If you decide to declutter and donate, it’s a nice thought that someone else will enjoy wearing your discarded clothes. But many of these boxed-up belongings never make it on the rack. That cheap, trendy top worn one season and unwanted the next could get bundled into an 800-pound bale of textiles, bound for Africa or someplace that needs a new stack of rags.
Welcome to the world of fast fashion, where impulse purchases and feel-good “deals” feed a mass-market mentality that views clothing as disposable.
In 2012, Americans generated 14.3 million tons of textile waste and only recycled 15.7 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The amount of discarded clothing and household fabrics has risen from 1.8 million tons first reported in 1960.
Up to a point, charities and for-profit companies stand to benefit from this type of consumer behavior if apparel can be salvaged.
Goodwill of the Great Plains, headquartered in Sioux City, recycled about 9 million pounds of clothes last year, according to CEO John Hantla. Broken down, that’s nearly 25,000 pounds per day spread across 22 retail stores in the nonprofit’s territory.
“We encourage people to bring clothes no matter what their condition is,” Hantla said. “I’ve heard a lot of people tell me, ‘Gee, I’ve got some clothes and I wanted to give them to Goodwill, but then, I thought I shouldn’t because they probably can’t sell them.’ … We can recycle that and that provides jobs for people. There’s still value in their donation.”
In the warehouse, sorters look at the material donations that come in and decide where it should go.
Clothing that’s ripped, stained or torn is tossed in a salvage pile. Hantla estimated 60 percent of what’s received is sold in the thrift store.
If something doesn’t sell in four weeks, it’s removed from the shop and added to one of the cardboard boxes of textiles, ready to be compacted into 800-pound bales and sold to a distributor that may export the apparel or make it into another product.
According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, a nonprofit trade association, 45 percent of castoff clothing is re-used as apparel. These items are generally processed into large bales – like those at Goodwill – and then sold to secondhand clothing stores in the U.S. or exported to nations with emerging markets, where there is high demand for quality used clothing.
The other half is cut into rags for industrial use or reprocessed into furniture stuffing, upholstery, home insulation, carpet padding or other post-consumer fiber. Five percent of salvaged clothing is deemed unusable.
RAGS TO RICHES
Goodwill addresses America’s textile-waste problem at the back end by providing an outlet to get rid of clothes – something it’s been doing as far back as the 1940s on the cusp of postwar consumerism.
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Percentage-wise, people spend less on clothes, but more garments are becoming textile trash.
In 1901, clothing made up 14 percent of average annual expenditures, compared to little more than 3 percent in recent years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nationwide, the textile recycling industry generates a significant revenue stream and source of employment.
The Junior League of Sioux City raised about $120,000 through its thrift store last year, according to Discovery Shop Chair Kara Obbink. Proceeds provide funding for Community Impact Projects, which range from the Discovery Forest Nature Playscape at the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center to the interactive Hands-On! Gallery at the Sioux City Art Center.
The Discovery Shop, at 316 West Seventh St., serves as the sole fundraiser for the local women’s civic group. Members are asked to donate $175 worth of merchandise annually.
Here again, not all charitable contributions are sold in the store.
“The Gospel Mission picks up merchandise from us – either stuff we have not sold in a certain period of time or merchandise that we are not going to be able to put out on the sales floor,” Obbink said. “They pick up and use what they can out of it.”
Some companies like USAgain are cashing in on unwanted clothes, shoes and accessories by collecting items and selling them for a profit to wholesale buyers, thrift store chains and textile recyclers.
Seven green and white, street-side bins are located throughout Sioux City for convenient clothing disposal. USAgain, based out of Chicago, took in 55 million pounds of textiles in 2013 from more than 14,000 collection bins, essentially diverting clothes from landfills but also from nonprofit organizations that depend on material donations to remain viable.
At Goodwill of the Great Plains, the retail recycling system provides jobs and financial support for programs and services like Camp Goodwill and the Connection Center, which helped place more than 1,500 workers last year, Hantla said.
One morning, he walked through the warehouse on West Fourth Street, pointing out piles of recyclable e-waste and corrugated cardboard. A forklift, carting a big box of old shoes, drove by pallets of plastic-wrapped computer towers. Around the corner, a sea of secondhand clothing was bound for the baler.
Hantla picked up a sombrero.
“I’ve been working here for 32 years. I’ve been the CEO since 1996. I’ve seen all of it, and I don’t want any of it,” he said with a laugh. “I give a lot more to Goodwill than I’ve ever bought. To me it’s just stuff, stuff that changes lives.”