Detritus (or Clothing by the Pound, Not the Ton)

I’m waiting my turn at the Goodwill Clearance Center on San Antonio’s south side. This is the last stop for unsold items. Their odyssey began in foreign and domestic factories, then on to retail stores, closets and drawers in countless homes, and now to the bins before us—a downward spiral of detritus. It’s a scavenger’s paradise with purchases offered by the pound, where an average pair of shoes costs about a dollar. As workers wheel in the flatbeds of jumbled objects, we wait for the go signal like we’re standing at the starting line of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Suddenly, I have a vivid memory.

I was with a group of community organizers in Mexico, working to build a children’s center on land that had once been part of el dompe, Tijuana’s municipal landfill. We had journeyed deeper into the wasteland to witness the daily activities of pepenadores (garbage scavengers) who comb through the mountains of refuse—entire families retrieving metal, glass, wire, cardboard, even food scraps. Rumbling garbage trucks continued to arrive in convoys, the air thick with clouds of acrid smoke.

The week prior, I had taken a load of my own junk to a landfill outside Los Angeles. As I surveyed this scene just a few miles from the California border, it struck that the economic status of a culture is certainly evident in its midden, its piles of artifacts that will entice future archaeologists.

I heard some children laughing and saw that they were hitting something back and forth with large sticks. I smiled and looked closer at their play object on the ground. It wasn’t a ball; it was a dog skull picked clean by maggots.

Back to that moment at the Goodwill Clearance Center. The staff shouts a go signal and we swoop in to look for treasures. For my part, I’m in search of used shoes or jeans, since my own pairs of both are worn and threadbare.

Why choose this place for my shopping spree? Call it a quirky conviction. I hear so many people bemoan the scientific reality that global warming has changed our weather patterns, leading to droughts and placing scores of animal species on the brink of extinction. The problem seems so enormous that it begs the question, “What can Ido as one measly individual?”

Surely, we can vote for political candidates that espouse green principles. We can volunteer with local organizations that work to protect our environment. AND, we can examine our own lifestyle choices, making those small changes that, when combined with the similar choices of others, have the potential to make an impact.

We can cultivate native plants in our yards, offering waystations for pollinators. We can convert sections of our water thirsty lawns to xeriscapes. We can buy more fuel-efficient vehicles or make the switch to electric. We can analyze our consumer habits in all areas, asking “how much is enough?”

Which brings me to clothing. For decades, my family and I have purchased 80% of our attire from thrift stores. Our motive is more than just saving money. It is based on our knowledge that the garment industry is one of our planet’s primary polluters. We also know that the U.S. exports roughly 700,000 tons of unsold secondhand clothes to developing countries. That tonnage suppresses local industry, with one estimate in Kenya showing that a secondhand garment costs five percent of a new one. Local industries simply can’t compete. The sheer amount of this textile waste ends up accumulating in these foreign locales. For instance, on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital, Accra, lies a 30-foot mountain of rotting clothing articles, many of them with name-brand tags once worn in the U.S.

Back to my scavenger scramble in San Antonio. It’s a lucky day for me. I find more than what I’m looking for, and I admit to a bit of indulgence. I go away with a used pair of Vans and Adidas tennis shoes, plus a pair of khakis just my size.

Total cost: $5.25.

Clothing by the pound, not the ton.

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