Some items donated to Goodwill Northern New England’s Auburn store are bound for the trash: aerosol cans, a bunny with a smashed face, a broken laundry basket and a used, zebra-print thong. The nonprofit is asking people to check the list of welcome donations before they give after a spike in its trash bill last year regionwide. Goodwill Northern New England photos

AUBURN — Keep your used thong underwear and broken couches to yourself, please.

Goodwill Northern New England, with 17 of its 30 stores in Maine, is looking at a trash bill of more than $1.2 million for the past 12 months as a result of people donating unusable items in what the nonprofit believes are largely good but misguided intentions.

“Anecdotally, what we see is people who are younger tend to have this amazing optimism about sustainability and wanting to throw away nothing, which we totally understand and empathize with, but it leads to donations that we don’t accept,” spokeswoman Heather Steeves said Tuesday.

Think used underwear. Car batteries. Construction debris. Stained carpets. Half-empty bottles of shampoo.

“Stuff that our grandmothers would not have donated and would have just known not to bring that to Goodwill, now we’re seeing what people have called ‘wish cycling,’ throwing it in the recycling bin and hoping that it gets recycled,” she said. “‘Well, hopefully they can use this broken couch,’ and we can’t. We can’t resell that and a couch is not recyclable, so we’re forced to pay the trash bill on that, which hurts our programs.”

Goodwill NNE received 13.2 million pounds of bad donations in the last year, up 155% from 2015, for a trash bill of $1.24 million, according to the nonprofit.

Auburn store manager Shirley Martin sees it every day.

“We fill up 4-by-4 boxes all the time of nothing but stuff that probably needs to go to a landfill, it’s beyond its lifetime span,” she said. “They’ll donate boxes of dishes that are all broken that have been sitting in a basement and they’re moldy and it’s just, yeah. A lot of times we’ll find brake pads or rotors or automobile parts we really can’t accept, but it’s hidden in a closed-up bag or a box.”

In 2019, her store took in 62,300 donations, each ranging from a single item to a truckload. That figure was down last year, with donations closed for a three-month stretch due to COVID-19.

Anything flagged for the trash at Auburn is sent to Goodwill NNE headquarters in Gorham, Steeves said, to “make sure we’re making the most out of every donation … We look through it to make sure it really, really is trash and there’s no possible (use.)”

Among the items Goodwill can accept: Clothing, computers, books, tools, toys, bed frames and small, working appliances.

Among the items it can’t: Auto parts, baby equipment, mattresses, humidifiers, ammunition and damaged furniture.

It has lists online and in stores.

Goodwill’s thrift store sales support its programming. Last year that meant helping 377 people recovering from brain injuries at its neurorehab clinics in Lewiston and Scarborough, helping more than 28,000 with career training or job placement, and helping 48 young people in its Take 2 Youthbuild program in Lewiston complete their high school equivalency while earning construction skills, according to Steeves.

“The fact of it is, this is our lifeblood, we would not exist without the generosity of people in Maine giving us great items to resell, that’s just the truth of it,” she said. “We just appreciate if people understood a little bit more and educated themselves before they donated. We always want the good stuff — we always want clothes and shoes and dishes, that’s the stuff people need and we’re happy to be a resource to recycle them. But trash hurts.”


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