Vagrant Furniture: Here’s What Happens to That Particleboard Dresser When You Dump It on the Curb

by Kate Hughes

Many things are easier to not question — often the beginnings of things and the ends. Instead we look away, redirecting our gaze and inquiry.

Today’s creative class knows what it’s like to reroot from one artsy urban enclave to another. This is a fresh memory for Jana Pearl, a landscape and interior designer who moved over the holidays in 2018. In the process of going from Brooklyn east to Brooklyn west (Oakland, CA), she curbed some furniture. It’s much like the citydwellers’ art of curbing their dogs in that they take unwanted materials to the street’s edge instead of the main throughways of our lives.

For Jana, this included everything from a vase and an antique brass lamp to a fast-furniture three drawer dresser. She hoped neighbors would give the items a second life. However, for those unchosen pieces, she was shocked to hear where they usually end up. The journey ends in discarded sofas, tables, dressers, and chairs sentenced to one of two demises: being buried or burned. 

“It really surprises me that my old stuff has to get hauled hundreds of miles away as waste,” she laments upon learning most furniture waste from New York City travels to Virginia, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey in order to meet its final thrill six feet under or in an incinerator. 

The Long Journey

About 20 years ago, Jana’s lamp and dresser would’ve stayed local and gone right across the harbor. The Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island was the largest in the world while it was operating for over half a century until it closed in 2001. Its misnomer comes from the estuary it was built on (“Kills” is Dutch for a body of water), but ironically, instead of conjuring an Arcadian visual of centuries past, we now have the opposite-of-fresh — given all the waste and furniture trash that considers the locale its final resting place. 

Now, local undesirables go from street curb to Transfer Station (a neighborhood trash purgatory). And instead of boarding a barge to dumping grounds in Staten Island, some of the city’s trash heads due north or east instead. 

Akin to the national average of burned vs. buried trash, NYC sends approximately 20% on trucks to flat-field incineration plants and ash landfills (called monofills). The Big Apple’s are in Long Island and then a portion of what remains rides the rail upstate to the manmade and manicured slopes of the Finger Lakes landfills. Yes, the area that’s also known for glamping. And no, the eco-tourism industry of bell tents and Pendleton blankets is not happy about all this. Especially the signature landfill odor that reminds passersby of something entirely unglamourous: avocado toast gone bad. Often, though, much of this waste must travel even further — and it comes at a cost. 

NYC Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia estimates the city spends $316 million on getting its 8+ million citizens’ waste to landfills or monofills annually. It’s also responsible for increased diesel emissions from the new transport needs.

These numbers would go down if furniture reuse went up.

“If only it were that easy,” says Lon Epstein, the director of sales and business development for NYC-based premium junk removal service, The Junkluggers. To be clear, Lon wants it to be that easy. It’s his company’s goal to have zero waste entering landfills by 2025. 

The Reuse Crisis

Being zero waste is also a goal that Lon is personally committed to. He speaks with the speed and optimism of Millennial youth and has been doing this work since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed. Over that time, he’s acknowledged that the goal is achievable but that there are real obstacles facing people today — including the complexity of donating, recycling, or reselling their furniture. “It takes time and effort. Everyone’s so busy in New York with their lives and jobs. It’s a lot. There’s a lot,” he shares about the process. People often try to resell or give away their furniture and still have half a dozen furnishings in their apartment come Moving Day. 

Jana can relate. After a slow response rate to her online furniture resale postings, she decided to toss her items on the curb.

Lon reinforces, “It’s the fastest way to deal with it.” 

In his experience, people who are moving constantly run into issues like this. Their good intentions can get paralyzed in a sea of donation logistics, DIY repair tutorials, and recycling guidelines. For one, there’s a lot of difficulty in searching for thrift stores or nonprofits that accept bulk items, meeting their criteria and finding transport there. If someone wants to recycle, there’s a learning curve to furniture disassembly — for example, removing box springs to recycle the metal. Chairs or tables have cracks or swells? That can feel impossible. It’s especially daunting for lower quality, flat-pack furniture with veneers that aren’t easily restored with a home sander. In addition, pieces made up of non-natural woods can rot if they encounter rain during transport or a leak at home. 

Their good intentions can get paralyzed in a sea of donation logistics, DIY repair tutorials, and recycling guidelines.

These reasons explain why the EPA’s 2015 Fact Sheet defines durable furniture as “assumed to be in use for three or more years.” Three or more years. Oof. While these pieces could have longer lives, it’s not surprising to find they’ve only been in use for three years. It also explains why one study by the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY, 2013) lumps furniture and its composite materials into the Other category, defined as “items for which robust recovery outlets do not yet exist in NYC.” This comprised 21% of all the city’s waste at the time of the report.

Unsurprisingly, the Junkluggers’ director estimates that 80% of what The Junkluggers’ removes from homes and offices is furniture. 

The Raw Materials

Common items that end up in their trucks include filing cabinets from an office declutter, credenzas, or entertainment units that are complicated to take apart and even high-end items that still have life left in them. 

His list is in line with the most-trashed furniture materials, according to an EPA study from the most recent reported year (2015).

Wood — like Jana’s dresser — tops the list of what’s filling up the landfills. Second up are iron-containing metals like stainless steel or cast iron. The study shows that this is what most furniture and furnishings are comprised of — followed by plastics and glass. All of this contributes to rapid landfill overcrowding. The poundage sent to these literal trash holes or heaps continues to increase year over year. Since 2009, EPA-reported landfill waste increased by 22%, outpacing the U.S. Census population growth of 14% over the same timeframe. All this trash takes dozens (or hundreds) of years to decompose the raw materials and, in the end, the landfills really only act as storage units.

Eventually, the landfills in Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania will brim over and close. Then how far will New Yorkers’ trash travel? How much will it cost? And when will we rethink the system? 

With his signature enthusiasm, Lon encourages us all, “I think we’re just not being creative enough yet. Everyone’s working harder and not smarter. We’re all trying to do this on our own. We need to do it together.”

There are many ways to make an impact when we do it en masse.

This includes prioritizing built-to-last items over disposables ones; used over new; renting over buying; or zero-waste removal services over curbside trash.

“I think we’re just not being creative enough yet. Everyone’s working harder and not smarter. We’re all trying to do this on our own. We need to do it together.”

All of these slow shifts can snowball with the right momentum. When it comes to shunning the disposable, it’s as true for water bottles as it is for kitchen chairs. While the upfront cost may be more, the lifetime value can merit the investment. For example, a readymade fiberboard table for $25 may last 3 years but a handcrafted farm table for $750 can last for 200 years. In that time, replacing the more initially affordable table would cost two times more (over $1,600).

When buying does make sense, turn to vintage or antique marketplaces such as Furnish Green, Etsy, Chairish, or flea markets.

And when you have to offload furniture you no longer need, turn to circular-economy services like those featured below, which offer pickup options in many creative-economy outposts — from Brooklyn East to even Brooklyn West.

New York

California

National

Please note: Check back often to this article, as the list above will only continue to grow. Know of a circular-economy solution we ought to include? Email us at support@zzdriggs.com. Thank you!