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.

The good news is that after training the rolling turnover 40 employees for 18 years (yay, we celebrate 19 years of Good Point Recycling next Earth Day, plug plug plug!), I know a few shortcuts.  Here they are.

1. THE 80/20 RULE

Also called the PARETO PRINCIPLE, The Eighty-Twenty rule applies to most businesses and endeavors in life. It's the force behind Triage. It applies to practically everything.

- 80% of medical costs are spent on 20% of patients.
- 80% of liquor is sold to 20% of imbibers
- 80% of revenue comes from 20% of clients
- 80% of the value is in 20% of Secondhand Goods

It's not perfect, but clear your mind of GUILT about the 80% of stuff you are going to wind up recycling or throwing away. It's important psychologically to adapt a goal of 20% recovery when you tackle a cleanout.

Take Adam's excellent story about SpeedQueen Washers. If you own a laundrymat, you know not to buy anything but the sturdiest (American made) clotheswasher there is.  We train our staff to know where the cherries are, which are the "SpeedQueens" of computer keyboards, etc.  You have to "step over the bodies" of other things that are unlikely to be the top 20% of the stuff.


Sometimes there's something so old or so nostalgic you hate to toss it, but it's just too big or too damaged to ever find a home. My dad had saved his father's law library in the little brick house. When a tree goes through a roof, and books get wet, they get moldy. Mold is terminal. If you even TRY to donate a wet book, you will probably damage all of the other books the mold will spread to. Same is true for clothing, the top three rules at Goodwill Industries are "Dry, Dry, and Dry".

Adam writes a great story about Japan's BookOff company, which is the paramount expert on saving the 20% of books worth saving.

But good news - you don't have to DESCRIBE the lost books to your great grandchildren. You can PHOTOGRAPH THEM.  I take pictures of old stuff I can't keep, and I actually really enjoy stumbling across those photos later. Here's a shot of the law library.  When it comes to old photos, I obsessively digitize every one if I know there's family history.

I've taken pictures of all of my grandfathers wood carvings. I have no idea whether my kids, or grandkids, will value the carvings as much as I do.


I have a whole bunch of people whose job it is to look up objects they can't recognize.  In the vintage electronics game, the ubiquitous junk - like Sony CRT Televisions - has no value because there are so many of them (I set a tiny fraction aside, when something common is later rare, it becomes a collector's item). But if there's something electronic you've never seen before, it's either A) older than you - a potential collectible, or B) engineered for a very particular use - like an X-ray or oscilloscope - and therefore costly and worth it to someone for parts or repair.

Go to Ebay and use "Advanced Search".

And here are 3 antique Missouri Law Books, like the ones ruined at my parents abandoned guest house.  Sold for $14.98.  But these three were dry... the ones I had to throw away were not worth $5 each.  Best thing, in retrospect, would have been for my dad to sell them on ebay 3 at a time 20 years ago.... See #4


This is the opposite of #5, below, but part of the balance. You defer making a purchase because you DESIRE the elective upgrade, UNLESS you have a ready buyer for your old secondhand one.

People who say we should keep using the same cell phone for 10 years rather than upgrade it after 3 years are forgetting about the 3 billion people who cannot afford a brand new cell phone. If Africans had not been allowed to buy old cell phones 15 years ago, no one would have build the tens of thousands of cell phone towers that now bring Whatsapp across the continent.  If in the 1920s, no one in St. Louis was willing to sell my great grand uncle Charlie Fisher a used car, Taney County would not have developed. Rather than feeling guilty for being rich, sometimes the right thing to do is sell or donate something.   A used CRT television sold to Nigeria or Ghana in 2000 probably got 15 more years of use (Africans are excellent at repairing and maintaining electronics - for now).

Far too often the guilt associated with buying something new leads to unintended consequences - like "saving the old phone in a desk drawer for later" because you feel bad. If you know someone wants and will use your secondhand thing, go ahead and buy a new one.

Adam Minter spent a LOT of time in Ghana with us, to understand how  things people buy, and spend thousands of dollars to ship across the ocean, are used, reused, and repaired for decades.  Even the things Africans eventually discard in their own cities, at dumps like Agbogbloshie, can wind up getting salvaged by THIRDHAND recyclers, like Oluu Orga (below). I taped Olu's story, how he started off as a scrapper in Agbogbloshie but built a third-hand business sending "rich Accra stuff" to his poorer northern Ghana cousins.  Adam has an important interview with Oluu in Secondhand.

Twelve years ago, I filmed a sale of computers my company sold for reuse to Senegal.  No doubt, a number of the ones shown in this video are being discarded today, perhaps at a dump like Agbogbloshie.  In the On Point interview, Megna and Adam did a little too much soul searching for even those eventual discarded computers, IMHO. Most of what is going on is hand disassembly, removing of screws, and separating computers the same as we do. It's black people doing it ("Get over it"). By far, most of the burning is automobile wire and tires, and the whole guilt association with selling to Africans has led to really bad consequences. We are lucky that Adam really spent time on this, and includes interviews on the case of Joseph "Hurricane" Benson in his closing chapter.

Don't boycott Geeks of Color.  Seriously.  And don't arrest Joe "Hurricane" Benson anymore. Seriously, the White Saviors vs African Tinkerers crusade has gone on far too long.


Delayed gratification (the "marshmallow test") is one of the healthiest psychological states we can achieve. For more than a year, I've been looking at new office chairs. Mine is more than 15 years old, and my back is hurting. But I know it is too beat to be donated (photo).

I bought the ergonomic pillow instead 2 years ago.  Then I bought another one. I am sure at some point I will indeed buy a new office chair. But if I die unexpectedly, my kids won't be confused or upset about sending this one to the dump.

(Second chair photo) God forbid they do what I did, to please my father.  His grandfather's (newspaper owner and Missouri House of Representatives majority leader William E. Freeland) desk chair is broken in two, in the basement of my house. I took it when my dad was cleaning out his mothers, because it made him happy to think I'd be sitting in it.

I believe that a certain amount of stinginess, depression-era-make-do, is good for your kids.  I like to cook on my great grandfather's cast iron skillet, and it's depressing how fast the cheap non-stick Walmart skillets lose their functionality. Especially if you are raising children, giving them the sense that you can be proud to use something old is a gift to them. Millions of dollars of new equipment manufacturer advertising is going to be spent to make them ashamed to drive an older model car, but if they can start to feel pride for reusing a lunch box, that can save them a fortune in the future.

My mom used to give us kids cans of spray paint (psychedelic multicolor) to update our lunchboxes and old bikes. Although my wife and I could afford not to for our own three kids, we passed the tradition along out of principle.  I let our youngest son spraypaint our plastic lawn chairs in psychedelic camouflage style when he was 8.


It's a long shot, but if you plastic bag something and take it personally to a dump (professional lined landfill, not an incinerator or unlined leaky dump) there's actually a decent probability that the landfill is going to be "mined" in the future. I've considered investing in a ultra large (mattress size) shrink-wrap machine to put my parents stuff in after I photograph it. Then I'd take the bag to the landfill and give it a burial, create a digital album, and tell my grandkids that this "stuff" is buried in Coventry Vermont landfill, if they ever want to go find it.  You could probably even market landfill "legacy cells", and market special spots as cemeteries of Stuff.  According to US Geological Survey (, it is fairly certain that all of our landfills will be mined again in the next century or two, as regulation of polluting copper, gold, aluminum bauxite, etc. becomes too expensive.



To be continued?

Artist: Clarence Fisher

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