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Report: Many Returned Products Thrown Out Instead Of Resold


Now that the unwrapping frenzy of Christmas has passed, you might find that the new ugly sweater just doesn't quite fit, or perhaps you just think it's plain ugly and want to return it. But environmental journalist Adria Vasil recently told the CBC that some perfectly good returned products are actually sent directly to landfills instead of being repackaged for sale. She joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.

Thanks for being with us.

ADRIA VASIL: Thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why are perfectly good products being thrown in the trash?

VASIL: Well, for one, we are returning so much more than we were in the past. We're returning 95% more than we did five years ago, and a lot of that has to do with, you know, all these free online returns that we get that make it so tempting to buy more than we need and send back what didn't fit and that kind of thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. You order, like, maybe a few different sizes because you want to try stuff on at home and then return the ones that don't fit right.

VASIL: Exactly. It doesn't seem like a big deal to us, but it's actually turning out to be a major cost to the companies that have to deal with those returns and massive volumes of those returns at that. So companies have to foot the bill for inspecting a product once you return it. Was it damaged? Did you spill on it? Did you wrinkle it? Is there hidden damage that they can't see? And that's not always easy to detect. And so for some companies, it's actually for certain products are going to be easier just to trash the item than to actually put it back on shelves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, the CBC sent a professional dumpster diver out to some major Toronto shopping malls while they were looking into this. And she found all kinds of boxes of new items just thrown in the trash.

VASIL: It's really alarming, actually, when you realize how much is ending up in the trash that is perfectly good and still in functional condition. So this particular dumpster diver was going to big box stores and, you know, outlet malls in Toronto and finding so much good stuff. A lot of people are actually dumpster diving now and reselling those goods. And many of them are actually making a profit from it - although I'd rather them put those items to good use than have them just end up in a landfill or incinerated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about landfills and incineration because over the past couple years, Amazon came under fire - right? - after reports in France and Germany showed new items, including diapers, toys, washing machines, smartphones and furniture being destroyed. What was the fallout from that?

VASIL: Well, they were caught actually destroying millions of household goods. And the backlash was pretty intense. I mean, in France, for instance, the government came out and said, OK, this is crazy. They did some number crunching, and the prime minister actually said that they estimate that France destroys $900 million worth of perfectly good products every year. And so they are bringing in a ban on the destruction of unsold goods. That's kicking in sometime next year or in the next year or two.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last year, there was another story, right? Burberry admitted that it had burned around $100 million worth of clothing and accessories over a five-year period. And they said that they were going to stop the practice. But aren't there a lot of companies that actually destroy merchandise so that it won't, I guess, be cheapened by going to a secondary market? I mean, is that why they were doing it?

VASIL: Yes. I mean, a lot of clothing companies in particular have been caught destroying last year's goods or unsold products, excess merchandise because they do not want to flood the market with the discounted products. They do not actually want to give it to charity and see it go on people who are not necessarily in their target demographic, which is a pretty horrible, problematic thing. And so you are seeing some pushback now, thankfully, in some brands saying, like Burberry, that they will try to donate more and recycle more of the products rather than just incinerating them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it does sound crazy. I mean, it actually sounds insane that so much of what we buy then gets sort of thrown away or burned if we return it. So aside from feeling very guilty about this - because I actually was just about to return a dress I bought - what should we do if we have something to return? Because, sometimes, it doesn't fit.

VASIL: No, it's absolutely right. But we also have to talk to the brands that we support and ask them what they're doing with returns and actually encourage them to donate and recycle those products. So you're seeing companies like Best Buy and Dell and REI actually selling refurbished and returned goods deeply discounted. So we'd rather see that than have them be destroyed. You know, post holiday, we are all returning too much stuff. And unfortunately, this is prime time for a lot of that ending up in landfill. So it's a great time to have this conversation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you return anything? Have you returned anything?

VASIL: Yes, but I try not to buy clothes, for instance, online anymore because whenever I have, I feel like I'm just disappointed. It never looks like it looked like on the models on the website. So I have...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ain't that the truth.

VASIL: Yeah, exactly. And so - and to be honest with you, I've donated those items and brought them to clothing swaps as opposed to sending them all the way back to the retailer. That's because knowing that it's going to go back, it might just end up being landfilled. And so I'd rather see it go to a good home than have it be destroyed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adria Vasil is an environmental journalist and managing editor of Corporate Knights Magazine.

Thank you very much.

VASIL: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.