Big metal donation boxes — where people can leave books or clothes for charity — may get items to the needy, but the boxes are drawing scrutiny in Gaithersburg.
The boxes, which number about 30 in the city, are not regulated, but city officials believe they can attract trash. Some, they say, aren’t clearly marked that dropoffs are going to for-profit corporations.
“... [T]he city has recently received complaints from individuals stating that it is not always evident that their donation is benefiting a not-for-profit organization,” Gaithersburg Planning Division Chief Lauren Pruss wrote in a Nov. 18 memo to the City Council. “Additionally, the boxes are not always maintained properly, and often become a dumping ground for large amounts of unwanted household and other miscellaneous goods. When not attended to regularly, these conditions can attract pests, be unsightly and generally contribute to poor public health and safety.”
Organizations that have drop boxes in the city include Goodwill, Planet Aid, Discover Books and Better World Books, among others.
Pruss said the city does not currently have an official record of where the drop boxes are and to whom they belong. The city is considering zoning regulations, which would create a formal record.
The text amendment to the city zoning ordinance would provide guidelines for the boxes in terms of locations and placement, the quantity allowed at each site and proper size. Signage restrictions, permit requirements, and identification and contact information for the responsible organization are additional regulations proposed by staff.
Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula recently brought up the issue, concerned that some people who donate items at the drop boxes might not know any information about who’s receiving the donations.
Discover Books — an Attleboro, Mass., for-profit company that collects books to sell online or donate to literacy programs — has five drop box locations in Gaithersburg.
Tyler Hincy, the company’s vice president of business development, said Discover Books typically has agreements with commercial property owners or property tenants to place 4-foot by 4-foot boxes on a small parcel of the parking lot.
Trucks stop by to empty the bins and collect the books about every 10 days, Hincy said. Sometimes in between pick-ups, Hincy said the company has received calls from community members alerting them that a bin is full. Within a day, a truck is sent to empty the bin.
Overflow, trash piles and pests have not generally been issues for the company.
“We don’t see a whole lot of that with the book collection boxes,” he said. “More often than not, we’re cleaning up the clothing and shoes mess that’s in our general vicinity.”
Better World Books, another for-profit company that recycles books for online sale and donation to literacy initiatives, has five bins within city limits.
John Ujda, chief literacy officer and vice president of marketing for Better World Books, said the Indiana company draws up a written contract when putting a drop box on any parcel of private property.
Each box is labeled with the company’s name and contact information, Ujda said. The front of the box also clearly states that it is a for-profit entity.
Every bin also is equipped with a sensor that alerts the company when the box is filling up so that a truck can be sent over to collect the books when needed.
Ujda said the company has not had many problems with the upkeep of the bin, such as trash build-up and vandalism. When it does happen, however, employees are quick to respond.
“We’re trying to do a lot to correct some of the wrongs in the collection bin industry,” he said.
Both company representatives said their businesses have previously worked with other jurisdictions that have regulated the boxes and that they would adhere to regulations in Gaithersburg if the city put them in place.
Several property owners and tenants with drop boxes on site could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
Fairfax County in Virginia regulates donation drop boxes. Under the county’s zoning ordinance, the boxes are considered an accessory use, meaning they cannot be the sole use on a parcel of land.
Fairfax created guidelines for property owners in March 2012 concerning the location, size and maintenance of the bins. Property owners are responsible for ensuring the drop boxes and the organizations providing them adhere to the guidelines, according to the county. Civil penalties for improper use or location of the boxes are issued to property owners when violations occur.
Gaithersburg has scheduled a public hearing on the proposed amendment for March 3.