I’m new, so I’ll introduce myself. My name is Corinne, and as of [checks calendar] seven days ago, I’m the new Editor-in-Chief of one5c. Don’t worry, Joe isn’t going anywhere; he’s the publisher now, and he brought me onboard to spice this joint up. We’ve got even more world-saving goodness planned, so get ready. Before this, Joe and I worked together at Popular Science. In fact, I ran the shop after he left, and I’ve been a journalist covering what I’d call “innovation” for more than 15 years.
Of late, that’s meant keeping tabs on everything from moonshot experiments to bounce heat from the atmosphere [paywall] to machines buried nearly a mile under South Dakota sniffing for dark matter. Early in my career, though, it meant I was a gear editor: obsessively monitoring, testing, and often buying the newest hotness.
Even a decade removed from that gig, that’s a tough habit to shake. So these days, I try to be less about getting the new-new than picking up the new-old.
That’s been a challenge, and not just for me. Ecommerce spending went way up during the pandemic. Online sales jumped 41.4 percent in 2020 and broke the $1 trillion mark in 2022. While the initial spike was a safer alternative to in-person shopping, the rush of retail therapy seems to have stuck. That’s a whole lot of stuff coming into the world, either destined for the landfill or nudging the stuff already filling our drawers and closets closer to that fate. We can break the cycle.
Summer is the time to make it happen, because it’s garage sale season: the time of year when people scrape their closets, attics, and basements and offer up their this-is-no-longer-of-use-to-mes to us deal-loving masses. So close that tab, ignore that well-targeted ad, and don’t tap that “add to cart” button until you’ve hit the circuit. I’ve got you set up with the tag-sale pros’ best tips. And, because nothing beats sale-ing with a friend, share this👇with your bargain-loving besties.
The notion of buying someone’s old stuff to save the planet isn’t new. But the 21st century’s tsunami of fast fashion brands and mass-produced decor have amplified the sentiment. “They’re gonna keep selling it; it’s up to us to stop buying it,” says Heather Turner, an online antiques dealer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Along with the ecomm boom, thrifting surged during the pandemic’s supply-chain pinch, and rummage shopping is now back in full swing. “There’s more of a self conscious awareness of recycling now than there used to be,” says Gretchen M. Herrmann, a retired SUNY Cortland anthropologist who’s been studying garage sales for more than 30 years and has personally browsed in excess of 3,000 of them. “Garage sales are a means to tamp down on that surplus of stuff.”
🚨Alert: You might need to talk to your neighbors 🚨
Conceptually, the impact of buying secondhand is beautifully uncomplicated: Person A owns a usable thing they no longer want or need. Rather than throw it away, Person A sells thing to Person B. Voila! Landfill diverted. Doing the can-it-save-the-planet math is tricky here, because garage sellers aren’t necessarily tracking inventory.
Oh, F it, let’s try anyway:
We can start to rough things out based on data from community sell-offs—when an entire town, county, or region collectively schleps their unwanted wares out of the house. One of the largest such events in the world is Australia’s Garage Sale Trail, and it’s also one of the rare instances where anyone’s tried to golf-clicker the goods changing hands.
Started in Sydney in 2011, the mega-sale’s participant surveys can help us get a bead on impact. In 2022, for example, Shire of Denmark (an Australian region that, perhaps confusingly to Americans, has nothing to do with hobbits) claims [PDF] to have hosted 305 individual sales that collectively moved more than 143,000 pounds of secondhand goods. The survey estimates that 29 percent—or 41,470 pounds—of those wares would have otherwise wound up at the dump. If we divide that by the number of individual sales, we can assume each participating household saved about 136 pounds of clothes, housewares, and other castoffs from doom.
Let’s convert that to impact: Aussies each send a little more than 672 pounds [PDF] of stuff to the landfill every year. That means a single household offloading its unwanteds can save more than 20 percent of one person’s annual waste output. Granted, that’s not necessarily something that can happen every year—how many Kondo-cleanouts can you do before you run out of forks?—but even if we’re conservative and stretch the cut out over a decade, it’s still 13.6 pounds less in the trash per trip around the sun. Put another way, it’s more than a week’s worth of one person’s garbage.
We could go fully cuckoo-bananas trying to tease out the emissions reduction that would result from keeping a pu-pu platter of jeans, swag water bottles, and empty photo frames out of the trash heap, but let’s just say it adds up. Consider, for instance, that the production, transport, and packaging of a new pint glass nets 1.2 pounds of carbon dioxide, compared to 0.06 pounds for an upcycled glass. For a t-shirt it’s more like 15 pounds.
Now, all this only holds true if folks actually show up and buy the stuff. A one-off sale in Aunt Sally’s driveway will draw some attention through Facebook Marketplace and yardsalesearch.com, but coordinated community sell-offs are becoming more popular and drawing crowds. In fact, many towns, especially in the U.S., have adopted regular citywide events as part of their roadmaps for meeting state or local waste-reduction goals. If you talk to Google about it, you’ll find dozens of mass sales in pretty much every state. They’re especially popular in places like California, where many municipalities have aggressive zero-waste goals.
In some locales, the scale is massive. In Upstate New York, The Great Adirondack Garage Sale stretches over 200 miles of highway. The 400-Mile Sale snakes a scenic route through Kentucky in early June. The Highway 127 Yard Sale, meanwhile, holds the crown for longest route: 700-plus miles through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. (Selling merch yucks the yum on this one a little bit, though.)
Mass sell-offs can be a big boon for would-be sellers and buyers. For sellers, they lower the expectation that one home has a big enough glut of goods to make setting up shop worth the trouble. “The excess stuff that’s generated in daily living is sometimes not enough to have a garage sale,” explains Herrmann. For buyers, it turns the humble garage sale into a superstore. “If you combine it with a certain neighborhood, shoppers are more likely to come, because they feel it’s going to be worth their time.”
You just might find, you get what you need
Garage sales reliably have a raft of housewares, small appliances, electronics, furniture, and tools. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. For folks who are guppies in the secondhand sea, browsing crowded card tables instead of neatly organized shelves requires recalibrating how you shop.
Go in with a plan. Perusing old oddities can be a blast, but don’t get seduced by shiny objects and pretty glassware (🙋♀️guilty). Focus on finding the things you know you need—lest your rescued goods wind up in the trash themselves.
Think of the children. More than anything, garage sale goods revolve around kids, so make secondhand shopping for tykes part of your primary routine. “Toys, books, clothing—those things tend to be ephemeral in people’s lives,” says Herrmann. Though Turner shops mostly for her reselling business, she snaps up gently worn duds for her two toddlers on the regular.
Don’t trust pictures. The snapshots sellers put on listings rarely tell the whole story. Folks post their biggest, flashiest things—say, a Dyson vacuum—and overlook the practical stuff that might be on your list. When there’s not enough info, Turner tries to assess the area the home’s in. If you’re questing after mid-century Fiestaware, for example, a subdevelopment built in 2005 might not have what you want.
Pick the right time. Resellers tend to swing through garage sales early and gobble up the-most-flippable wares like collectibles and rare antique or vintage decor. The more specific your desires, the earlier you should get out there.
Level up if you need to go big. If you find yourself having to outfit an entire home, know that garage-sale season is also estate-sale season—where the entire contents of houses go up for grabs. Turner’s go-to for finding them is estatesales.net, and she recommends scoping out the pics before you go. The same timing rules apply: If you want something specific or rare, go early.
Shop late for the real steals. Garage sellers are usually open to bargaining—especially as the sun starts to set. At an estate sale, however, the price is the price, but most sellers will cut stickers by 50 percent on the last day.
There’s no denying the sweet dopamine rush you get when you bring something new home. But when that something is new-old instead of new-new, it just hits different.
Keep up the good work. I’ll try, too.
Correction 6/19/23: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a “pu-pu platter” as a “poo-poo platter.” While we’d like to say the spelling was clever wordplay about how much shit we send to the landfill, it was, in fact, an error.