Seven Secrets Of SECONDHAND Professionals - A Guide thru Adam Minter's Dilemmas

Blog 1,430. Fresh on the media blitz of author/journalist Adam Minter's second blockbuster - Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale - there are a lot of questions about how to deal with the growing mountains of secondhand stuff.

First, a shameless self-promoting plug. Based on my experiences - Africa Peace Corps volunteer 1980s, grandson of Ozark hillbilly families with no electricity or running water, tales-of-the-Depression-dinnertable-correspondent, used electronics recycling company entrepreneur, and former state Recycling division director (MA DEP) - I've had a chance to answer more than a few dozen of Adam Minter's questions over the years.

In fact (shameless plug), we met ten years ago next month. December 1, 2010, kicked off a period of "dueling banjo blogs", when Adam was writing about secondhand and scrap markets from Shanghai (  Here in Vermont, I was writing blog about my heroes in emerging markets, telling positive stories about differently abled poor people ingloriously described as "primitives" by white savior barbies who insist all used electronics be shredded rather than traded, and who described the purchases of secondhand stuff "illegal dumping".

[The concluding 2 chapters of his book are a distillation of ten years of correspondence between me and Adam, including his 8 trips with me to Ghana, Vermont, Boston, and the Bronx NY.]

Yesterday, before going on air (NPR On Point), Adam sent me an email reminding me of that inspiration. We met when he had just given a shoutout to the Best Recycling Blog in the World. Shameless plug, but I'll take it again, because the blogs he was attracted to were about racial profiling of secondhand reuse markets as "primitives". I'm proud that he has carried that message forward in Secondhand, and has joined the fight for Right To Repair, and against shaming secondhand trade with poverty porn.

Meet Adam in Person Thursday Nov 14 at University of Vermont Davis Center.

A Guide Through Adam Minter's Dilemmas

Triage.  At Good Point Recycling in Middlebury, Vermont and Brockton, Massachusetts, our 40 staff have to manage up to 500,000 pounds per month of used electronics. A few of those devices are recently "electively upgraded", with a good resale value. But alas, like by Minter's other Secondhand firehose drinkers (Goodwill, Salvation Army, Japan's BookOff) we find that the vast majority has been in a closet for way too long. We send very little (5%) to the dump - mostly Ikea-grade wood from older electronics. But most of the items are going to be de-manufactured or shredded into little pieces of copper, aluminum, glass, black plastic, white plastic, circuit boards, etc.

There is a lot of value, a lot of waste, and a lot of emotional baggage. Fortunately, some things are easier than we make them out to be.

So there's a training program for the staff, based on the concept of "TRIAGE". There's a first sort, to get stuff to the department where there's an expert in that stuff (usually, de-manufacturing). Then there's a "second sort", which may mean testing the electronics to see if they work, looking up demand for them online, or removing 36 screws with 8 different screwheads using power drills. Sometimes, with things like "vintage" or antique electronics, or items that might have a hazard like lithium battery, there's a third sort, or reason to ship the third sort equipment to a different electronic specialist.

And also this hits home... All of us eventually are called to sort and settle our loved ones possessions.  Last month I flew to my 77 year old mother's home in very rural Marshal Arkansas. 29 years before my dad passed away in 2017, he had moved his own mothers STUFF from his super revered grandfather's home in Taney County Missouri. I wish I'd had 40 employee company when he did that, a lot of valuable antiques were lost, and dad  tried to save a lot of things that had only sentimental value.

Dad moved a few tons of those things to an abandoned house on their new property in Marshall, down the hill from mom's.  As giant oak trees are wont to do in Arkansas wind storms, one had sliced the abandoned house practically in half, and by the time I got there several rains (and a couple of meth-heads) had been through the place (one methhead kindly forgot all the silverware in a cottage cheese bucket near the door, probably set it down and couldn't find it again).  Anyway, I came down as a professional to "TRIAGE" the damage, and cherry pick the 20% of non- ruined stuff worth saving.

The thing I'm most grateful for finding in the destroyed home was a wood carving by my grandfather, Clarence Fisher of Ridgedale, Missouri. He taught me early on about quality, repair, and the good-enough market. He was probably born to the poorest hillbilly family in the county (his father did not read or write, signed his name with an "x"). A self-taught carpenter and subsistence farmer, he left a deep imprint on me. Adam Minter had a similar relationship with his own grandfather.

The carving I salvaged from the house is the lower one (the top carving Pa gave us as a gift, it was his last carving). He told me he was worried he might not be able to do one for everyone in the family. But later it turned out he had an idea, to make a wood carving template, so he could "mass produce" them, or some other carpenter could.  That lower one I found on the floor of his daughter (my mom in Arkansas) in the house the tree destroyed.

Adam is going to get a lot more coverage this month - C-SPAN, NPR Marketplace, and Fresh Air. And check the reviews so far in Nature, Publishers Weekly, Waste Dive, Recycling International, and NPR to name a few.  It's a great read, and if you want to hear some secret advice on the dilemmas he addresses, directly from a Reuse Pro, read on.

Ethical Gravity 4: Moral Moving Targets, Beautiful Gray Markets

Is an "illegal" market, or a "black market", unethical?

It is illegal to sell the Holy Bible in many nations, but who would consider it unethical?  It is important to distinguish ethics from laws passed by authorities to grant - well, more and more authority.

Beautiful, beautiful gray.

Ethical Gravity 3: Circular Economy Does Not Orbit Us, Tiger

Environmental Ethics Revolves Around Generations Yet To Be Born.

Primum Non Nocere to the future.

Long theme of this blog is how human behavior can be explained, or motivated by, Darwin's theory of evolution. Steven Pinker's psychology books owe a lot more to Darwin than to Freud.

We can see an animal - rat, beaver, guinea fowl, tiger - knows something is "about them".  Our brains are mapped the same way.
- Greed, Desire. 
- Fear, Revulsion. 
- Anger, Rage- Caring, Nurture.
The first three are called "Aversion Reactions".

I suffer everything - desire, fear, and anger - for the Tiger.

Vermont Press Release - Firsthand accounts of SECONDHAND, By Adam Minter

November 14, 2:30PM, UVM Davis Center

On November 14 (America Recycles Day Eve), the University of Vermont Recycling staff will greet best-selling author Adam Minter at the Davis Center (590 Main Street) as he speaks about his new book SECONDHAND, Travels in the Global Garage Sale.

Minter chose Vermont as a launching point (to the surprise of his publisher, Bloomsbury Press) to thank Vermont for hosting him at the Fair Trade Recycling Summit (2013), where he met several of the fascinating people he profiles in Secondhand.

According to UVM Recycling Director Corey Berman, and Middlebury recycler Robin Ingenthron, Vermont's emphasis on reuse is something that Adam saw, firsthand, put to good use in Secondhand.

"Downsizing. Decluttering. A parent's death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country—or even halfway across the world—to people and places who find value in what we leave behind."

Secondhand takes readers on a globetrotting journey to see how items saved or discarded, donated or sold by Americans make their way into reuse, repair or remanufacturing processes. In Vermont's example, he followed a load of computers from Middlebury to Ghana, and interviewed the "tech sector" importers who provided Ghana's information grid with affordable electronics. Minter also treks to Japan, India, Mexico, and other "reuse trade routes", and winds up with important questions about how important our stuff really is, and who should write the rules about it.

Date: Thursday, November 14, 2019
Location: Sugar Maple Ballroom – Davis Center (Address is 590 Main St.)
Time: 2:30 pm – 4:30 pm.