Numlock Sunday: Adam Minter, author of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer, behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.
Rags are a serious business, with entire companies existing to turn discarded apparel into rags that aid in critical cleaning, industrial, or extraction processes. While lots of the recycling has moved abroad, Star Wipers is the largest American brand that converts former garments into billions of wiping rags needed in the oil and gas business, hospitality industry, and construction. Such rags are the eventual end of about 30 percent of textiles recovered for recycling in the U.S., and factoring in multiple cycles of textile reuse the percentage is probably much higher than that. In 2017, Star Wipers sold 15 million pounds of rags, and depending on quality a five-pound box of ex-t-shirts can go for $9 to $25, depending on color and quality.
I loved this because I had no clue about this industry and I absolutely had to know more immediately. Adam’s book is eye-opening, and he traveled all around the world to find out about the second, third and more lives of the things we use.
We spoke about the thriving repair culture in Ghana, why it’s not just new items getting imported across borders, and how the entire thriving Arizona thrift store business depends on trade with Mexico.
Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale can be found wherever books are sold.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Walt Hickey: Can you tell me about Secondhand and what got you interested in what happens after we finish using our stuff?
Adam Minter: There's a couple of different routes to this whole project. The first one really is personal: like a lot of folks, in recent years I've suffered a loss of two close relatives. When that happened, we had to not only get through the mourning of our relatives, but also had to figure out what to do with their stuff. That's a very common American experience these days: somebody passed away and they leave behind a house full of stuff. When that happened, especially with my mother, it made me think that maybe there's some value in tracing this for other people who are going through what I did.
Another component is that I've always written about waste and recycling around the world. My family has been in it since the 1920s and I worked in it before becoming a journalist. There's always been an interest in the subject. The third part of it is I actually traveled to West Africa for the first time in 2015, and while I was there, I was astounded to see that basically the entire economy was essentially secondhand. The retail trade wasn't new stuff, it was used stuff. And so when you put those together, it seems to me like a pretty good basis for a book.
The book covers this whole industry of how stuff gets turned into other things, how the market works. You had a story in Bloomberg about the rag market, which is fairly huge. Can you go into a little bit about how you found that story?
As long as people have been wearing clothes, they've been wearing out. When they wear out, people look for something to do with a worn out fabric. I don't know about you, but in my household we would take old tee shirts that have holes in them, we'd cut up and use them to wipe things down. In the early 20th century and 19th century that started to become an industry, because people were using more and more clothing because we had factory-made clothing and store-bought clothing. As people started wasting more clothing, this industry emerged to deal with it.
Today roughly one third of the clothes generated in the United States alone are turned into wiping rags. Those are rags that are used for everything from wiping down bar countertops, used by a housekeeping services and hotels to clean up your room, to more industrial uses like wiping down machines in factories or wiping off dripping oil at an oil pipeline. So it's an incredibly important industry, it's been around for centuries, but nobody had really ever looked into it.
The way I found it was to actually reach out to a trade association that represents a bunch of different kinds of textile recyclers. I asked them if they had any rag trading members and they put me in touch with Star Wipers and I consider it my great fortune that they invited me to come and visit their factory. I think it was very interesting because it's one of the last great American rag making factories.
You did a ton of traveling for this book, it seems!
The book actually opens in Tucson, Arizona. I spent some time in Tucson — almost a month — at a set of 15 Goodwill stores, learning how Goodwill works and following the things that are sold at Goodwill down to Mexico. Most of our stores along the border actually are selling to Mexican customers who take that stuff to Mexico and sell it there. So I also spent time in the border community of Nogales, Arizona and the border community of Nogales, Mexico, learning the trade and seeing how American stuff is resold for reuse there.
In addition to traveling around the United States I spent a significant amount of time in Japan, where I got to know about Japan's very refined second secondhand industry. In Japan, the secondhand industry encompasses everything starting at services that clean up people homes after they decided to downsize or after they pass away, and I followed that to the large companies that repack stuff for sale around Asia. I spent time in Malaysia — which is actually where I live — looking at thrift stores there.
And then I spent a significant amount of time in West Africa, mostly in Ghana's Northern region and then also in Accra, the capitol, basically looking at how electronics are reused there. We have this image that in Africa, the electronics that are imported there are merely set fire to and doused with acid so people can extract the precious metals, but that's not the case at all. The reason they're imported is because people want good quality imported electronics at a price point that they can afford, and that's oftentimes secondhand. So I wanted to show how that works..
A Salvation Army thrift store in California JGKlein / Wikimedia Commons
So much of the writing about the global economy has been about the manufacture of new things and there's a second half of the equation that really gets overlooked. And that's why the book is so cool to me. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
We don't really have a good statistical picture of what the secondhand industry looks like globally. There are no statistics on the number of garage sale held in the United States, there's no statistics about how many refrigerators moved from dorm rooms to the Salvation Army. And there's very little statistical information on how much is being imported to developing countries, especially developing countries where their entire retail economy is largely secondhand.
As a result of that, if you don't have data in this modern world things really don't exist. One of the challenges of this book for me was to figure out how to show people what's going on, how big this is without being able to give them any data points on it. I went and visited these places and spent time there and I lived there. From that you can get a picture of just how big this is, and how crucial the secondhand economy and secondhand goods are to billions of people around the world.
There's an entire second life of so much of these materials immediately after they're reused.
One of the things that I just found so interesting is the fact that you have in Arizona a thriving thrift store community. One of the reasons there's so many thrift stores in a place like Tucson is because they have a military base there. People are coming and going a lot, and when they go, they drop things off. Then you also have a retirement population there. People are passing away and their stuff was left behind.
I found it fascinating that there weren't enough people in Arizona to buy all that stuff that was being left behind. The health of these thrift stores, especially Goodwill, was really dependent on people coming up from Mexico and buying things from Goodwill, emptying their inventory and bringing it back to Mexico. If folks from Mexico were not coming up to buy goods out of thrift stores in Arizona, all of that stuff — those hundreds of thousands, if not millions of objects that are donated there every year — would end up in landfills and incinerators. So it really goes to show just how important it is that people are able to flow back and forth across that border, and that they have to some degree at least a free trade in secondhand goods.
A lot of the globalization that we talk about are these networks sending new manufactured goods to different countries. But it seems like there's this second life. You mentioned going to Ghana, is that right? What was going on there?
In many ways it's just like every other emerging economy, it's in some respects very similar to Mexico. There's some things that Ghana will not import. You won't see a lot of furniture because it's very expensive to ship, and you can't put very much of it into a container of secondhand furniture. So Ghana imports the higher value items, something you could fit well into a container. So that would be electronics and that would be textiles, apparel, and clothing.
One of the really exciting things in Ghana is the fact that for the electronics that are brought in there, they have such skilled self-trained electricians and repair technicians and fixers that they are able to take these things like would never be reused in United States — because they're broken, or because they're older — and they're able to repair them and give them a consistent longer life than they'd ever have in the United States. At one point in the book I profile a repairman in a town called Savelugu in Northern Ghana who worked on 40 year old televisions. He keeps them going, and that's not just good for the people of Savelugu — they can continue watching their television — but I'd argue it's good for the environment as well because you have these things continuing to be used. The best thing you can do with your electronics, from an environmental standpoint, is just keep using them.
To an extent there is no repair culture really in the United States, so that is really cool.
I think the good news is there's an emerging repair culture in the United States. It's still very small, but you have sites I like to point people to like iFixit where they put up repair manuals for stuff. You do have something emerging. The hard thing is when any goods become so cheap that you know, you can buy a flat screen television for $200 or $300. So when that breaks, the incentive isn't there because it's not much of a financial loss to basically buy a new one as compared to having it repaired. In places where there isn't such a a high degree of affluence the repair incentive is a lot stronger.
How can folks get a hold of the book?
The name of the book is Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, and you can basically get it anywhere you like to buy books online or in brick-and-mortar stores. Independent bookstores around the United States are being very supportive of this book. They've highlighted it for the month of December, which is a lot of fun because it's a month when people are buying a lot of new stuff. So here's a book to tell you about buying secondhand stuff. So I always encourage people to go to their independent bookstore and give them some business as well. The libraries have been very supportive and it's a great way to keep books circulating around and gave them access to anybody who wants.
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