A: A thrift store in the U.S. only sells about a third of what's on its shelves. Some (of what doesn't sell) gets exported, the rest is recycled or sent to a dump.
Q: You detail how exported goods drive a thriving international reuse market, which produces billions of dollars and provides hundreds of thousands of jobs. What else is good about it?
A: People in emerging economies have access to goods much earlier than they would if they have to wait for the price of a new item to come down.
Q: I was surprised to learn that people in emerging economies demand high-quality goods, that the cheap stuff so popular in the developed world doesn't sell. Why?
A: When your income is limited, quality is important.
Q: You state that the decline in quality and the increased mass production of cheap goods threatens the reuse market. Why is that?
A: The price point of new is competing with the price point of secondhand. And if those prices are the same, people will buy new.
Q: There seems to be a nascent reuse/reduce/recycle movement in the U.S. Does it have any hope?
A: There's more and more interest in sustainability. Basically, people want to consume and not feel guilty about it. I'm not against consuming. Remember, the secondhand market can't exist without people buying high-quality new stuff that can be sold and resold.
Q: Might millennials cut back on consumption?
A: There's a lot of talk about millennials not wanting to buy stuff, opting for the shared economy. But research is starting to show that they're only in the shared economy if it's cheaper. And as they become more affluent, they want to consume more.
Q: If you were king of the world, what would you decree?
A: I would implement durability labeling. A smartphone company should tell you how long they're going to support that model right on the box. An apparel company should tell you how many washings a garment was designed to withstand.
Q: What else?
A: There should be right-to-repair laws. Repair information should be accessible to anyone. Trade barriers to secondhand goods around the world should be eliminated. Trade barriers exist in lots of places for lots of reasons. But I say if people want to use secondhand goods, they should be able to.
Q: What are your suggestions for those of us who don't want to contribute to the landfills?
A: Think of the long-term cost of ownership. Your first concern shouldn't be the sticker price, but the quality. Pay more now to pay less later. If you buy a higher quality item, there's more likely to be a market for it when you don't want it anymore.
Try to repair before you replace. Flat-screen TVs break down all the time, but they're so easy to fix. You can watch tutorials on YouTube and buy any special tools you need online. Check out websites like Burnsville-based shopjimmy.com or ifixit.com.
Don't overlook the secondhand market, especially parents. Most of the stuff has been used for a very brief time and is fairly high quality. Really look at (buying) secondhand.