Thrift Shop Recycling
by Anita LeBlanc
The Ann Arbor Thrift Shop's windows look like its neighbors' on Washtenaw--but the prices for its gently used clothing for women, men, and children are wildly different.
How about $3 for a pair of shoes? They also sell housewares at uber-low prices, and volunteers stand at the ready at glass display cases to help customers select costume jewelry or perhaps an antique pin at a vintage cost.
But what goes on in the back of the shop, where donations are delivered, sorted, and tagged? And what happens to donated items that don't make the cut for the sales floor?
Mary Breakey, the Thrift Shop's president, is proud to show the neatly arranged plethora of sorting bins in the back of the store. Along with bins for sorting merchandise to be sold in-store are others marked with the names of other nonprofits. A tub is overflowing with eyeglasses that will make their way to the Lions Club, where they will be repaired and sent on to those in need. A SafeHouse Center bin holds cell phones, new cosmetics, toiletries, and craft items. Blankets and towels will go to the Humane Society of Huron Valley. The Ann Arbor Kiwanis Thrift Sale will pick up and sell the sharp knives and tools, while toys will go to the local Salvation Army store.
Ann Arbor Thrift is not alone in sending its donated housewares, clothing, and other goods for use by the clients of the nonprofits it supports. Most local thrifts do the same. But what happens to the donations that no one can sell?
Turns out that the Ann Arbor Thrift Shop, the Kiwanis Thrift Sale, Ann Arbor PTO Thrift, St. Vincent de Paul, and ShareHouse all share something else: selling their unsalable merchandise to Detroit-based City Recyclers, owned by Sam Masri and Abdul Saleh. Bob Gray, assistant secretary for the Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor, says that Saleh spoke to the group last August, explaining that City Recyclers was a family business started
by his grandfather more than forty-five years ago.
Breakey says that City Recyclers accounts for only a small percentage of the shop's overall income, but "to us it's huge. The first year we started we received roughly $9,000, and that was like, 'Hooray, we have $9,000 to add to our emergency aid' fund ... In the past, we had to cap off our monthly emergency aid dollars to the agencies we serve. The extra income from City Recyclers gives us a cushion so that we no longer have to do this."
Gray and Ann Farnham, the executive director of the Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop, say they learned about the company from a manager at the Ann Arbor Salvation Army, where they had previously been sending their unusable and unsalable merchandise. Gray says the Kiwanians also learned about the company from the Salvation Army--and like the PTO, decided to deal directly with Masri and Saleh: "We thought 'Damn it, let's go to the source and cut out the middleman.'"
Farnham says that Ann Arbor PTO Thrift, whose sales support enrichment and extracurricular programs for Ann Arbor Public Schools students, used to combine its unsalable items with St. Vincent de Paul's for a weekly pickup, but recently began having its own pickups. "Almost everybody [in Ann Arbor] uses them," says Farnham. "It's a wonderful way to find a home for our usable but unsalable donations." City Recyclers originally picked up only clothing, linens, and shoes, but it is now also willing to take pots and pans, stuffed animals, and other items. She says they're paid per pound, receiving anywhere from a nickel (for hard plastic) to 50c (for shoes)--a total of $19,150 in 2012, or 2 percent of the shop's total sales income. She believes that these dollars will increase, thanks to the addition of a full-time employee whose sole task will be sorting donations.
Gray says that the Kiwanis Thrift Sale sent over 63,193 pounds of shoes, clothing, and textiles to City Recycling in its most recent fiscal year and received a little over $9,000.
The Salvation Army's megastore on South State is the giant among local nonprofit thrifts. Jacqulynn Idzior, director of operations for the Salvation Army Southeast Michigan Adult Rehabilitation Center in Detroit, says it processes all of its donated goods in house, sending locally unsalable items to the organization's Romulus warehouse. Shoes that don't sell in Ann Arbor are given a second chance at the Army's store on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, where everything is priced at a dollar.
Idzior says that any shoes that don't sell in Detroit, along with surplus accessories and toys from its other southeastern Michigan store operations, are sold to a Detroit vendor she declines to name. Clothing and linens, are "bundled in 40,000-pound truck loads and then sold to a vendor in Canada."
Idzior won't name that vendor either but says the sales bring in $2.5 million a year. And she adds, "I can tell you that the operation provides employment for people there."
[Originally published in June, 2013.]