Kicking textile waste to the curb

Story by Alexandra Hehlen
Video by Alma Washington and Molly Weybright

Bianca Howard is an anomaly. When her children’s jeans get too short, and the kids can’t squeeze into extra small T-shirts anymore, she does what many people do: she gives some of the clothes to charity. But she also recycles the clothes that really can’t be worn again.

The vast majority of people don’t.

Americans recycle just 15 percent of their textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. The remaining 85 percent ends up in landfills. That’s 21 billion pounds per year, or enough to fill about 5,000 football fields 12 feet high. Put another way, Americans trash a garbage truck of textiles every second, according to the Huffington Post.

“There is nothing intuitive about recycling,” said Howard, the environmental coordinator for the City of Raleigh Solid Waste Services Department. “It is my job as a recycling provider to help communicate to people why recycling is important and how to do it.”

Raleigh is building a variety of textile recycling options with a new curbside textile collection program coming to 120,000 households early next year. The program is one of many efforts in North Carolina to reduce textile waste.

“Textile recycling is important because it’s a small but really fast-growing part of our waste stream,” Howard said. “I really see this as an opportunity not just to help people have one more option for diverting textiles, but to help everybody understand just why textile waste is growing and what we can do to prevent it.”

Raleigh is partnering with Michigan-based Simple Recycling, a company that will collect unwanted textiles from residents who have curbside recycling. At no cost to taxpayers, residents will be able to recycle clothing, shoes, bedding, drapes and linens in any condition.

Textiles are the fastest-growing segment of residential waste, said Sonny Wilkins, the vice president of municipal relations at Simple Recycling, a for-profit company that serves 95 municipalities across the United States.

“(Textile waste) represents anywhere between 5 and 10 percent of the total residential waste stream,” Wilkins said.

When the program begins, residents will receive a mailer and their first collection bag. They can fill the bag, drop it at the curb next to their blue bins on their designated recycling day, and expect Simple Recycling to leave a new bag behind.

“Simple Recycling will be working with local markets as well as overseas markets,” Howard said, noting that vendors in other countries may buy wearable items in bulk and mark them for sale. “Textile recycling is really a global business.”

Usable items may also be donated to thrift stores and charities, while unusable items are sold to companies that break down the textiles to create industrial rags and upholstery.

Wake County has been working to reduce textile waste, too, placing both for-profit and non-profit drop-boxes at 13 locations throughout the county.

“(Wake County has) really tried hard to be mindful of the fact that people sometimes have different feelings about donating to a charity versus giving to a for-profit business,” Howard said.

Roy Baldwin, the convenience center facilities manager in the Solid Waste Management Division of the Environmental Services Department, said some people have unfounded qualms about donating their textiles to drop-boxes belonging to for-profit vendors.

“Everything that you recycle is resold,” he said. “Even though all of your non-profits are labeled as non-profits, they all make profit.”

In about 25 years, Wake County’s landfill will be full. When it reaches capacity, the waste must be shipped outside of the county. It is Baldwin’s job to divert as much waste as possible.

“Scrap metal is a commodity,” he said. “Cardboard is a commodity. Paper, plastic. We found out about eight or nine years ago textiles could be a commodity.”

The Solid Waste Management Division began placing textile-recycling bins at its convenience centers, which are open almost year round and can be used by any Wake County residents.

“I only see this industry growing,” said Liz Ward, the vice president of internal operations at Green Zone Recycling. Her organization, based out of Durham, N.C., is a for-profit company that owns and operates textile drop-boxes.

Just like Simple Recycling and the vendors with drop-boxes at Baldwin’s convenience centers, Green Zone makes a profit off of the textiles dropped into its bins. The textiles are sold in bulk to domestic or international companies that can resell or recycle them.

Ward said there is a market for recycled textiles and fibers, especially because technological advances in new textile development are growing. “If anything, recycled fibers just spur innovation in a variety of industries – it’s not just fashion,” Ward said. “It’s air filters, it’s insulation for building materials, it’s carpet backing. It’s used in so many different things.”

The textile recycling industry is a web of connections.

“We’re just one aspect of this industry,” Ward said. “There’s a lot more work to be done – collaboration, coordination – with governments, with educational facilities with industries that create new products.”

She must ensure that non-profits involved in textile collection are aware of the incoming program and how they can benefit from it. Howard encourages residents to continue donating textiles to their favorite charities, and she said the new curbside program might actually have a positive impact on charities by diverting unsellable textiles away from their donation bins.

This may help thrift stores that are overburdened by donations. ”I’ve talked to many thrift store owners trying to push our services,” Ward said of her work at Green Zone. “They say that they just throw their clothes that they can’t sell in the trash.”

The Goodwill Community Foundation, one of the nation’s largest thrift operations, said it recycles donated textiles, along with items such as books.

Though the textile recycling landscape is complex web of non-profits and for-profit companies, Ward is excited that organizations are taking action.

“I am thrilled to learn about the new curbside recycling program coming to Raleigh,” she said. “I’m thrilled that it’s bringing attention to the textile community, and we offer our support. And we hope that it just keeps increasing and getting better.”

Howard and her department already anticipate the challenges they may face when the new program kicks off. She said that some residents may want to donate more textiles than their first bag can hold, so Simple Recycling must be prepared with enough bags to fulfill increased demand. She is also finding the most optimal way to handle the predicted spike in inquiries from residents next year.

She knows that education is paramount – not just to inform residents about the new program but also to raise awareness about the many avenues consumers already have available to recycle their unwanted textiles.

And above all remains the big question:

“Will people really take advantage of this, or will they continue donating to their favorite charities to get the tax write-off?” Howard said. “Will they continue throwing clothing in the trash because they don’t want to take the time to sort it and put it in a special orange bag?”

The success of the hard work of pioneers like Howard and Baldwin ultimately rests on the public’s shoulders. “Whether people will participate will make it sink or swim,” Baldwin said.

To learn more about Raleigh’s new curbside program, visit http://www.raleighnc.gov/home/news/content/CorNews/Articles/TextileRecyclingProgram.html

To see a map of convenience centers in your county, visit http://search.earth911.com/

Alexandra Hehlen
Alexandra Hehlen

Reporter

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