Ask Eartha: How to mitigate post-holiday waste
January 4, 2018
My family had a great holiday, but we have some gift items that we'd like to return. What happens to those returns when I take them back to the store?
Happy new year, Holly! We're so glad that you asked this question because returning unwanted goods to the store can have a major impact on our waste stream and our business' bottom lines. Before we get to the answer to our question, let's back up and look at the global impact of our modern (throw-away) society.
Every day, the world generates 3.5 million tons of solid waste. This is 10 times more waste than we produced a century ago, and we're not slowing down any time soon. In fact, World Bank researchers predict that we'll toss nearly 11 million tons a day by the end of the century. Proportionately, Americans throw away the most waste per capita (and generate the most greenhouse gases per capita) than any other nation in the world. During the holidays, our waste jumps up nearly 25 percent, equal to an additional 1 million tons of garbage per week. This comes in the form of holiday decorations, giftwrap, shipping and packaging containers, food, trees, and other once-a-year goodies. This also includes our gift returns.
Which brings me to your question. According to a CNN Money report, there's a good chance your returns are ending up in the landfill, too. Here's why.
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Annually, nearly 5 billion pounds of returned goods end up in the landfill, which is equal to nearly $380 billion — $90 billion specifically from the holiday period. Optoro, a company specializing in helping retailers process, manage and sell returned goods and excess inventory estimates that only half of consumer returns make it back onto the shelves for resale. Just half! So, what happens to the rest of those goods?
Well, a quarter of those returns are sent to the manufacturer who may or may not choose to recycle, deconstruct or discard the products. Some returns to go secondary retailers and then down the chain to liquidators, discounters, pawn shops, dollar stores and overseas markets. This entire process earns just pennies on the dollar for the product with businesses eating the cost of shipping, assessing, repackaging and reselling. Ultimately, if it's cheaper, the retailer will throw out the returned products rather than try to sell them.
There's also a strange timeframe for returned goods. For example, because of technological obsolescence, after just six months, returned electronics that could be resold suffer from a loss in value. If retailers can't move technology off the shelves quickly, it will never move because new technology will take its place. Electronics are also hard to dispose of. In many states (including Colorado), there are laws prohibiting the disposal of electronics in landfills — increasing the cost of product disposal for retailers.
Here's how you can help turn the tide. First, reduce your consumption. Do you really need that product, or just want it? Plan ahead so returns aren't necessary. Buy in bulk to cut down on the number of times a product is processed, shipped and packaged. Buy local. Go reusable.
Retailers can help, too. They can more accurately represent product information, stock durable goods and ensure damage doesn't happen in stores. Charging for returns on non-damaged goods would serve as a price signal to consumers about what it costs to process those goods.
So, the next time you're considering a product return to the store, keep in mind the social and environmental impact of that decision. Battling our solid waste problem must be attacked from two fronts: the consumer (you and me), and the manufacturer/retailer (businesses). To quote a recent story in the Washington Post, "If the world is not prepared to think about waste reduction and actually treat garbage… future generations will drown in their own waste."
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Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.