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Getting rid of stuff

Thu 2 Dec 2010 by mskala Tags used:

In preparation for my move, I'm trying to get rid of a bunch of things that have piled up in my apartment and I don't want to pay to move. It's not as easy as it should be. I'll update this entry with more information, as I find it, on how to dispose of items - both for my own reference and for anyone else who needs to get rid of things in Toronto that are not regular garbage, but nonetheless not worth keeping.

Dead compact fluorescent tubes w/ballasts: the City of Toronto's Solid Waste program takes these. 400 Commissioners Street, down in the port lands, which is not as convenient as I might like, but at least it's on the 72 bus route and I can combine it with a trip to T&T for Chinese groceries. Shop at T&T, people, I have stock in the company.

Obsolete computer equipment: I have a fair bit of stuff like EISA expansion boards, which is too old to have any real re-use value. It hurts to treat it as garbage, knowing as well as I do just how valuable it was when new, and that in most cases it still does everything it ever did; however, it appears the City of Toronto will take most if not all of this stuff (same as the CFL bulbs, above) and I can get away with putting whatever they don't, in the regular garbage. CAUTION: it appears they do not securely wipe storage devices like hard drives.

Scrap aluminum: Not sure yet, but I have some email out; presumably a junkyard or foundry would be willing to take it.

Used clothes and bedding: Difficult out of all proportion. There used to be bins where you could leave unwanted items; now most of the charities that operate those have taken them out of service, because people were leaving unwanted items there. Particularly annoying is that I left my apartment this morning with a couple bags of items thinking to put them in the "united Hindu relief program" or whatever it is donation box a block away from my apartment, on the way in to work, and then when I got there I found the box had been removed some time in the last week or so, leaving me holding the bags (which are now in my office).

I understand that the disposal of objective garbage, of no use to anyone, costs money and was being literally dumped on the operators of the bins by thoughtless "donors." That sucks. But at the same time, the escalating difficulty of finding people to accept unwanted items, smacks of beggars trying to be choosers, and it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. Not exactly the same thing, but I'm also horrified every time I look at the literature from charities that accept used computers, by the lists of technical specifications that they think it's okay to demand.

If my items were "gently used" items that I would be "proud to wear myself" (common key phrases in clothing-accepting charities' descriptions of what they want), then I wouldn't be giving them up! This is not pure charity. I don't donate unwanted clothes because I really want to do the recipient organizations a good turn. If I did, I would be donating money instead of clothes; then they could use it to buy whatever is most useful to them instead of being subject to what I happen to have available. I donate used clothes for a different primary reason: these items are garbage to me, and if there's someone to whom they are not garbage, then we can both benefit by my handing them over. The criterion should be "better than garbage," not "really good."

This attitude on my part no doubt makes me look less like a nice guy than if I were running out and buying new, good clothes just to donate. But the choice isn't between my donating old clothes, or donating new clothes. The choice is between my donating old clothes, or not donating at all. In a pure charity situation, what these particular organizations would get from me would be bupkes. Many are militant-Christian, militant-feminist, commercial organizations only vaguely charitable in nature, or some combination of the three. I'd have no time or energy for them at all if they weren't providing a useful service to me by taking my unwanted items. It's a shame they still think that on that basis I'm the one who should jump through hoops to help them out.

For this reason I don't have much objection to the commercial, not-really-very-charitable, drop boxes that some people complain about. If the commercial profiteers are willing to operate drop boxes at all, when "real" charities aren't willing, then maybe the profiteers deserve the money.

I saw one person on a Web BBS speculating that this whole situation is the result of a shift, over the decades, in the nature of poverty. In the 1950s there were a lot of people who were absolutely destitute and grateful to have any wearable clothing at all, and would take almost anything; today, "poor" people are not so poor as that, and can afford to be picky about clothing that is still wearable but maybe not so appealing. I wish I could think that that's what's going on, that general standards of living have improved so much. I'm not at all convinced it's true, though.


So make a machine that trivializes the labor inputs of listing huge batches of near-garbage on eBay. Like, it dumps a given weight random stuff into a box, snaps a couple of digital pictures from different angles, and offers it for sale for $.99 + shipping opening bid. Like box lots at a brick and mortar auction house. Owen - 2010-12-02 13:31
Steven R. Baker
There's no such thing as truly poor these days, with the obvious exception of the mentally unstable that wind up on the street (that's a different problem). Welfare in this country is just far too accessible. If you don't get enough money from welfare alone, adding a few children to the mix helps out considerably. I know (I am sort of peripherally related to) a woman who is on welfare with four kids. She nets 80% of what I do, and I'm not exactly a low earner. This is before you consider food bank, other assistance programs, rent subsidies, etc. Her kids are better dressed than mine, her and her boyfriend (who won't work because he doesn't have to) have a $20/day smoking habit, and they buy the latest video game systems and accessories (sometimes more than one) the day they come out.

Whoa, that sounded a bit ranty. I should add that while I don't agree with abuse of the system in this way, I'm glad that we have these kinds of social safety nets. High rate of abuse is simply the price we pay for the few it helps. Steven R. Baker - 2010-12-02 13:53
Vilhelm S
You write " if there's someone to whom they are not garbage, then we can both benefit by my handing them over." Apply modus tollens: if you can't find someone to take them, then maybe there simply _isn't_ anyone who wants them. You could try walking up to a homeless guy and try to sell him your old coat, but my guess is that he wouldn't be very interested; all the homeless people I see are already warmly dressed.

This is even more plausible for old computer equipment: I can't think of anyone who wants a 10-year-old vanilla PC. Certainly _you_ just want to get rid of it, and are incurring a cost in doing so. So a charity that accepted your old computers would be charitable exlusively to you, which probably isn't their charter.

In short, maybe we are rich enough that the cutoff for "objective garbage" (in the market-value sense) is counter-intuitively high. Vilhelm S - 2010-12-02 16:05
Well, I'm disposing of my non-functional 486 as garbage, and would do so even if it still booted. But the cutoff I saw on one charity's Web site was "Pentium 3 or above only," and I think that in 2010, that's setting the bar too high. Seeing it suggests to me that they aren't willing to put any significant work into getting value from the donation, and/or someone has unrealistic ideas of what it's reasonable to expect without paying for.

Someone who sees markets as answering everything will be able to say that "because this doesn't work, therefore it shouldn't work, the market has spoken" but I think that's tautological and not very useful.

I think the real issue I'm objecting to (if we must speak of markets) is inefficiencies or friction in the market, interfering with easy transactions between me and those who could use my stuff. That's what middlemen could help with; since we don't have middlemen or they aren't being effective, I end up facing the friction more directly. Forcing me to take upon myself the task of finding and negotiating with an end user dramatically increases the cost to me to participate in this "market," well into the range of and probably exceeding the cost to me of disposal-as-garbage. Also, because it means working outside the existing system, it raises the bar for the recipients. A lot of random homeless people I might approach - even before we factor possible mental illness into the equation - might have reason to be suspicious if I just walked up to them and said, "Hey, want a coat?" People don't usually do that. I look like maybe I want something.

I might alleviate such issues by going and volunteering for some kind of organization myself, to clothe myself in legitimacy, but there we've raised the investment required on my part even further. Matt - 2010-12-02 16:34
Vilhelm S
I recognize that that's the model you had in mind when writing the original post: you have some stuff you don't want, you think there are people who could use it, and you are frustrated that you can't get it to them. I'm suggesting that perhaps that's not what's going on, and that the real problem is that there aren't that many people who could use it in the first place.

For example, a couple of years ago my dad bought a new computer, leaving his old PC unused. It's a Pentium-II based machine, ~10 years old, so it seems to be exactly the kind of thing that you are annoyed the computer charity wouldn't accept.

The thing is, my dad offered that PC to me, and I didn't want it. And I don't know anyone else in my circle of friends that would want it either. I just checked the Freecycle web-group for my area, and in the last year it seems about 1 Pentium-II based computer has changed hands, while there were several offers that were not taken. Even if I was operating a charity, I have no idea how I would find someone to take it. As you say, I would have to put "significant work into getting value from the donation", work that could probably be more effectively spent directly earning money to help the poor.

I guess what really struck me about your post was your language that "beggars can't be choosers", and Pentium-IIIs being "demanded", as if the charity was somehow trying manipulate or bully you into giving them expensive computers. Can't you just read it at face value, as stating "if you give us older computers than this we won't have any use for them"?

Your post talks about dumping "objective garbage", but it doesn't say anything about the difficult problem of deciding what is and what isn't garbage. You'd not expect anyone to take a 486, while a Pentium 4 is great stuff. But both of them compute just fine. The 486 was just sitting inertly in your room the whole time -- on what day did its objective nature change from "valuable" to "trash"? Market are certainly not the answer to everything, but at least they give a way to answer that particular question, and I know of no other: it's trash when nobody wants it. Vilhelm S - 2010-12-02 21:38
Did you ask him to give you a computer? Whether you did or not makes a difference to how I feel about you saying "no" when offered one. That doesn't mean you have to say "yes" to all offers no matter how inappropriate, but it does make a difference.

What I mean by something being "objectively" garbage is something that it's garbage to almost anyone without reference to *who* is evaluating it. It's not necessary that its nature as garbage or not must be without reference to *when* it's being evaluated. In particular, the 486 becomes a lot less valuable when it becomes very difficult to get software and supplies for it. I suppose that's the argument for why the Pentium II is also "garbage"; but I don't think it's difficult enough to get useful work out of a Pentium II at this time, for that to qualify. Yes, there are shades of grey, and it can't be an absolute yes/no; but the fact that the question admits shades of grey does NOT mean that the distinction between yes and no is meaningless. Matt - 2010-12-02 22:18
Thinking about that some more - I'm not sure what I can say to your main point. I don't think you're right that there is insufficient demand for old clothes (and this is about clothes, not about computers) to support the effort that it would take to actually get them to a person who could use them; but I don't know how either of us could prove one side of that point to the other. This entire subject matter does tie into some abstract concepts I care deeply about having to do with the extent to which it's acceptable or necessary for people to impose demands and requests on each other; but I've pretty much given up hope of discussing those abstract concepts *as abstract concepts* on this Web site. Matt - 2010-12-02 22:49
Vilhelm S
Yes. I really have no clue at all what the demand for used clothes might be like (that's why I talked about computers instead) -- the only claim I can make is that there seems to exist a different model which is also consistent with the available evidence. My real interest is in the abstract principles: after being subscribed to your RSS feed for a long time I can tell that we have extremely different philosophies, but like you say it's hard to talk about in the abstract so I commented on this concrete instance instead. Vilhelm S - 2010-12-02 23:39
Perhaps what this really is is a symptom of underfunding of these organizations, that don't let them deal with the volume that they'd get if they accepted everything. It must be difficult when your budget doesn't scale with the amount of stuff you deal with.

Curious what you mean by militant feminist. I haven't thought of any of those organizations that way. Daniel - 2010-12-03 14:23
Feminism is incidental; the key word is "militant." I have a similar objection to the Salvation Army, who are militantly Christian and include as one of their priorities saving people from the evils of, well, neo-paganism like mine. With clothes in particular, feminism although incidental is relevant because many organizations that accept clothes want to give them specifically to women and not to men; they accept donations "for women in need," not for people in need, and their missions also prioritize helping women fight against the men in their lives. Not so many are aiming specifically to help men, and it's not because men don't need help. Through my religious and political activities I've come into contact with some volunteers who work in women's shelters, and the amount of hatred the individuals I'm familiar with dispense, not only for the abusive men their clients are fleeing from but also for all men in general, is horrifying. It sure doesn't make me want to join forces with their campaigns. I'm sure they come by it honestly, and have experiences of their own supporting the conclusion that men are the enemy; that doesn't mean I have to like or subscribe to it. No doubt militant Christians have deeply held beliefs and reasons for those too; I have less personal experience with them.

I sometimes donate to such organizations anyway, because I'm donating for the end-recipients, not for the organizations' mission statements. People are more important than principles. Actual consequences are more important than motivations. But I have less patience for organizations whose stated goals include fighting against non-Christians, or against men, or fighting at all. Matt - 2010-12-04 08:41
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3058533428492266222# Owen - 2010-12-04 12:05
I'm going to leave that in place - it's relevant and probably of interest to some readers - but fair warning: I will delete future video links that substitute for the use of words. Probably other links posted without comment too, for that matter. Matt - 2010-12-04 12:42
Maybe you could mention that in the terms of use we have to sign to use your site. Owen - 2010-12-04 17:53
Beth Skala
I don't know if this is okay in Toronto, but we put stuff we don't want on the curb with a "free" sign and someone always takes it. Maybe we are just poorer than you. Beth Beth Skala - 2010-12-10 14:53

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