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Textile Reuse Gains Favor as Alternative to Landfill

April 12, 2016

I recently became a grandfather for the first time. When Nicholas's grandmother arrived at my apartment to deliver him to me for babysitting, she handed me a rag for his drooling and informed me that it had been cut out of an old t-shirt. It wasn't a large rag, probably less than a square foot, but it was but one of many current examples of successful textiles reuse.

At a webinar hosted by NERC earlier this year, it was revealed that according to the most recent statistics, 85% of textiles generated each year—the equivalent of 70 pounds per person—is discarded annually. At an average cost of $45 per ton, that adds up to a costly loss of resources.

Not to mention the environmental impacts: diverting textiles from disposal and into the several forms of reuse available would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save water, and reduce the flow of toxins into the environment. Furthermore, according to the Council for Textile Recovery (CTR), the growth in post-consumer textile waste continues to far exceed diversion rates.

Given the demonstrable benefits of textile reuse, the opportunities for joining in the practice are as numerous as the clothes displayed on a rack in your closet. There are, of course, the time-honored traditions of donating used clothing to your local thrift store, or selling it on a consignment basis to a secondhand store. Also, drop-off boxes for used clothing can be found in many communities now; some are managed by nonprofits, and others by businesses that then resell the clothing, often in far-flung regions of the world such as Africa, for a profit. If you prefer your donations to have a component of social good, then research the operators of your local drop-off boxes to help you determine which aligns with your mission.

In its webinars and elsewhere, NERC has documented the growing number of resources available to those who wish to increase their recycling and reuse of textiles. Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), a trade association of the wiping materials, used clothing, and fiber industries, participated in NERC’s textile webinar. SMART's presentation pointed out several of the legislative initiatives the association has sponsored, including a code of conduct for those aforementioned clothing collection bin operators.

SMART has also collaborated with NERC member states, such as Massachusetts' Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), in a campaign aimed at increasing textile recovery. A Textile Summit hosted by Mass DEP in October, 2015, focused on increasing textile recovery rates and the need for collaboration among competing bin operation companies and organizations.

MassDEP also participated on NERC’s webinar, and alerted participants to the International Reuse Conference and Expo, scheduled for October, 2016 in Boston. Among the features of the conference will be a ReFashion Show, which will highlight “fun and sustainable fashion, from off-the-rack thrift finds to upcycled couture designs.”

Textile_NYSAR3In New York, SMART collaborated with CTR and NERC Advisory Member New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling (NYSAR3) in the Re-Clothe New York campaign, which since its launch in 2014 has collected over one million pounds of textiles. The campaign has been so successful that in 2015 it received an Environmental Champion Award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The success of the Re-Clothe New York campaign contributed also to the passage by the State Legislature in December, 2015, of a bill imposing disclosure requirements of bin operators, including whether they are non- or for-profit.

NERC State Member Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) also updated webinar participants on its efforts to increase textile recovery and reuse in the state. Listing the eight primary textile recyclers in Rhode Island, RIRRC's presentation included a textile recycling event held last August at the Warwick Mall. Collection bins from all eight recyclers were prominently displayed, and participants were eligible for prizes donated by the recyclers.

textiles_rirrcIn this era of budget uncertainty at the state level, it is not surprising to learn that government allocations to textile recycling with growing awareness of the benefits of the practice. But, as NERC's webinars and workshops have consistently pointed out, creating and publicizing textile recycling campaigns need not incur significant expense, particularly at the community level.

Available low-cost options include:

  • Announcements in local newspapers and on local television and radio stations.
  • Outreach to schools, churches, nonprofit organizations, and civic groups.
  • Facebook and Twitter announcements.
  • Adding the information to recycling lists and announcements.

Of course, repurposing an old t-shirt into a baby rag is a great example of low-cost textile recovery. And, as my exceptional grandson quickly masters the art of not drooling as much, a quick turn in the washing machine repurposes the rag into a wiping cloth.

By Robert Kropp

Robert Kropp is NERC’s bookkeeper and office manager. He is also a  Vermont-based freelance journalist whose writings on sustainability and corporate responsibility can be read at Images courtesy of RIRRC and NYSAR3.

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