At local swap shops, one person’s garden gnome is another’s treasure
It’s 11:30 a.m. on a sunny Friday in Hingham, and the narrow parking lot at the SWAP Shop at the town’s transfer station in Hingham is insanely busy. Cars and pickups pull in loaded with give-aways — among them, a snow blower, two sections of a white picket fence, a three-drawer metal filing cabinet, an oak table, framed pictures, an eight-track movie camera still in its leather case, and boxes and boxes of kitchen utensils.
Many of the unloved items barely make it into the swap area before they find new owners, who load the now appreciated stuff into their SUVs and pickups and drive away.
It’s a visual reminder that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Swaps have been operating across the state for decades — long before Marie Kondo made it trendy to get rid of things that no longer gave joy — as a way to reduce the amount of solid waste going into landfills.
Hingham’s bustling swap is one of 85 that reported their existence to the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2018. Another 41 communities said they had less formal give-and-take areas, and 22 applied for grants to buy swap sheds — 11 of them moving ahead with the purchase, according to Brooke Nash, the DEP’s head of municipal recycling.
“We encourage it because it’s a great practice,” Nash said, adding that the state not only offers grant incentives to start swap programs, but also provides extra state aid for communities with them.
While not able to quantify exactly how much trash the swaps keep out of landfills, Nash said the amount “is not negligible. It’s a meaningful number. We can say that municipalities [with swaps] have less trash tonnage per household than communities without them.”
Bill Marshall, Hingham’s swap coordinator and a town employee who manages a volunteer staff of about 25 regulars and 40 occasional helpers, isn’t surprised.
“The amount of stuff that goes in and out of here blows my mind,” Marshall said, noting that the SWAP Shop has outfitted hundreds of dorm rooms and new apartments, as well as some posher environments.
“This is Hingham, and you know how much money is in the town, so some of the stuff is really expensive,” he said. “We get some really nice furniture. Somebody came in recently with a beautiful mahogany sideboard and a beautiful antique sleigh bed. And at the end of ski season, we get 300 to 400 skis.”
Marshall stresses that only Hingham residents with transfer station stickers can use the swap — a local-only policy that most towns enforce. Hingham’s users include regulars who often look for specific items, people who drop and stay to shop, those who find goods to donate to charities, and “pickers” who search for valuables to resell, and return if they can’t unload them.
“Our return policy is very liberal,” he said.
Sherborn is another community with a thriving swap shop, which opened in 2004 in a structure built by local vocational students, and then expanded in 2010. Open from roughly April Fool’s Day to Halloween, it’s a well-organized space that describes itself as the ultimate yard sale — where everything is free.
“I got to see it last fall,” said DEP’s Nash. “It’s amazing. It’s literally like going shopping.”
Acton’s swap opened in 2015 and is run by a crew of about 20 volunteers, according to volunteer coordinator Debby Andell, a self-described avid environmentalist who loves the idea that “everything that comes in and out of the swap is not going into the waste stream.”
She enjoys watching small children who come to “shop” with their parents and altruistic people who collect for others, like the man who comes in every Saturday morning to pick up household goods for immigrant families in the Boston area.
Andell also hands out referral slips to other local organizations that accept donations, such as ReStore, Habitat for Humanity’s used furniture and building supply store in Leominster.
“It’s the deepest form of recycling,” said David Gerratt, who’s been volunteering at the Acton swap for three years.
For example, he told about a couple in their 70s whose grandchildren were coming for a two-week visit. The couple loaded a pickup with toys and games and child-friendly equipment from the swap, and then returned everything two weeks later — when someone else took it for their grandchildren’s use.
Not all swaps run smoothly.
Dennis on Cape Cod closed its swap about two years ago — in part because people were dropping off broken and dirty goods and then getting into arguments with volunteers who rejected the offerings, according to public works director David Johansen.
Elsewhere on the Cape, Yarmouth closed its swap in 2014 after the town’s building inspector said the shipping container it operated out of was unsafe.
In Winchester, the swap closed for a while in 2018 and reopened with stricter rules about what could be donated, and recently installed a barrier so people wouldn’t drop off goods in off-hours.
“We’re still getting too much stuff,” said the town’s recycling coordinator, Norman Doucette. “But it’s going to keep going — because people want it.”
Hingham’s volunteers report logging in surfboards, paddleboards, saddles, trampolines, brand-new wigs, riding lawnmowers, weather vanes, scads of school supplies, as well as hundreds of baskets, vases, books, bicycles, and toys.
Volunteers are supposed to wait until they’re off duty to pick through the merchandise — otherwise they’re guilty of what Marshall calls “scooping” — and they say they’ve made some great finds.
Volunteer Bud Whelan, a retired state police officer, said he found “high end” strollers for his grandchildren. Danielle Lavoie recently took home four brown outdoor chairs and two ottomans from Jordan’s Furniture, although she’s also happy with the small ceramic yard sculpture of two gnomes balancing on a seesaw.
“I just got this Talbots’ bag,” said off-duty volunteer Judy Szabo, pointing to a red canvas pocketbook hanging from her shoulder by leather straps. “What people throw out, it’s a sin.”
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .