Elizabeth Cline is a journalist based in New York City. She is the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
Americans send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year. Can for-profit recycling companies turn those rags into riches?
In Brooklyn, New York, where space is precious, it's not surprising that many of the borough's residents are starting to complain, loudly, about the countless used-clothing donation bins gobbling up sidewalks and serving as a magnet for garbage and graffiti. Aghast, Brooklyn Magazine commanded its readers not to use "those piece-of-crap bins."
The proliferating bins are owned by Viltex, a Newark-based, for-profit textile recycling company—one that's violating a city ordinance by blocking the sidewalks. Even more rankling, the pastel-colored bins are operating under the guise of charity, their sides often stamped with magnanimous slogans.
But lost in all this commotion is the extent of America’s textile-waste problem, and Viltex is just one of a number of charities and for-profit groups vying for a sliver of the nation’s highly valuable tossed-out clothing. In New York City, clothing and textiles account for more than six percent of all garbage, which translates to 193,000 tons tossed annually. (These numbers mirror national averages: Americans recycle or donate only 15 percent of their used clothing, and the rest—about 10.5 million tons a year—goes into landfills, giving textiles one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material.)
What does it mean for textiles to get recycled? While almost half of donated clothing gets worn again, a large portion of it is recycled in the traditional sense—ground down and re-formed into things like insulation and carpet padding—and a slightly smaller portion is turned into industrial rags.
Figuring out the proper way to dispose of old clothes can be perplexing; if these bins were to be taken off the sidewalks, few people would know where to put their used clothing. On top of that, Americans still think of old clothes as charitable donations, which explains the outrage over news that the Viltex bins actually belong to a for-profit company.
Those in the textile-recycling industry are now trying to clear up the confusion. "What we need to do is change the dialogue to, 'You're not just donating, you're reusing and recycling,'" says Jackie King, executive director of the Secondhand Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, a trade group. "It's an issue of communicating that and getting people to understand that if they want to use a charitable organization to reuse or recycle clothing, great. If not, let's make it convenient for people to dispose of it elsewhere."
Most recycling, from bottles to cans to newspapers, is done by for-profit companies. In a nation that churns out an ungodly amount of waste, this amounts to big business. Take plastic: The U.S. exported more than $940 million worth of plastic scrap in 2010. The value of used clothing, moreover, has been in its own inflationary bubble since the recession, as more people are cash-strapped and opting to buy used.
Of course, castoff clothing differs from a bottle or a newspaper in that almost half of it can be reused as secondhand clothing; it needn't be ground down into a pulp to make a new product, as is the case with plastic or glass. But the other half—the ripped, the torn, the busted—is recyclable.
Charities have been our de facto national textile recyclers going back to the early 20th century, and Goodwill started providing bins for clothing donations as early as the 1940s. But this system was set up in a pre-consumerist America, when we had neither a landfill crunch nor a waste crisis: Americans now buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980, according to Mattias Wallander, CEO of USAgain, a textile-recycling company. And between 1999 and 2009, the volume of textile trash rose by 40 percent. Particularly due to the advent of cheap, disposable clothing, charities have seen themselves transformed into dumps that accept clothes of varying condition in ever-increasing volumes.
King says there is quite a lot of public misinformation about what exactly happens to clothing when it’s donated to charities. "People think when they are giving to, say, a Salvation Army or Goodwill, that all of that is going to be resold in their stores, and it's just not, because they don't have enough room for that," she says. In fact, according to King, there's only a 15 percent or 20 percent chance that a piece of clothing you've donated is being worn by someone in your community, as charities receive far too many donations to sell them all.
Instead, charities such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army sell only what they can in their retail shops—typically less than 20 percent of what they receive. From there, they call for-profit textile recycling companies, like Viltex, who then buy up the leftover clothes by the pound and recycle them.
If most of our used clothing ends up in the hands of for-profit textile recyclers anyway, how do we get the public more comfortable with the idea of donating to them to begin with? One way is to convince municipalities such as New York City to take textile recycling more seriously, and to make used-clothing drop-off and recycling options more widespread. Kathryn Garcia, who took office as New York City’s sanitation commissioner in April,* says her staff is focusing on greatly expanding New York's re-fashioNYC program, which places textile recycling bins in apartment buildings with more than 10 units and collects clothing on the weekends at several markets.
Other cities have taken a far more assertive approach, collecting textiles curbside with other recyclables. Queen Creek, Arizona, collects towels, clothing, blankets, sheets and shoes in special waterproof bags. Other cities have designed new fleets of garbage trucks with separate compartments for clothes. New York City has no such plans for curbside textile recycling, Garcia says; a curbside program would require creating a new route for just six percent of the waste stream, and on top of that, textiles can’t be left out in the rain like bottles can.
Companies and other organizations have attempted their own solutions, too. Packmee, a program in Germany and the Netherlands, allows citizens to ship their old clothes for free to textile recyclers. Meanwhile, in the UK and Canada, schools have become the central place for textile collection, making it easy for parents to drop off last season’s has-beens along with their kids. In the U.S., retailers including Patagonia, H&M, The North Face, and Eileen Fisher have implemented in-store recycling and take-back programs. This patchwork approach might be the solution to capturing more of America's unwanted clothes, for now.
In a place like New York City, where depositing clothing might mean getting on the subway with a heavy bag of last year's faux-leather leggings and crop tops, it's enticing to just throw old clothes away. Or to just plunk them into your local mystery clothing bin that says it's charitable, when it's not. After some decades of recycling, though, one thing we've learned is that people won’t do it if it isn’t convenient.
* This post originally stated that New York City's sanitation commissioner is named Nancy Garcia, and that she took office in March. We regret the error.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.