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Mattias Wallander Headshot

Textile Recycling: (Don't) Curb Your Enthusiasm

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Textile recycling is becoming increasing popular, not just among green moms who are finding creative uses for old T-shirts and eco-conscious college students who are shopping at thrift stores, but also more and more with the municipalities that need to be focusing in on this important issue and have the ability to make a measurable impact on the amount of textiles going into landfills.

With the EPA estimating that more than 85 percent of the over 13 million tons of textiles discarded in the U.S. annually ends up in the trash, we need to implement easy access to textile recycling.

Obviously, discarded textiles are bad for the environment and clog up landfills but what is less understood is that they also damage city balance sheets. An urban area with a population of 50,000 annually pays for the handling and disposal of 3,000 tons of textiles. It looks like cities are finally taking note that recycling textiles doesn't just cost them -- but could actually help them earn too.

Last month the town of Queen Creek, Arizona made headlines when they teamed up with a textile recycling company to expand their curbside recycling services to include the collection of items like towels, clothing, blankets, sheets and shoes -- a first in the U.S. they say.

Residents in Queen Creek can recycle textiles by simply putting them in a special bag and placing them on the sidewalk along with their other recyclables. The four-month pilot program, which launched in September, will be available to about 7,000 households and will bring in revenue for the town too. Queen Creek will receive 10 cents for every pound collected from their textile-recycling partner and the program also donate another 10 cents for every ton collected to the Boys and Girls Club of Queen Creek.

Just a few weeks ago, communities outside Philadelphia announced a similar new pilot curbside textile-recycling program to the one in Queen Creek that will be available to about 3,000 households.

Today most household recycling is handled curbside, but there are challenges to collecting textiles in the way that most cities and towns currently collect paper, glass and plastic. In a regular single stream or dual sort curbside program textiles can easily become ruined and contaminated if they are mixed with wet and dirty glass, plastic and aluminum, and packed in a compactor truck. Additionally there is the challenge of cost, having separate trucks for textile pick-up can be expensive to operate and may not be cost-effective given that the average family may only be putting textiles on the curb every few weeks. However there is at least one example of an innovative solution from an organization that has been collecting textiles curbside in Minnesota municipalities for more than a decade.

In the Twin Cities, USAgain partners with the award winning zero-waste organization Eureka! Recycling, a nonprofit that has been collecting used clothing as a part of its curbside-recycling program since 2001. Based in Minneapolis, Eureka! holds the municipal recycling contracts with St Paul and several surrounding communities such as Arden Hills, Lauderdale, Roseville, and St. Louis Park. A great deal of thought has been put into designing their program to reduce waste at every step in the process. Their recycling trucks have compartments that keep materials separate to avoid contamination and increase material reuse value. Bags of clothing share a compartment with cardboard so the clothing stays clean and dry and the bags don't rip.

Last spring, NYC stepped up its game when the city formed a partnership with Housing Works, a group that helps homeless people who are HIV-positive pick up donated clothing at apartment buildings in one of the first large-scale consumer textile recycling programs in the country. With New Yorkers trashing approximately 200,000 tons of apparel annually these types of programs are essential. The program, called Re-Fashion NYC, is placing clothes collection bins at apartment buildings and businesses across the city.

While curbside textile recycling maybe difficult to implement for municipalities, many cities are encouraging textile recycling through the use of convenient drop boxes where residents can discard unwanted clothing, shoes and other reusable textiles at their convenience. Cities and towns can earn revenue from such partnerships. With America Recycles Day around the corner, I urge cities and towns across the country to consider what they are doing to encourage textile recycling -- to save the environment and cash.

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