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'Each of these things is a person': Notes on the emotional labor of waste and reuse

Brie Berry (Ursinus College) reflects on the emotional burdens of reuse economies and the problem of waste.

Published onJan 18, 2023
'Each of these things is a person': Notes on the emotional labor of waste and reuse
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Imagine that you are filling a box to donate to a local reuse organization. You add the shoes that are too tight and the sweater you bought, but never really liked. In goes the printer you got in 2017. (It still works!). You can’t find the cords, but someone might want it. In go the mismatched dishes, too, the fork that showed up in your house inexplicably one day, a winter coat missing a button (it’s so warm!), and a cracked mug. Maybe the thrift store recycles textiles? Let’s add a few pairs of socks with holes in them. You wanted to learn to darn, but time slipped away from you, and you really need to clear space in your closet. Here is your box. You bring it to the local thrift store, and walk into the room where volunteers are sorting through donations. They thank you, and you leave feeling lighter, knowing that you have done something good.

For the laborers who process your donations – and the billions of pounds of other donations that move through US reuse organizations each year (Minter 2019) — the experience is not one of lightness, but often a heavy emotional burden. All too often the donations received by reuse organizations must be discarded, either because they are unsaleable, or simply because there is too much stuff. In the context of local reuse economies, a labor perspective can show us the unbearable weight of an unsustainable system of production-consumption-disposal (Berry 2022).

I came to this understanding through years of research in rural reuse economies in Maine. My work explored the social value of reuse, predominantly through ethnographic engagement with small-scale, non-profit reuse establishments. These organizations are powered almost exclusively by an invisible labor force of volunteers. As they attempt to redistribute the excesses of a global capitalist system to create positive impacts for their local communities, these volunteers also bear the burden of discarding surplus goods, which takes the form of affective labor. I provide an extended excerpt from my field notes where I reflect on the emotional trauma of discarding unwanted goods in the wake of a community sale run by a local service club.

The sale has four large “barns” – huge structures that had been packed full of goods for the event, which draws participants from neighboring communities due to its festive atmosphere, low prices, and status as an annual rite-of-summer in the area. The sale is the sole fundraiser for a local non-profit, and the sale of used goods generates around $40,000 that is funneled into community programs throughout the year. At the conclusion of the sale volunteers who had previously gathered to collect, organize and sell these items in a festive, three-day community party reconvene to deal with the surplus. They do this each year for the annual sale. Once an item is offered at the sale, the organization judges that it won’t sell at a future event. So all items that remain at the end are offered to other local non-profits, and if they aren’t taken, are relegated to the dumpster. Most items would go straight to a landfill, while a select few of the very valuable items are kept for the next year’s sale.

The following is excerpted from field notes, dated September 8, 2019:

I arrived to see people making big piles of larger items, carrying smaller items in boxes, garbage cans, and plastic totes, and even a big front-end loader moving large items into the green dumpsters that were placed in a few places on the site. The barns are still distressingly full of unsold used goods.

I started in the housewares barn with some of the other volunteers. It had been cleaned out quite a bit compared to how it was even yesterday, but there were still some straggling glass sections. As I grabbed a box and began to fill it, I realized why. It's emotionally very difficult to put those glasses into a box to be thrown away. My first item to discard was an old fax machine so that I could use the box it had been stored in to carry other items. This wasn't so hard. I walked by another volunteer, and we commented on how obsolete fax machines are. This felt less personal than other items, at least. But when I came back to fill my box with glasses, I became very uncomfortable. I wanted to stack them neatly in the box and yet it didn't matter, because they'd all go in the dumpster. I took some of the obviously less-valuable items (those with restaurant logos, faded event logos, and other sort of odd novelties) out and couldn't help but set them gently in the dumpster so they wouldn't break. Others were throwing items into the dumpster. Hearing them crash was both exciting and sad. One of the men commented that it was difficult hearing the items break. I told another volunteer that it was really hard to throw things away and she said "oh, I know! It's really hard!" She told me that "if you run into something that you're having a hard time throwing away, you can put it in a box to bring to Goodwill" which made me feel much better.

When I went back into one of the barns, another volunteer was in the glass section and we together picked through the glassware to identify those pieces that seemed like they should be saved. She whispered to me "each of these things is a person. Someone gave it to us and they wanted it to have another life - to be used again. Now we're just throwing them away. That's not another life!" We quickly filled two boxes full of glassware that was too good to throw away - mostly sets of wine glasses. Single glasses, things that looked ordinary - they were easier. Still, we made those two boxes and I realized that maybe I wasn't cut out for the housewares section. It was too fraught with emotional connections. I talked to another volunteer who said that on her first clean-up she had to set aside everything with Jesus on it—or an angel—to bring to Goodwill. She couldn't bear to throw that away. I asked her if things had changed now that she'd been through it a few times and she said "not really." The emotional labor of discarding other people's items is real, and it seemed to affect most everyone there. The ones who had done the most clean-outs seemed the least affected, although that wasn't true across the board. An older gentleman told me that throwing stuff away "breaks my heart."

I walked into the toy barn, hoping for less challenging fare…. The women there sent me to the puzzle corner, which was easier for me. They told me to set aside anything that was still wrapped up, but otherwise to get rid of it all. We were discussing why it was justified to throw this away, and a woman told me that many of these things had been available at one or two yard sales before this, then the three day auction. She said that if no one wanted them at that point— what else could they do? They encouraged me to take home anything I wanted. I stacked up some puzzles to take out to the dumpster along with another volunteer, but when she encountered a puzzle that featured the TV character Columbo, she said "oh I can't do this - not Columbo! He's my favorite!" and she left the stack of puzzles for me to bring to the trash. Some of the toys had names on them, which proved problematic for other volunteers, who couldn't bear to throw away something that had been personalized. For them, it seemed to represent the child or adult who was linked to that object. These were more than home goods or toys - they were representations of people, and this was never more clear than when we had to throw them all away.

A volunteer throws donated objects into an open dumpster.

At first the dumpster was open on one end, and people could throw things into it. Some found the throwing of objects cathartic, but others were less comfortable, and were placing things gently or throwing only soft items in.

Finally, the end had to be closed to allow the dumpster to fill up all the way. At this point people stepped on a low table to be able to get things inside of the dumpster. I watched a man struggle to throw a plastic briefcase into the dumpster three times before he got it in.

A volunteer stands on a table to throw a box of donations into a full dumpster.

Others couldn't lift items over the side, even with the step. A younger woman (in her 50's) volunteered to throw a nested set of suitcases over the edge because the elderly man carrying them couldn't manage it. Even as we threw it all away, the stuff still had a hold on us, and discarding it was a form of emotional trauma.

While this event is singular in its description here, the work of discarding surplus was a frequent source of emotional pain for reuse volunteers in my multi-year research project (see Berry 2022). My argument is certainly not that we should stop donating to reuse organizations. My research participants use donated goods to help individuals and families furnish homes after experiencing trauma, and they donate tens of thousands of dollars each year to community suppers, food pantries, and civic infrastructure like libraries and schools. Donations of objects make this possible.

What I do hope to make visible is what is broken about our systems for producing, consuming, and managing materials. A labor perspective helps us see this clearly. When volunteers anguish over wasting, despair over trash, and worry about the wasted potential of objects, they show us how our linear system of production-consumption-disposal fails us. While these volunteers are working to create a more circular economy, they cannot do it alone. Creating circular systems must take place across our economies, not just at the end of life of objects. If producers shared a modicum of the emotional burden (and responsibility) for objects exhibited by reuse volunteers, our economic system would look drastically different.

Works Cited

Berry, Brieanne. 2022. “Glut: Affective Labor and the Burden of Abundance in Secondhand Economies.” Anthropology of Work Review 43 (1): 26–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/awr.12233.

Minter, Adam. 2019. Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Author Biography

Brie Berry is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Ursinus College. Her research sits at the intersection of environmental and economic anthropology, and explores the social dimensions of transformations toward more circular economic forms.


Image Credits

"GARAGE SALE IS ESSENCE OF DEMOCRACY" by roberthuffstutter is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

All other images are credited to the author.

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Great study! In France we encountered the same issue. Perhaps one of the problems is that we distinguish between perishable and not perishable. Things such as flowers and food only lasts a while, clothing a while longer… if we could categorize based on duration, perhaps our recycling economies would be more efficient, and less subject to waste. Regards from Paris