Textile Recycling: Myth or Reality?

Over the last year we learned a lot about the textile recycling industry. Mainly, we’ve learned what textile ‘recycling’ really is: an export industry. We’ve also come to find that textile ‘recycling,’ while possible in theory, is in actuality a myth.

Simply put, textile recycling is not truly recycling. While it may be true that 98% of textiles can be recycled, in reality 85% of all textiles are sent to landfill (and this number is closer to 90-95% if you account for reporting errors). We believe this is, in great part, due to high barriers to entry and the lack of vision and entrepreneurial spirit in the sector - all of which we hope to change.

Photo Credit: Carrie Healy for NEPR

Photo Credit: Carrie Healy for NEPR

To start, there are unrealistic minimums required to actually recycle textiles. Companies need around 40,000 pounds of sorted textiles at a time to be eligible for recycling -- that's the equivalent of one 53-foot trailer loaded with compressed bales of clothing.

Even if you want to sort and sell recyclables, the storage costs are prohibitive. You can’t just store one truck of recyclables at a time, you have to store sorted inventory: one truck for white cotton, one for polyesters, one for mixed cotton, one for shoes, etc.

We go out of our way to recycle, beyond what is reasonably expected for a company of our size. But for many small businesses, it’s difficult to justify the cumulative costs of recycling.

It’s simply too expensive. Even the largest clothing collectors cannot justify the sorting and storage costs demanded by buyers (we know, because we’ve been talking to the largest clothing collector in our area that generates over 150,000 pounds a week, and even they can’t meet these minimums!).

These factors combined mean materials that might otherwise be recycled end up in landfill.  

The Commodity Market of Used Clothes

Over the past year, we’ve gained a better understanding of how the secondhand clothing trade operates. We’ve had to.

Secondhand clothes are sold on the commodity market, meaning used clothes are grouped into different categories and sold by weight. Within that market, there are three specific categories :

  1. Credential: This is the most expensive category, selling for $0.15 to $0.35 per pound. These are “untouched” donations, meaning that the clothes the donors give gets sold as is, often still in the bags in which they were donated. Most of these items end up overseas.

  2. Institutional (or ‘mixed rags’): Prices in this category vary based on the institution selling the goods, usually selling for $0.08 to $0.20 per pound. These are re-sellable clothing items that did not sell in thrift stores. Contrary to the term ‘mixed rags,’ recyclables are not allowed as they devalue the bales. Most of these items also end up overseas.

  3. Wipers: Prices in this category usually sell for less than $0.10 per pound. These are considered ‘true rags’ and may include ripped, torn, stained, and/or soiled items. These must be sorted into specific categories, such as white cotton or polyester or mixed cotton. This category is primarily focused on manufacturing waste, since sorting and storage makes this category cost prohibitive for clothing collectors.

We’ve learned, firsthand, about the shortcomings of each of these classifications. For one, they support the export market, which is something we don’t do. Further, whatever items don’t meet institutionalized market standards are sent to landfill (usually unreported). Only a handful of export companies actually recycle in house, and as of yet, we have not been able to find a recycling partner that doesn’t export.

The Dilemma Facing Small Businesses

WOVIN’s distributed model means we don’t have the ability to generate minimum purchase quantities. Instead of having one large warehouse servicing an area, we operate a number of small collection and sorting units, giving us the ability to service an entire region for the same cost or less. This means we don't meet minimum purchase quantities at any one location, which is mandatory in order to sell directly to recyclers.

But we’re not the only ones. Even the largest clothing collectors cannot justify the sorting and storage costs demanded by buyers (we know, because we’ve been talking to the largest clothing collector in our area that generates over 150,000 pounds a week - and even they can’t meet these minimums!). It’s simply too expensive.

Here are our two main takeaways:  

  • The secondary clothing market, as it stands, is geared toward exports, not recycling.

  • There is no cost effective market for recyclables, which makes it cheaper and easier to  thrown textiles into landfill.

Textile Recycling - Infographic.jpg

What we need is for local governments and waste management companies to serve as intermediaries between clothing collectors / charities and the real textile recycling industry (not the exporters).

There needs to be a place where recyclables can be stored until there is enough for a textile recycler to purchase. Otherwise, the gap is just too large for charities and recyclers to close.

Experiencing Disconnect in the Bay Area

There is no textile recycling program in Silicon Valley.

The only textile recycling option in the Bay Area involves driving recyclables to Recology’s San Francisco transfer station (100 mile round trip, or more) and paying $155 per ton to unload. Add transportation and labor costs, and it costs a small company like ours between $750 and $1,000 per week to recycle textiles. And there is no guarantee that the items will NOT be exported and/or sent to landfill.

Now compare the above costs with your typical trash collection fee of less than $500 per month. Which would you choose?  

The Solution: Does One Exist?

As it stands, textile recycling simply isn’t accessible to small businesses, especially those who don't agree with the export market. For most businesses recycling costs drive their decision, and sadly, throwing clothes away, directly or indirectly, is the cheaper, easier, and more realistic option.

But WOVIN is working to change the state of the textile recycling industry. We’re working with local government, clothing collectors, charities, waste authorities, and other stakeholders to create a solution to this problem. We may not have all the answers, but we’re actively seeking opportunities for dialogue and potential partnerships.

Textile recycling is a myth, but it doesn’t have to be. And we are doing our best to make it accessible to everyone.

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