Community donation bins can be of service but, if left unchecked, they can cause blight and become an environmental problem. In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks with Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo about what her community is doing.
* Sighting ongoing blight concerns and parking lot misuse, Ypsilanti Township has put in place a new ordinance to regulate the number of “charity” collection bins. The policy set in July 2016 dictates the size, number, frequency of collection, and placement of the bins.
* Textile waste has increased dramatically according to the Council for Textile Recycling, with Americans tossing over 25 billion pounds of clothes every year, 85% of which ends up in a landfill.
* While some of the bins are the property of local charities, many of them are not; for-profit groups--some of which have names that suggest that they are nonprofit charities--are selling the donations for a profit in third world countries, and a good portion of the textiles are purchased and recycled as rags or ground up for carpet padding.
* In 2014, Maryland-based Planet Aid, a for-profit group that owns numerous bins in the Ypsilanti region, took the township to court, and a judge ruled that the township cannot ban the bins, but they can enact regulatory policies for them.
* Brenda Stumbo, Ypsilanti Township Supervisor, says that while the township has no official stance on the end destination of collected goods, the township encourages recycling and there are a multitude of local organizations in the Ypsilanti-area community that can make use of textile cast offs.
Most textiles are not reused or recycled, and they contribute significantly to the solid waste stream that ends up in our landfills. Much of today’s clothing is not designed to last, with fabrics that tend to break down with wear. A culture of American complacency regarding of cheap, disposable clothing and household goods has become the norm in the past 30 years.
According to grist.org as reported by the Council for Textile Recycling:
– Americans buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980 (that’s a 40 percent increase in textile trash). And with the proliferation of fast, cheap clothing, more and more textiles are ending up in landfills, and more and more charities have to throw these clothes away to because they are unfit to sell.
– Americans throw away over 25 billion pounds of clothes each year, and most of it ends up in landfills. Only 15 percent of clothes get donated or recycled. According to the EPA, textiles and fabrics have one of the lowest recycling rates for any reusable material. This amounts to 82 pounds per person, per year.
– Even legitimate charities like the Goodwill only end up selling about 20 percent of what gets donated in their retail stores anyway. The rest gets sold to — guess who — textile recycling companies that either sell the clothes to overseas markets or pound them down to make industrial rags and carpeting materials.
According the Council for Textile Recycling, over 5% of municipal solid waste is textiles. The amount of textile waste has increased 40% from 1999 to 2009, while diversion has only increased 2%.
According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, 95% of textiles can be reused or recycled, but currently 85% is landfilled. Of the approximately 15% of clothing that is recycled, 45% is reused and worn second-hand. The rest is repurposed as industrial rags (30%), ground into fiber for other purposes such as carpet padding (20%) and 5% is unusable.
Controversial For-Profit Bins
Many of the bins in Ypsilanti Township are owned by for-profit textile recycling businesses, but the bins are labeled “donation” or have names that sound like the items are destined for charity. However, if the bins do not outright advertise that they belong to a charity, this is not illegal.
While some may feel the seemingly charitable purpose of these bins is misleading, from a recycling standpoint, much of what is collected is repurposed or recycled. The materials are diverted from the landfill. The companies that own the bins make money by selling the goods to small second-hand retailers in poor countries or to factories that produce new products from the fibers.
In some ways, the for-profit nature of textile recycling is no different from other types of recycling. Municipal recycling collectors sell almost all of the materials they collect from households to materials processing facilities (MURFs), and profits are generated by both the (MURFs) and the businesses that further process the materials.
Clothing, linens, and other household goods differ from other recyclable and reusable items in that they are often discarded when the owner deems them unfashionable or unflattering. This is unlike most household recycling (i.e. plastics, cardboard, glass, etc...) which have reached an endpoint for use. Perhaps, this is why the controversy over for-profit collection persists. Those who donate may find the bins distasteful because they would prefer for the goods to be reused at no cost by those who cannot afford new items.
Still the issue is complex. Some argue that outright donation of secondhand goods undercuts small businesses that sell secondhand goods to merchants in poor, less-developed countries. According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, “Oxfam [a respected, global nonprofit that advocates for third-world causes] applauds the secondhand clothing industry because its clothing sales create jobs and affordable apparel in numerous lesser developed countries. Many people in these countries cannot afford locally made new clothing. Many people in these countries earn their livelihood by selling used clothing. New clothing businesses in developing countries can make more money producing clothing for export to wealthier countries in Europe and North America than selling them locally.”
It can be argued that any operation that keeps textiles out of the waste stream helps cut down on the environmental impact from disposable clothing and household goods. The production of textiles requires a significant amount of toxic chemicals. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are produced from fossil fuels, and even natural fibers, including most cotton, is grown using a lot of pesticide.
For those who want their used goods to stay in the local community there are numerous alternatives to the collection bins. In the greater Washtenaw County region, St. Vincent de Paul, Purple Heart, Goodwill, Easter Seals, and the Salvation Army are nationally recognized groups accepting gently used clothing and goods.
Local groups accepting donations include the PTO Thrift Shop in Ann Arbor, SOS Crisis Shelter in Ypsilanti, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, the Share House, and Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor. Many local churches and small non-profits run collections and are eager for quality items for rummage sales or outreach, but you must call to determine when the collections are and what is accepted. Recycle Ann Arbor and the Reuse Store accept up to 3 large garbage bags of textiles for recycling, so this is a good option for textiles that are stained or otherwise ruined.
Some items may still end up in the for-profit stream. According to grist.org, “...you should know this too is not a simple act — there’s still a good chance that donations made to your Goodwills, your Salvation Armies, your St. Vincent de Pauls, and your Vietnam Veterans of Americas will end up back with a for-profit textile recycler. Charities can typically only sell 20 percent or less of their donations in retail stores; textile recyclers buy up the rest. "