Everyone has seen the donation bins. They are ubiquitous yet innocuous, often located where they are to be seen but not heard. They stand there alone, without impeding or annoying passers-by, while making themselves known to sub-conscious minds. Imprinted on the brightly-colored bins are the logos of recognisable charities, not-profit organisations, and other “good causes.” However, hiding behind the inoffensive appearance of these bins is a dark secret: many of these bins are run by for-profit corporations.

Most non-profit donation bins function in a similar fashion: they collect unwanted items from the community, sell it to a thrift store, and use every penny to fund a variety of noble causes. These non-profits include Big Brothers, PosAbilities, and Inclusion BC, all of whom work in conjunction with Value Village. The Salvation Army, on the other hand, runs its own thrift stores to fund their charitable work. This is a ‘win’ on many levels: consumers can get rid of unwanted goods without worrying about the negative environmental impacts, non-profit organizations can continue their endeavors, and the goods return to the community at below-market value.

But for-profit donation bins—many of which are indistinguishable by the untrained eye from non-profit bins—conduct business very differently. Take Trans-Continental Textile Recycling, the company which runs the big blue clothing donation bins. Trans-Continental pays schools, businesses, and non-profits to operate a bin on their property and/or to display their logo on those bins. Trans Textile makes a profit, while underfunded schools and sponsored non-profits are more than happy to take a dirty cheque at the expense of legitimate bin-operating charities, which have seen their clothing donations decline as a consequence of the prevalence of for-profit bins.

Every piece of clothing ever dropped into one of those blue bins is transported to Trans-Continental’s 50,000 square-foot facility in Surrey, where it offers workers 65 cents above minimum wage. Anything that ends up in this facility is either shipped off to third-world low-wage countries to be resold or re-manufactured, or re-cycled into more profitable goods. Trans-Continental has yet to publicly disclose how much money they make and what percentage is donated.

Another significant player in the for-profit bin market is Green Inspiration BC. They operate the big Green clothing donation bins, and they play the “Green” card to perfection in claiming that their company reduces the detrimental environmental effects of waste. They, too, have partnered with non-profits that are perfectly content with accepting money siphoned off from other charities by Green Inspiration. Like Trans-Continental, most of the clothing which falls into Green Inspiration’s bins ends up in foreign countries.

Of course, clothing is not the only donatable goods that corporations have managed to profit off of. There is also a growing number of for-profit book donation bins. One of the most prominent is Discover Books, who operate big blue book donation containers. They re-sell lightly-used donated books online to buyers from around the world, whilst donating a few here and there themselves to protect their corporate image.

What is problematic about these for-profit donation bins is not simply that they are for-profit. Such corporations indeed have a role to play in the recycling of unwanted goods, and those they sponsor will certainly tell you that they have benefitted. The problem is that consumers are largely unaware of these practices, and thus unwittingly donate to these corporations, instead of donating to better causes.

Charities like Big Brother and the Salvation Army will gladly pick up unwanted clothing from your doorstep. Used books that are good enough to be re-sellable do not belong online, but rather in public libraries like VPL and BPL (or your school’s library!), who accept donations. Furthermore, municipalities should take action to ensure that their citizenry are well informed. Governments could require that these companies boldly disclose on their donation bins that they are out to make a quick buck off of people’s generosity.