by Susan Hellauer
The next time you’re about to toss those last-chance pajamas into the trash, consider this: The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 5-10% of what’s brought to the landfill consists of textiles. In New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation says that that’s approximately 1.4 billion pounds of clothing and textiles each year—a whopping 71 pounds for each New Yorker.
We recycle a scant 15% of our textiles, along with other wearables like shoes and handbags, but the other 85% takes an unnecessary ride to the landfill. Our failure to recycle textiles is wasteful economically as well: recycling experts estimate that the market value of these discarded textiles in NY State alone exceeds $130 million.
This fall, the Re-Clothe NY Coalition, a collaborative group of recyclers, non-profits, and governments, has launched a 10-week outreach and education campaign to highlight the environmental, economic, and social value of textile recovery.
Textile recovery: What’s in it for us?
Keeping textiles and wearables out of the trash is a no-brainer. But there’s no curbside recycling in our county or state for these items. We’re on our own when it comes to diverting them from the waste stream.
So, why make the extra effort? What’s in it for us? Well, garbage is expensive. Rockland County pays $76 per ton to dispose of 20,000 tons of trash every month, according to Kerri Scales, Education Director of the Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority (RCSWMA). And then all of that stuff, including your old sheets and shorts, have to be trucked more than 300 miles to a landfill in upstate New York. With fuel costs, emissions and wear and tear on roads (not to mention the misery of the people who live in the shadow of your trash) your old flipflops leave quite the carbon footprint.
The good news is that there are plenty of convenient ways to find new homes for textiles and wearables, and that fall closet reorg project is the ideal time to get it all sorted and done.
Here are some REDUCE-REUSE-RECYCLE ways to make a serious dent in that textile trashpile.
Reduce: It starts at the store
There you are at the mall again, ready to do your part to keep those Chinese factories humming.
But, really, how much clothing and household textiles do you need to buy? You already have three sets of sheets for those house guests who never ever show up. Start seeing every purchase as future garbage, and stop the waste before it starts.
And consider purchasing secondhand. There’s no place like a thrift store for those perfectly worn out jeans or one-of-a-kind Halloween costume.
Reuse at home
Before they leave your house, stock your rag bag with old t-shirts and towels for cleaning tasks. Toss them in with the next load of laundry, and they’ll emerge ready to sop up another spilled glass of apple juice. The trees will thank you for restricting paper towels to their original purpose: picking up pet vomit.
Let others reuse
Animal shelters and veterinarians welcome donations of old blankets, sheets and towels to use as bedding. Staff at Hi Tor animal shelter in Pomona say that they are “desperate” for your castoffs. Check their hours for drop-off times. (65 Firemens Memorial Dr. (845) 354-7900.)
Donate in your community (especially to charities)
Skim off the cream of your unwanted clothing and wearables, and donate to a local organization to use or sell within your community. People to People in Nanuet is always in need of kid and adult wearables in new or almost-new condition. Hometown thrift shops—like Grace’s in Nyack— that support local causes or organizations are also a good resource, but check with them first on their clothing-donation policy.
An evangelical Christian Church with a social service mission, the Salvation Army accepts your donations of gently used clothing, household linens and other wearables. These are sold at their local family stores, and proceeds fund their adult rehabilitation programs, making it possible for men and women in need to attend. Drop donations off at the covered parking lot at the West Nyack Campus, 440 W Nyack Rd. (845) 620-7200.
The Goodwill Industries store at 130 West Route 59, Nanuet (845-624-0187) accepts donations for sale in their thrift stores. The charity’s mission: “Goodwill Industries empowers individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment to gain independence through the power of work.” (Full disclosure: Goodwill Industries has come in for its share of criticism for paying high executive salaries, while using a Depression-era loophole to pay some of its disabled workers well below minimum wage.)
Charity and thrift-shop donations that are not up to selling-floor standards will be sold to textile consolidators. They’ll be kept out of the landfill and will earn some money for your charity of choice.
Textile recovery by local donation is carbon smart: your offerings don’t need to ride around in big trucks or be shipped overseas. And charitable organizations will give you a receipt for your tax deductible gift.
Drop it into a bin
Some of those parking lot donation bins will only take clothing and shoes. Others are more omnivorous: as long as they are not mildewed or otherwise dirty, stinky or contaminated, they will take any kind of textiles, stuffed animals, clothing and accessories. Even torn or stained textiles—like those shredded pj’s—can go in there. Clothing and shoes will most likely be shipped overseas for sale in third-world countries. Other textiles will be cut into rags, or remanufactured (probably overseas as well) into cloth or other products.
If the bin bears the name of a charitable nonprofit, they will get a small share of the proceeds, and you are entitled to a tax receipt if you wish one. Call the phone number on the bin.
Recycle from home
You can finish off your textile-recovery project without ever leaving home. The Salvation Army, and several other organizations, like veteran-run Pick Up Please and Purple Heart Pickup, will come right to your door, or pick up boxes or bags from your porch while you are out. They’ll leave you a receipt for your charitable donation as well.
Or you can print a free shipping label and send off your gently-used clothing and accessories to the Community Recycling textile recovery program. Their donation dashboard lets you track your duds to their destination, where they help people in need.
Upcycle in style
The concept of clothing upcycling has gone far beyond the crafty folks on Etsy or Pinterest. Trendy fashion- and eco-conscious clothing upcycling enterprises, like Sword & Plough, and Reformation, are popping up as green-chic rivals to traditional labels.
Maria Luisa Whittingham, proprietor of Nyack’s landmark clothing boutique Maria Luisa, is an enthusiastic upcycler, with a soft spot for secondhand. “Thrift shops are a great place to shop for clothing and other textiles for up-cycling. Whenever I’m traveling, I look for the Salvation Army, Goodwill and other thrift shops. I just found a roll of a cotton velour fabric that is striking and I just can’t wait to transform it into something new,” says Whittingham.
Look for upcycling-for-beginners workshops at Maria Luisa next year.
Closing the loop
Clothing retailers are just starting to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of the products they sell. H&M, the Swedish multinational clothing-retail company, launched its landmark “Garment Collecting” textile recovery initiative in 2013, as their way of “closing the loop.”
H&M stores, like the one in the Palisades Center Mall, will accept any clothing, in any condition, as well as any home textiles. For each bag of at least three items, customers get a coupon for 15% off a future purchase (see the program website for limits and conditions). H&M states that it will make charitable donations of any income generated by this project.
Why is H&M doing this? “We want to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry by limiting the amount of waste that ends up in landfills,” according to their website.
Check out San Francisco’s aggressive textile recovery program
The “ratty old clothes” problem on NPR Morning Edition: How Not Recycling Old Clothes Can Hurt the Environment
Sustainable Saturdays, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.