In a bustling San Francisco warehouse, a buyer for a startup called Twice is inspecting a pair of used jeans. She checks the buttonholes and zipper for snags, the legs and cuffs for wear. If the pants pass inspection, the old owner gets paid and the pants are cataloged, steamed and photographed before being listed on Twice’s website–at a fraction of their original cost (perhaps $19 for Levi’s). When someone else buys them, they become a pound or two of the 400 tons of clothing that Twice will resell this year. “It’s environmental,” says co-founder Noah Ready-Campbell of Twice’s mission. “It’s about reusing clothing and avoiding manufacturing more.”
Twice is one of many startups attempting to make the environmentally sound choice preferable and easy for consumers while making a profit in the process. The statistics driving these efforts are shocking: In the U.S., 90% of mobile devices are thrown away rather than recycled. Up to 40% of the food produced gets trashed. Americans junk some 12 million tons of textiles each year. “There’s no way we can continue to produce waste at the level that we are and survive on this planet,” says Adam Werbach, a co-founder of Yerdle, a site where people trade things they might otherwise throw out. “It really is much easier to click a button than it is to knock on your neighbor’s door.” And that is the convenience gap these enviro-preneurs hope to close.
Consider the steps involved in listing a used iPhone on eBay: take a picture, set a fair price, outline the specs, connect your bank, pay fees, wait a week for bids to come in and then hope it actually sells. These are inefficiencies that Silicon Valley types seek out like bloodhounds. “People actually feel guilt that they’re holding onto these items,” says Ryan Mickle, founder of the electronics auction site FOBO, where bidding lasts only 97 minutes and the company suggests starting prices for you. But in surveys with potential users, he found that ignoring old stuff still causes less angst than confronting what can be the messy process of getting it to someone else.
Many items cluttering closets and garages are less desirable than gadgets: DVDs, picture frames, bird books, an old wine carafe. These are items companies like Listia and Yerdle want on their sites, where by giving things away, people earn credits that they can spend on other users’ property. The sites aim to replace the rush that accompanies buying something new with the fun of bartering and the satisfaction that comes from giving away something you don’t need. “People are seeking out human connection in our day-to-day economic transactions,” says Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University who studies these budding economies. “There is a noneconomic value that comes from giving your stuff to other people.”
Sundararajan says that if a company like Yerdle achieves its aim of displacing 25% of new sales, that’s good for the economy because it decreases waste. On the flip side, there is a possibility of job losses among people who make those new items. But he believes that other jobs in newer sectors would replace them, as happened when technological innovation put farmers out of work. “Efficiency is the name of the game in all of consumption,” says Ready-Campbell of Twice, “and in the whole economy, really.”
This appears in the August 04, 2014 issue of TIME.