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The Hidden Value Of Donated Junk

Peter O'Dowd
A buyer loads up his truck after the St. Vincent de Paul auction.

By accepting donations from closets and garages around the state, Goodwill of Central Arizona said it keeps 100 million pounds of trash out of local landfills each year. But a lot of the stuff you give to charity is, in fact, junk. What happens to that stuff?

Each morning, at the St. Vincent de Paul auction in Phoenix, it's clear just how valuable your unwanted clutter can be. Ed Dubiel, director of retail sales, explained that buyers visit the daily 7 a.m. auction looking for deals on entire palates of busted suitcases, rusty barbecues, and used bed frames.  

"We have up to 10, 24-foot trucks that we schedule for pickup every day," Dubiel said. "This turns into tonnage of paper, cardboard or metal that we cannot sell in the stores."

On a recent morning, one buyer paid $10 for a faded pink couch. He planned to turn around and sell it as-is for $100 at a local antique store. Another buyer bought a crate of roller bags for $40. He said another buyer from Mexico would buy it from him.

In fact, a lot of these donations end up in Mexico, Dubiel said. But he added that about 10 percent of the group's donations don't make the cut at auction. That load ultimately ends up in a trash compactor and then is hauled away for good. 

The operation at St. Vincent de Paul is tiny compared to what’s going on a few miles away at a Goodwill warehouse in South Phoenix. That's where Mike Dizzino is in charge of processing millions of pounds of material that didn't sell in the store after five weeks sitting on the shelf. Books. Old shoes. VHS tapes. Pile after pile fills the 130,000-square-foot warehouse. 

"For the most part we have a buyer that will buy just about anything," Dizzino said. "Luggage, baseball caps, pots and pans, utensils. The list goes on and on. Some of it's baled and some of it we sell in sacks."

That plastic in a useless old VHS tape, for instance, can be salvaged for plastic recycling. Dizzino said local buyers can't recycle the tape inside, so his staff is looking for a way to disassemble the parts before selling it off. Even that old pit-stained T-shirt in your closet is worth something, he said.

"The best example I have is a poker shirt I’ve been wearing for 14 years. I’ve never washed it. You give it to me, I’ll get it sold, I guarantee you. It won’t sell in the store, but give it to me and we’ll find a buyer," Dizzino said.

Dizzino said about 41 million pounds of junk is salvaged at this final stage. At four cents a pound for plastic and five cents for cardboard, it adds up, he said.

Just a few years ago, the Goodwill warehouse wasn't in operation. Which means a lot of money wound up in the dump.

See all the stories in the Rubbish Series.

KJZZ News Director Peter O’Dowd finds something alluring about Phoenix and public radio, as if they have always been a part of his destiny.O'Dowd, who oversees all daily editorial direction of the KJZZ newsroom, took on the role of news director in February 2011, after serving as an assignment editor and reporter for the station since 2009.