Waste removal now costs Goodwill half-a-million dollars a year
The sour stink of rotting food floats from a black garbage bag full of unwashed plastic containers outside the TransCanada location of Goodwill Industries of Alberta. Alongside a dingy old mattress and a ripped, stained couch, the bag is part of an eight-foot-tall pile of trash left at the store’s donation door on Sept. 28.
“It was mostly broken junk,” recalled Karen Taylor-Macdonald, the manager at the TransCanada retail store. “The containers were absolutely filthy.”
It takes a team of four people an hour and a half to clear away the garbage, which is crammed so tightly against the door that they can’t open it, and have to get out through the loading bay. Goodwill staff sift carefully through the trash to see if any of the items are salvageable. Not many are.
This is an all-too-common sight outside Goodwill’s donation doors. While most people drop off easily sellable items, some are treating the thrift stores like garbage dumps, forcing them to pay huge amounts of money for garbage collection.
The good, the bad, the ugly
Karen Taylor-Macdonald has been dealing with this ongoing issue since she took over management of the store a year ago. This particular pile of trash accumulated in a matter of hours between closing at 6 p.m. on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 27 and 7 a.m. the following morning. It’s worse if it rains during the night, as even items that might have been salvageable are ruined.
“We don’t accept any fabric that has water damage,” Taylor-Macdonald said. “As soon as a stuffed animal or a bag of clothes gets wet on the inside, we have to throw it out, because the mould will start to grow almost immediately.”
Other items that get dumped at the store include soiled clothing, broken household items, construction debris, bags of dirt, and food waste. Aside from such donations, which are obviously garbage, Goodwill also has some seemingly harmless items that it is unable to accept, mostly for health and safety reasons.
“We never sell any sort of baby items like car seats, change tables or cribs, because we can’t guarantee their safety,” Taylor-Macdonald explained.
Taylor-Macdonald clarified that only a small portion of donators bring in unsuitable items or intentionally leave garbage. “I would say 98 per cent of the people who donate to us bring in wonderful items that we can easily sell,” she said.
But that small fraction of people are causing major problems for Goodwill, and despite a clearly posted sign outside the donation door that dumping is prohibited — to the tune of a $2,000 fine — the garbage continues to pile up.
It’s easy enough for the donation centre’s staff to turn people away when they bring in unsuitable items during regular donation hours, but Taylor-Macdonald said it’s tough to catch people in the act when they come in the middle of the night, which is when most of the dumping occurs.
The store does have security cameras to try to catch people who dump garbage after hours, but they no longer work.
“We’re in the process of getting a new security camera system, but of course, it’s highly expensive, and we have to warrant every expenditure we make because we’re a non-profit,” Taylor-Macdonald said.
Goodwill hunting to curb extraneous fees
Those financial issues are compounded when people treat donation centres like garbage dumps, since Goodwill ends up having to foot the bill. Each location has a budget for waste removal, but regular late-night dumping at the store is starting to tighten the purse strings.
The TransCanada location alone spends between $4,217 and $5,545 a month for Waste Management to privately remove that garbage, with the company usually coming to pick it up once a day. Sometimes they have to make two trips on Mondays to get rid of the overflowing bins of trash.
The TransCanada store isn’t the only Goodwill location that has this problem. Goodwill Industries of Alberta’s CEO and president, Dale Monaghan, said it spends roughly $500,000 a year on garbage removal from retail stores and donation centres across the province, and that number has been growing every year.
From 2011 to 2012, Goodwill’s garbage-related expenses went up seven per cent and have continued to climb, with a 12.5 per cent increase across 2012 and 17 per cent increase in 2013.
What’s more, the money Goodwill spends on hauling garbage can’t go toward its mandate of, according to its website, “providing individuals with disabilities the opportunity to enhance their lives through meaningful employment.”
Trash taking away diverse training opportunities
“Every broken lawnmower and abandoned propane tank is a missed opportunity to serve an Albertan with a disability,” Monaghan said. “It’s a missed opportunity to help someone who is maybe 40 and has never had the dignity of a job. That’s where it gets personal for me”.
This help comes in the form of two programs: Commercial Services and Power of Work. Commercial Services is a division of Goodwill that partners with external businesses to provide jobs specifically to people with mental health challenges. Meanwhile, Power of Work provides employment coaching, job search support, and job training for people with disabilities.
If Goodwill didn’t have to pay for waste removal, Monaghan said they could employ 10 more job coaches for Power of Work, who would be able to contribute 18,000 job coaching hours a year. As another option, Goodwill could open and staff three new career training centres a year, or one new retail store a year.
“It costs between $300,000 and $500,000 to open a store,” Monaghan explained. “There are parts of Alberta that are asking us to come into their communities, and we could do that basically for free if we didn’t have the burden of expenses related to garbage.”
Monaghan has seen some pretty bizarre trash come through Goodwill’s donation centres, including urns of human ashes and a set false teeth. It might be the source of some amusing stories, but Monaghan said he would much rather not have to deal with it.
“It’s frustrating,” Monaghan said. “We could do so much more with an extra half million dollars a year.”
Goodwill and athletes come together
That could include providing additional support for employees like Kelsey Wood. Wood is an athlete who has won medals at Special Olympics Alberta in several sports. She has Down Syndrome, and has been working at Goodwill’s Chinook location since it opened in 2012. As part of her job sorting donations and taking them to the sale floor, Wood has to deal with garbage regularly.
“It’s not good for our health and safety,” she said. “When we see a big dump of garbage, we have to move all that out to the dumpster. Our coworkers can trip, and it’s a safety hazard. ”
Wood and Monaghan were both on hand Oct. 17 as part of Goodwill’s “All-Star” donation drive at the Chinook location. Also in attendance were several athletes, including Cheryl Bernard, who led Canada’s women’s curling team to a silver medal in the 2010 Olympic Games. She has been ambassador for Goodwill Industries for nearly two years.
“It’s an unfortunate by-product of having a donation centre because people feel like they can leave anything there,” Bernard said of garbage dumping. “But I’ve been really impressed with the way Goodwill handles it, cleaning everything up themselves.”
If she had the chance, Bernard would try to change the minds of nighttime garbage dumpers. “I would just tell them to think about what they’re doing, and think about the employees that are going to have to clean up after them,” she said. “To come in the middle of the night when Goodwill is open such long hours is just irresponsible.”
Karen Taylor-Macdonald echoed Bernard. “Our donation door at the back is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except on weekends,” she said. “There’s no need for people to come after we’re closed.”
“Throw ‘n’ Go” to the dump
Garbage dumping at thrift stores isn’t happening because there is a shortage of ways for people to properly dispose of their garbage.
The City of Calgary has “Throw ’n’ Go” facilities at its three landfills in Spyhill, Shepard and East Calgary that accept old appliances and broken household items. Those are often the kinds of things that get left at thrift stores. However, there is a minimum charge of $20 to bring items there, and the facilities are located on the outskirts of the city.
“People seem to think, ‘I don’t want to drive all the way to the dump and I don’t want to pay the tipping fee, so let’s just dump it here,’” Karen Taylor-Macdonald said.
“Those official waste facilities aren’t on every street corner,” Dale Monaghan added.
Asked about the issue, Blair Riddle, a representative of Calgary’s Waste and Recycling Services, said, “Obviously we can’t change the locations of the landfills. But we have three in Calgary, which is a luxury. The City also provides a wide variety of opportunities for recycling and diversion, from the blue cart program to our community recycling depots.”
Riddle added that the Calgary Fire Department also disposes of hazardous chemical waste, and Animal and Bylaw Services hosts community cleanups where people can bring unwanted items.
“There’s lots of opportunity for people to dispose of items they no longer have use for appropriately,” Riddle said. “Its unfortunate that the wrong materials are ending up at these donation centres.”
Similar struggles for Women in Need Society
Goodwill isn’t the only thrift store that is having this problem. The Women in Need Society of Calgary, a non-profit that operates four retail locations across the city, also has to deal with garbage regularly.
Laura Dickson, the executive director of WINS, said the society uses its own trucks to transport garbage rather than paying for removal. WINS is a smaller operation than Goodwill, and while charities aren’t charged a tipping fee at the dump, they still have to cover the cost of transportation, bin disposal and the wasted time and resources. Dickson estimated this expense at about $1,000 a month.
“It’s a huge cost to us,” she said. “We have a very small fleet of trucks that we use to bring furniture to women and their families in need, or to pick up donations, and when we get dumped on, they aren’t being used toward our charitable purpose.”
WINS has taken an extra step to try and crack down on dumpers, who are also breaking the city’s bylaws.
“We’ve actually had to go to the extent of employing a security service and investing money that could otherwise be put toward our charitable ends in surveillance equipment to try to catch dumpers,” Dickson said.
WINS is sometimes able to identify dumpers with their security cameras and through the items that are left there — things such as prescription medications and pay stubs, which have identifying information.
However, they haven’t been able to prosecute anyone.
“There really is no teeth to be able to go after people even when we know who they are,” Dickson said.
The reason for that, according to Bylaw Services representative Carissa Vescio, is that those items don’t constitute strong enough evidence. “It is illegal to dump, but if we get something like a pay stub or a pill bottle, it’s not enough to determine that that person has been dumping on your property,” Vescio said. “It could have been dumped by someone else. That’s the challenge with taking something like that to court.”
WINS plans on further beefing up its security and surveillance in order to catch dumpers in the act, but that comes with costs of its own.
“We’re talking anywhere between $4,000 and $10,000 in terms of what you need to invest to be able to do that,” Dickson said. “For charities, it tends not to be at the top of our priority list when we have so many people to help.”
Like WINS, Goodwill hasn’t been able to levy its posted $2,000 fine for garbage dumping. However, it is pushing the issue, and plans to invest more money in security.
The Calgary Journal contacted Value Village and the Salvation Army to comment on the issue. They both declined comment, with Value Village stating they had nothing to add, and a Salvation Army representative citing concerns about the article sending a negative image to their customers.
Those in need getting the short stick
“We’re going to get more into after hours surveillance,” Monaghan of Goodwill said. “We’re looking at getting way more cameras. Yes, that costs money, but it’s getting to the point of frustration and expense that it’s going to be cheaper to monitor and then pursue convictions.”
However, catching and convicting dumpers, even with the help of security cameras, is tricky when the issue is low priority compared to other emergencies. “I understand that,” Monaghan said. “At two in the morning, is an abandoned lawnmower more important than someone breaking into your house? I get it, it’s just frustrating.”
Dickson added that when people dump garbage at thrift stores, it speaks to the broader problem: the idea that people in need should be happy with whatever they can get, even if it’s trash.
“That kind of thinking goes against our founding principle,” Dickson said. The founder of WINS was a single mother who was without housing and needing to get clothing and household items from charities.
“She just found the whole process very undignified, so she founded WINS to provide a normalized shopping experience for people that are experiencing hardship,” Dickson explained. “So when people dump garbage, it completely goes against that.”
Myths of government funding
The other main impact of dumping at WINS is staff morale. “Imagine that you’re coming into work for the day,” Dickson said. “You’re thinking about helping customers and providing a pleasant retail experience, and the first thing you have to do is clean up a whole bunch of garbage.”
What Dale Monaghan said people don’t realize about non-profit organizations such as Goodwill and WINS is that they aren’t government-funded. “We can’t just go to the government and ask for 50,000 extra tax dollars because our waste collection spending has gone up,” he explained. “We are a social enterprise, and everything that we do, from employees’ salaries to trucks to garbage, we must accommodate within our revenue stream.”
To help end the problem of garbage dumping, Goodwill plans on investing in education about the issue.
“We want to put people back on track by helping them understand the ramifications of what they’re doing, and teaching them the right place to take, for example, that empty propane tank,” Monaghan said. “There are other places in the neighbourhood that do it, so that’s the proactive side.”
The editor responsible for this article is Tara Rathgeber and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org