Rewear, Reuse, Recycle | Boulder Weekly

Fri March 27, 2015

Original story published in Boulder Weekly

On average, the U.S. generates about 25 billion pounds of textiles each year — 85 percent of which end up in landfills, according to the nonprofit Council for Textile Recycling.

With post-consumer textile waste accounting for more than 5 percent of all municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. each year, the need for convenient solutions to a complex problem are becoming crucial.

“There haven’t been a lot of studies made on the climate change impact of clothing, but one statistic that stands out is that the global textile industry is responsible for 10 percent of the global carbon emissions,” says Mattias Wallander, CEO of USAgain.

USAgain is a Denver-based, for-profit company that takes unwanted textiles and resells them to keep them out of landfills. By operating 14,000 collection bins in 19 states, including 10 located in Boulder, USAgain attempts to make recycling a practice interwoven into the fabric of communities, because, as Wallander points out, it’s not just about waste piling up in landfills.

“One pound of clothing, so two T-shirts, emits 15 pounds of CO2,” Wallander says. “So in order to manufacture — to grow the cotton, to ship it to China to make the T-shirt, to ship it back over here — you have created 15 times the weight of the garment in carbon emissions.”

However, it seems clear that clothing recycling is a growing trend. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 2.3 million tons of clothing were recovered in the U.S. for recycling in 2012 — compared to the 1.3 million tons recovered in 2009.

But there are obstacles. One issue facing the textile recycling industry, Wallander says, is the somewhat misleading notion that many of the organizations are not for-profit. Wallander says he feels that companies should be required to list their status as a for-profit company on collection bins, and that the companies responsible for those bins should be required to keep up maintenance.

“It’s kind of a squirrely industry,” says Dan Match, facility operator for Boulder’s Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM). “It’s been fairly common that a lot of those collection boxes that are in parking lots, they sort of present themselves in a somewhat misleading way. In other words, they imply that by bringing your clothing, by putting your clothing in that bin, you’re donating to some charitable cause. Whereas the reality very often is, yeah they might give a charitable donation at the end of the year, or they might even be directly tied to a charity, but it’s a for-profit organization, and they don’t necessarily present themselves in that way. And it also has been kind of a shadowy, rather opaque industry in terms of, who is behind all these boxes? Where is this stuff going? Should I be participating in it or not?”

Wallander says that being for-profit is actually a “sustainable model.”

“We have a triple bottom line mission — for people, for planet, for profit,” he adds. “By being profitable, by paying living wages, by contributing to the local community by paying taxes, we are creating a model that’s sustainable into the future for reusing and recycling textiles where we’re not depending on grants or government contributions or anything like that. It’s a business, but it’s a business that’s doing something good.”

Last year, Colorado residents diverted 2 million pounds of textiles, which “prevented 17 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, saved more than 3 billion gallons of water and 14,325 cubic yards of landfill space,” according to a press release from USAgain, using figures from an EPA Office of Solid Waste Report.

The Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), an international, recyclingbased nonprofit trade association comprised of nearly 200 companies in the textile recycling industry, says that 45 percent of recycled textiles are reused as apparel, 30 percent is cut into wiping rags or polishing cloths, 20 percent is reprocessed into its basic fiber content and remanufactured to create things like furniture stuffing and upholstery, and 5 percent is simply unusable and is discarded.

The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) outlines three classifications of recycled textiles — post industrial, by-product from yarn and fabric manufacturing and post-consumer. Once categorized, the textiles are manually sorted as “wearable,” and resold domestically and abroad, or “unwearable,” and sold to the flocking industry for shredding and respinning. Companies grade incoming material according to type and color, making redying unnecessary. The World Bank estimates that almost 20 percent of industrial water pollution is due to textile dying and treatment, and that up to 72 chemicals found in polluted water come directly from the textile dying process — 30 of which cannot be removed or completely extracted.

Sixty-one percent of clothes recovered for second-hand use are exported, and, according to the BIR, more than 80 percent of the population of many African countries dress themselves in second-hand clothing. While much of the domestically recycled textiles are utilized abroad, the environmental impact can be felt globally.

“In these last 15 years that USAgain has been in existence, the world population has grown by about 1 billion people, and most of that growth has been in less developed countries where the competing priorities of food, shelter, water, clothing, medical care and education makes it impossible for many people to even have the option of buying new clothing,” Wallander says. “And with used clothing being sold at maybe one-tenth or one-twentieth of the price of new clothing, that means that people have more money available for other basic needs.”