A hundred years ago, David Owen tells us, about two percent of purchased goods were returned to the store. Now, the rate is over 20%, and clothing is double even that. However, while online retails accept returns, virtually none of the stuff returned gets sold as new—and Owen’s examination of “reverse logistics” explores the many solutions, from liquidation lots to straight-up incineration.

You can register as a buyer on Liquidity Services’ Web site right now, as I did recently, and place bids in any of hundreds of auctions. I didn’t do that, but I did spend a pleasant morning studying items that other people were bidding on, among them a two-pallet lot containing six hundred and fifty-four pounds of sports-related Amazon returns. The lot included seven pellet guns, six clear-plastic umbrellas, an assortment of punching bags and punching balls, a double-bladed lightsabre toy, a shatter-resistant over-the-door mini basketball hoop, eight yoga mats, a minnow trap, an indoor exercise trampoline, a pair of hiking poles, a kickboxing shield, a car refrigerator, two hoverboards (one with Bluetooth and one without), a jump-rope rack, a quiver’s worth of crossbow bolts, a fourteen-gallon red plastic gas can with a siphon pump, a set of four badminton racquets, and a mountain-bike handlebar. There were a hundred and fourteen items in all, and Liquidity Services had estimated their combined original retail value as six thousand five hundred and seventy-six dollars. The lot ended up attracting fifty bids. The winner paid nine hundred and twenty-five dollars, shipping not included. None of the fifty bidders were willing to offer more than fifteen cents on the dollar, and even at that price they were taking a chance, since there was no guarantee that any particular item would still function. Returned items are often damaged, dented, scratched, or inoperable, and even ones that don’t look too bad can be missing parts or accessories.