Deciding what to donate and what to toss or recycle

Reader Pam sent us an e-mail with some helpful advice about how to decide to trash, recycle, or donate books to charities — such as when donating to libraries, schools, and/or prisons — that I wanted to share with all Unclutterers:

I have been volunteering at our local library used book sale, sorting books. It is astonishing to see the condition of some of the books people “donate.” Water damaged and moldy from floods and spills, pages turned orange and falling out from age, holes from … abuse? etc. I’m pondering why the donors did not just throw the books away, but instead are wasting our time throwing them away, for no one is going to purchase these badly damaged books. The book sale also has a policy to toss travel books and text books older than 5 years, because the information is too dated. I’ve decided it takes courage to throw your own books away, because you feel like you’re tossing the memories away with them. Somehow, donating them seems more
acceptable. I urge everyone to think about this the next time you confront a pile of your own books in bad or outdated condition. Try to summon up the courage to toss them, rather than donate them to an agency that has to toss them for you.

This advice applies to more than just books. Ask yourself, “Would someone pay money to buy this?” If you think someone would pay money for it, then it’s usually in good enough quality to donate to charity. However, if an item is chipped, torn, stained, or damaged in any way, you should usually trash or recycle the item.

Some charities will accept clothing to recycle into rags, but these items should be marked as rags when they are donated instead of expecting the charity to make these decisions. Always call the charity or check their website before making a donation to ensure that they are accepting rags, and to see how the organization prefers the items to be clearly identified as rags. One of the most overlooked areas on clothing is the armpit area of shirts — if there are sweat stains, the items are ready for the rag pile instead of the donation pile.

One exception to Pam’s rule is when donating used linens to animal shelters. Most animal shelters will accept towels, sheets, and blankets with holes or stains on them (but not mold or mildew). The items are often used for cleanups, so perfect condition isn’t necessary. Call your local shelter before making your donation, though, and definitely wash the items before making your donation.

50 Comments for “Deciding what to donate and what to toss or recycle”

  1. posted by Ali on

    Thanks for sharing the info, Erin.

  2. posted by Jessica on

    I work in a library and we see the same thing with donated books as well. People need to realize that if we can’t use/sell their books, we have to pay to either have them hauled away in the trash (moldy) or recycled. And that happens when we can’t even give them away for free!

    My new goal for donating items is to give them away while they still could be useful to someone else. It’s more beneficial to the person who ends up with the item and it means things don’t hang around my house as long. Win-win!

  3. posted by Abby on

    A quick note on travel books: while a travel guide that is 10 years old may be of no practical help, we have a travel guide to Rome from the 1960s that we found in a thrift store. It has prompted us to keep a very few travel guides from places we love. The higher quality guides can be surprisingly meaningful.

    Though as a former thrift shop manager, the problem of “donation dumping” is real – and Pam is absolutely right in nearly every case.

  4. posted by fasteddie on

    two words – Tax Deduction.

    If you donate your garbage, you pay less taxes.

  5. posted by Kees Reuzelaar on

    Most textbooks are still perfectly relevant after five years.

    I can understand throwing away books on “Obsolete ComputerTech version 1.0” when said tech is now at version 15.3. But most “sciency” stuff doesn’t change all that much.

    I wish someone was tossing five year old textbooks in my neighbourhood. I’d be putting up extra shelves today!

  6. posted by Sheila D on

    By using Freecycle, I have donated some things that might be questionable … computer compontents that don’t work (to someone who might use parts to fix another component) for example. Just be very clear on stating the condition of the item when offering it.
    And I agree, 5 year old textbooks are NOT necessarily outdated!!!!!!

  7. posted by Another Deb on

    I use older science textbooks for lab ideas, and have several of the books from my grade level that are over 15-20 years old, still very useful to pull from. On the other hand, science is forever changing and you can’t depend on a textbook to be current at all in the publishing cycle. New planets,dead websites, etc.

  8. posted by *pol on

    Old textbooks can be fun and useful. I have an Electronics class textbook from the 60’s that has loads of fantastic “low tech” projects that really work.
    Also, my giant tome of an Art History textbook will never be outdated. VanGogh with have always painted in Paris in 1888 no matter how new the textbook is!
    I also have my dad’s atlas from grade school. It’s educational to see how quickly the world changes the borders and names… like Timbuktu and Siam the places of legend no longer found in an Atlas!

  9. posted by *pol on

    Moldy, torn, brittle books are only good for recycling. Sad but true.

  10. posted by Kay Chase on

    But most “sciency” stuff doesn’t change all that much.

    This depends on many factors. A ten-year-old Genetics text is mostly good for shaking at undergraduates and saying, “when I was your age we didn’t HAVE gene sequencers!”

  11. posted by Jesse on

    People that are often in the position to donate old / excess / used items are not the best judges of what’s still useful. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. Let’s say I have an old shovel with a broken handle. To me it’s useless and essentially trash. To a thrift seeker, the blade is perfectly fine, it just needs a new handle from the hardware store. So should I throw it away because I don’t think it has worth?

    Yes, moldy books should be recycled. But “if an item is chipped, torn, stained, or damaged in any way” is not a good way to decide if something should go to the dump.

  12. posted by Rachael on

    I worked for many years at a shelter for battered women, and people would donate ripped, stained, disgusting clothing, polyester bedsheets with no elastic left on the corners, and toys that were beyond repair or missing important pieces. It drove me crazy. The worst was around the holidays, when people cleaned out their old, broken crap to make room for shiny new things, and apparently thought, “I’ll do a good thing and donate this! Even if I don’t want it because it’s gross/broken/useless, someone IN NEED could use it.” The subtext to me was always that, because they were in a shelter, they should be grateful for whatever they received.

    So, this time of year when you’re looking at donating old clothes, toys, housewares, or whatever, think about whether you don’t want it because you just don’t want it, or because it’s junk. If it’s junk, like Erin said, toss it, and save an employee from having to do it for you.

  13. posted by Carrie B on

    Rachael hit the nail on the head when she said, “Even if I don’t want it because it’s gross/broken/useless, someone IN NEED could use it.” Most of America is just a paycheck or two or three from being in the same spot! Basic rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t use it at all (ever), don’t donate it.

    Many community recycling (and sometimes curbside) programs take paper- and hard-back books for recycling.

    Even if some places won’t take “rag bags,” you can cut them into rags yourself because it takes less than 5 minutes usually and voila… No more buying expensive cleaning cloths, buy less paper towels, etc. A no-sew, completely free way to help the environment. If regular folk can’t reuse them for their intended purpose, reuse them yourself.

  14. posted by rrr on

    Another thing is a sort-of “peer pressure.” Over the holidays I had planned to get rid of a ton (not quite literally) of 10-to-25-year-old series/mass-market romance paperback books that are cluttering up my life. I’m a rough reader and immediately break the spines of every book I have – so they aren’t anywhere close to like-new condition. When I was talking to friends and family about my plans to dump them in the nearest school-benefits-from-paper-recycling drop, they were horrified. It was “give them to a library” or “give them to a nursing home” or “try to sell them at the local we-buy-used-books store” (where they try to sell them 5 or 10 for $1!) or “sell them online” or … After all that reacting, it’s going to be hard for me to recycle them. You guys want to give me permission?

  15. posted by Gal @ Equally Happy on

    My problem is that I can’t always tell the junk from the non junk. For example, I have an old copy of one of my favorite Sci-Fi books, Starship Troopers. The front cover is torn and some of the pages are dog eared but the book is still perfectly readable. Would people pay money for it? I wouldn’t but then again, I have the money to afford a new edition. Should I throw this away or recycle it? Seems wasteful when there could be some other 10 year old boy enjoying it just as I did all those years ago. So I take the safe route and donate it. They know better than I if someone can use it.

    I don’t donate garbage but I do donate things that I personally might not use but which are still functional. When in doubt, I’ll usually donate rather than trash.

  16. posted by L.M. on

    I agree with the post. It is sad people donate junk! I recently helped an elderly person declutter their basement…books that were falling part went in the recycle bin, and NOT the donation pile!

    But there are exceptions. I actually look for older travel guides/books! Way cheaper than a new one, which are expensive. Yes, the prices for hotels and such may be outdated, but the general info on a place does not change. Mt Rainier or the Temple of Luxor is still the same and unchanged by time! I just use the internet to find the current prices, hours and such.

    Yes, some old text books are useless. But some are not. Some old text books are actually better, with more comprehensive info than some of the dumbed-down modern texts.

  17. posted by Whitney on

    Just fyi, Timbuktu is not a place of legend, it still exists in Mali as it always has, with the same name although spelled a few different ways.

  18. posted by Viv on

    One more point about mildewed books. It’s contagious and travels to other books, so toss anything with mildew right away.

  19. posted by ecuadoriana on

    I like old travel guides because the fotos are great for collages! It IS a hard call, because for someone like me, a collage artist, old, torn, faded books are awesome for their artistic value! But not everyone is like this. When I’m ready to dump stuff/unclutter I separate it all into 3 piles- good enough for the library sale (and I always donate in person so they can tell me yes or no. After years of doing this I’ve gotten good at knowing what is acceptable & what’s not- so don’t just dump & run! That’s NOT nice!), bad enough for the recycle bin/trash can, and the 3rd pile I post on freecycle as: “Old, torn books, maps, catalogs. Good for collage artists & scrapbookers!” Maybe I’ll list a few specific items & voila! They are gone in a day!

  20. posted by Cheryl on

    I used to work for a local nonprofit, running a resale boutique. It was amazing to see what people think is fit to donate – stained, torn, broken zippers, etc. on women’s clothing. The same people that donate poor quality items also would shop in our store and would be the first to point out if they saw a miniscule spot on an item they were interested in purchasing!! Amazing, but you couldn’t tell them that they had donated far worse! We would just put it in the recycle bag and kept our mouths shut.

  21. posted by katie on

    I called my library and told them I had some old books I wanted to get rid of and that the bindings were falling off some of them. I was told to donate them because they could recycle them but I couldn’t put them in my recycling bin. Dunno if they take them somewhere special but I’m glad they are out of my house and not in a landfill.

  22. posted by disconnect on

    Freecycle and craigslist are great barometers. If you can’t sell it on craigslist for a few bucks, and you can’t give it away, then it probably doesn’t have value. And to the people who say, “It has value to somebody!”, I say, “The items in question will be in front of 1 Main St. this Sunday around 2:00, please send them over.”

    I recently trashed two boxes of computer books. Internet Yellow Pages! DOS For Dummies! Optimize Word Perfect!

    And yet I still have my college physics textbook on the shelf. Fundamentals of Physics, Halliday/Resnick, yeah!

  23. posted by dsnk on

    @rrr: Another suggestion is posting for free on craigslist or freecycle–I’m sure there is someone who would be glad to get them for free, as long as they are in readable condition. You could ask the book resale store if they would accept your books (take a couple in first to show them rather than lugging them all!), but the nice thing about posting for free is you don’t have to lug the books anywhere yourself (usually I will just set something on my front porch or steps when someone is coming to pick up a free item). But they are your books and it is your call–if you think throwing away is the best option, then don’t listen to others and just do it!

  24. posted by Joanne on

    Broken zipper? Worn out elastic on a sheet? You can buy both a zipper and elastic and have a perfectly usable item for a couple of bucks. Just because one individual won’t do the repair does not make the item worthless!

  25. posted by Celeste on

    I think I’d toss old books into a bonfire before I’d put them in the trash bin.

  26. posted by Genavieve on

    I’m all for repairing where it’s feasible, but Joanne, non-profits like domestic violence shelters and many (if not most) animal shelter don’t have either the money or the resources to “buy a zipper and elastic,” much less the manpower to have someone fix every piece of drek that comes in. Neither does Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Frankly, I think we’d all be surprised at how few people actually know how to replace a zipper. We live in a culture that doesn’t teach home ec anymore.

    I have to agree with Rachael. We aren’t doing anyone any favors by donating junk. If you really want to donate, a new pair of pajamas or new underwear are always appreciated. Older sheets and towels are useful at animal shelters, and old comforters make great dog beds. But the xmas tree stand with two legs? Throw it out already!

  27. posted by Jude2004 on

    Books can be recycled.

  28. posted by Zen friend on

    What’s the best way to recycle hardback books (out-of-date education texts)? Cut away the covers and recycle the inner pages?

  29. posted by NothingButTheRain on

    Kay Chase, you made me laugh out loud! In MY day, we only had fruit flies!! You young whippersnapper!

  30. posted by [email protected] on

    You should check the policy where you donate.

    Our local hospice shop will take old “useless” clothes and they are made into rags. Other places won’t. It’s worth researching before you throw things into the landfill because some places don’t do such sorting and get offended by people who believe there’s still some good in an item.

  31. posted by [email protected] on

    Also, our local library has a cart where they sell their own books when they’re not good enough to be in circulation anymore, plus any donated books they don’t want for themselves. That way they really know what someone will or won’t buy.

    I’m not arguing that everyone should donate moldy or impossibly torn books!

    But I also think that there used to be room for charity beyond the “charity shops” – for people who genuinely have NO money to buy from charity shops and really could use items even if damaged. You can’t tell me those people don’t exist any more. There are probably even more of them.

    Is freecycle now the only distribution point for such goods? Or is that why dumpster diving for the homeless is so popular?

  32. posted by jayme on

    I just wanted to make an addition to the mention of the animal shelters. While they will of course accept stained towels (since they will only get more stained) they do not want comforters because they tend to get torn up by the animals.

    (also, animal shealters will accept old pet beds, litter boxes and toys. This is a great option for those who have lost pets and want to get rid of the item)

  33. posted by Kevin Mark on

    Just old stuff,old books,old clothes,etc.Nobody would like to buy sth new to donate.

  34. posted by Karen on

    @fasteddie

    I agree with you that people donate trash to take a tax deduction.

    Although, according to IRS rules you can only take a deduction if the item donated is in “good or better” condition and you can only deduct the fair market value. The IRS has no good system in place to force people to prove the condition/value of their donations, so I expect this scam will continue.

  35. posted by Claycat on

    I recently donated a stack of towels to the local vet clinic. They didn’t want sheets, though, because they are too cold.

  36. posted by GayleRN on

    For those who think replacing a zipper is both easy and cheap I suggest going to a local fabric shop and pricing zippers. After you recover from the sticker shock, you can actually attempt to replace a zipper in some item you were about to donate or throw out anyway. There is a reason that people who actually have this skill get paid good money to do it. An item would have to be worth well more than $100 for me to even consider it, and I know how to put in a zipper.

  37. posted by sandbar on

    I have a friend who buys books at garage/estate sales and resells them on Amazon. Most of the books are not worth much, but he’s gotten upwards of three figures for decades-old textbooks and other out-of-print tomes. Scholars apparently use them as sources for research to demonstrate historical perspective, or simply for decoration! Instead of throwing unwanted books away, put them aside for an individual who will take them as a lot and benefit from giving them a good home, as well as knowing to toss what is truly worthless junk.

    I work for a major educational publisher and can tell you that K-12 textbooks are generally kept in print for at least 10 years, even if a newer copyright comes out. School districts buy a program and use it for 7-10 years or longer. A few times a year teachers will ask to buy books as much as 50 years old, often for nostalgic purposes.

  38. posted by JustGail on

    thanks for the giggle, Kay!

    “Basic rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t use it at all (ever), don’t donate it.”
    Good advice if it’s something worn out or broken. However if you don’t use it simply because it’s not your style or have a replacement, then donation is an option. Just because I have no use for a silver tea set (or cutesy figurines or 2 blenders or…you get the idea) doesn’t mean it should end up in the trash.

    “Broken zipper? Worn out elastic on a sheet? You can buy both a zipper and elastic and have a perfectly usable item for a couple of bucks. Just because one individual won’t do the repair does not make the item worthless!”
    Why do so many people assume that those who buy at thrift stores have more time or ability to do those repairs? If it’s easy, repair before donating. Same everything else.

  39. posted by disconnect on

    @rrr, if your family knows that a specific organization may be interested in your items, it’s worth trying. But in general terms, statements like “don’t just throw them away!” are actively harmful because they increase your feelings of guilt while providing no assistance to you. Remember that you need to take care of yourself; if that means divesting yourself of items that are worthless to you, then DO IT. Sure, try listing them on craigslist (“1000 romance novels for $10 or best offer!”), see if a local nursing home or hospital is interested, check with the local bookseller for their policies (mine won’t take romance novels in pristine condition, let alone with cracked spines), and if nobody takes them by New Year’s, out the door they go, and a Happy Decluttered Year to you!

    For what it’s worth, my response to my family’s insisting that items are valuable has long been, “Great! They’re yours, please come to my house this Sunday at 2:00 and I will help you load them in your car.” The answer to that is always, “Uh, I don’t want them,” and my reply is then, “Well, neither do I, nor does the library, Goodwill, or local free community. Unless you want to take ownership of this stuff, it goes in the trash.”

    I long ago decided that I wouldn’t allow myself to be coerced by guilt. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize that your actions aren’t bound by guilt anymore.

  40. posted by genie on

    I disagree about the chipped/torn … statement. I am an avid thrift shopper (and donate-er) and everyone comes at stuff from a different perspective. Old sheets to me – elastic or no – have a couple of uses. I can turn them into a backing for a quilt, convert them into crib sheets or cut them into strips and braid them into a rug. All of which I have done. I have turned a cute adult skirt with a broken zipper into an adorable dress for my toddler. Outdated craft patterns and magazines are fun things for crafters to look through – and most will readily be bought. A crib mattress with a few tears in the plastic cover was easily covered and turned into a super dog bed. My kitchen table is a vintage 50’s chrome table, but it has a few scratches on the top. I still love it.

    If I wanted perfect I would buy new. I buy used because I am frugal/cheap and I am into recycling… part of the deal is items that have a bit of character to them. Please don’t assume that because you are not creative enough to see a use for an item, someone else won’t. If you don’t want to risk bothering the thrift store, post it for free on Craigslist, freecycle or put it out by the side of the road by your house. You might be surprised what other folks want and can use!

  41. posted by Camellia Tree on

    @disconnect, I have my old physics text too! Halliday, Resnick and Walker forever.

  42. posted by Michele on

    Re: donating fitted sheets with expired elastic, or broken shovels — sure, *you* are a thrifty, frugal, handy person who can fix them up and use them. But! The thrift store or charity shop can’t make money off them.

    As a longtime volunteer who has done hours of sorting for a charity shop, I can tell you that sometimes only 5% of the clothing in a full-size trash bag of donations is saleable. We’ve opened up bags and tossed fully 95% of the contents into the rag pile because dresses had broken zippers, buttons were missing, shirts had ring around the collar, and bedsheets had worn-out elastic that just need a “little” repair. It’s a waste of your effort and the charity shop’s person-power and time to donate worn-out clothes and piece goods.

    Please, please, please call your charity shop ahead of time and ask them if and how they handle rags. Call around to multiple shops if the first one can’t take rags. If you still can’t find anyone, then put them in the garbage — and think of it as a donation of time to your charity shop, since you’re saving them the effort of sorting and throwing it away for you.

  43. posted by Pammyfay on

    I’m not sure how, or when, this got ingrained in my head, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve had this belief about books: that it’s a crime to throw a book out. Maybe it was my parents’ who told me that when I was young, that there’s always someone who would want it. Maybe it’s not the broken-spine paperback that you’d display on your shelves. It’s the luxury of having the ability to read in a culture where there are so many others who don’t, either because of religious beliefs or lack of education or whatever other reason. Oh the guilt of tossing a book away! A mildewed book, yeah, I’d have to close my eyes while I drop it in the trash. A paperback that fell in the tub? Well, I don’t read in the tub, but I might just try to dry it with a hairdryer and render it useful again…

    Another comment: I’m starting to sort a basement of tag sale stuff. I’ve come across stuff that I think nobody would pay for. I started to toss it in a trash bag, but maybe somebody DOES want that door latch or that extra plastic outlet plate I wound up with. Instead I’ll just put that stuff in a box labeled “free”–I’m sure that’ll be the end of that box soon!

  44. posted by keysfins on

    I do donate books to our little community library, but not ones that are moldy or otherwise unsuitable.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned BookCrossing! It is a way to ‘set a book free’ and follow its travels. http://www.bookcrossing.com/ I have just signed up, and will be letting a few of my unneeded books out on their own shortly. One place I can set them free is at our local marina. People from all over come to spend a night or a winter, and from there, a book may go to Argentina or to the Lesser Antilles!

  45. posted by E. S. on

    @ Rachael – I work at a domestic violence shelter, and I definitely second this. The rule of thumb is, If it’s not GOOD ENOUGH for your family, it’s not good enough for our families.

    We get– thank god!– lots of good donations, from used clothes to brand-new socks & underwear (Seriously, we got an avalanche of that stuff this year. It was awesome and a bit surreal.), from canned goods to whole frozen turkeys to fresh-baked cookies, from kids’ toys and bath sets and baby bottles to winter coats and grown-up books.

    But we also got 4 full-sized garbage bags of moldy clothes, some actually smelling of feces; two urine-stained twin mattresses; and two cartons full of expired (6-months’ expired) and again, moldy, boxes of cereal & rice, all left on our public office’s front doorstep overnight. (In probably-related news, a local woman passed away earlier in the month; her house fit the stereotypical hoarder’s description.)

    Good intentions? Of course. But now we get to scramble to dispose of everything reasonably safely. If people don’t have time to repair / clean something, don’t just assume a local agency will, even in the name of charity.

  46. posted by Viv on

    One more comment on the books. I know that we have all been given a somewhat heightened sense of a book’s “value” and feel guilty about tossing it. However, if nobody reads it or wants it, it isn’t a book anymore. It’s a collection of paper. I’m a librarian. I’m allowed to say these things. 😉

    And please please please don’t donate old books to schools unless you know the school has a book sale to get rid of it. It’s hard enough to get kids to read new books. Old yellowed books with torn dated covers cannot compete against newer media. I just had to deal with three cartons of 30 year old college level textbooks donated to our K-5 school.

    Sadly, the people who buy yellowed falling apart books often aren’t readers or collectors, they are hoarders. They’ve read someplace about a first edition William Gibson or Stephen King going for 6 figures and can’t let it stay in the garbage.

  47. posted by Pam R. on

    How nice to find my post the feature of your commentary! I haven’t checked in for a while, so didn’t know you used it. A couple more thoughts from me — while the book sale’s policy was to toss travel books that were 5 years old, not every volunteer agreed with this. Since they let us have any books that would be tossed, many people (including myself) took home some of these! As for text books, some of them were 30 or more years old and almost humorous, when they were about genetics or other scientific fields that age quickly. I kept thinking that artists who make altered books might find some of these useful — I only hope they were able to raid the recycle bin before it was wheeled away. I personally struggle with many of the same issues your readers mention. However, some of the books were victims of our summer flooded basements, and I can only guess the kinds of nasty molds and bacterias that had settled into them. I suppose the subject of storing your old books kindly could be the subject of another post. Cheers and Happy New Year!

  48. posted by Shae on

    I’ve heard this type of thing before, but it’s easier said (by thrift store workers) than done (by many of us).

    We don’t know what’s too far gone and what isn’t, and for many of us (especially disorganized sorts) getting rid of stuff is a huge oppressive venture that could lead to inaction, OCD and/or hoarding if we took the time to deliberate on every little thing.

    I wonder how many donations thrift stores would get if many people felt truly constrained by the possibility that some of their stuff isn’t welcome, and overwhelmed by the prospect of making such numerous, uninformed decisions every time it was time to get some cruft out of the house.

  49. posted by Anon on

    The only way we’ve been able to make progress in my house is to not feel extraordinary guilt at the thought of throwing stuff away. Even stuff that could be recycled if we took the time to clean it up.

    I know that’s not politically correct. But we’re paralyzed by the concept that we have to go through every little thing. It’s been freeing to not buy into the PC bullcrap of donating every possible thing.

  50. posted by Dawn on

    I agree with most of this article, but I would like to point out that some items such as chipped china or old books may be useful to art teachers. They can smash the china into bits to use for mosaics.

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