Monday, May 20, 2024

Clothes collected from Helpsy bins are stored in a Wilmington warehouse before sale to thrift-store chains and sorting companies. (Photo: Helpsy)

Your favorite T-shirt has seen better days. Now it’s ripped and tattered, and you’re about to toss it in the trash. Stop. You have other options.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American throws out 80 pounds of clothing per year. Discarded clothes, or textiles, as they’re called in the recycling biz, make up about 8 percent of what cities dump in landfills. In 2017, U.S. landfills received 11.2 million tons of textiles, almost seven times more than in 1960.

Recent Cambridge waste audits showed that, by weight, discarded clothes make up between 4 percent to 8 percent of city trash. Many residents are unaware that old and damaged clothing can be recycled, including items such as ripped shirts, underwear and old shoes.

What to do

Boomerangs and Goodwill in Central Square accept used clothing in good condition to resell in their thrift stores. A number of charities have drop-off bins throughout the city.

“People want to do the right thing, but it’s not always clear which nonprofits want what stuff,” said Mike Orr, Cambridge Recycling director. He suggests using the Get Rid of It Right tool, available online or through the Zero Waste Cambridge app.

Type in “clothes good quality” and the tool generates a list of nearby thrift stores and bins; for “clothes poor quality,” the tool directs you to six Helpsy bins across Cambridge.


A Helpsy bin collects materials at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in The Port. (Photo: Martha Henry)

Helpsy is a B Corp, “which means that we’re a for-profit company with a legal mandate to equally prioritize profits, our environmental mission and our social mission,” Helpsy cofounder Dan Green said. The company’s tagline is “Keep clothes out of the trash.”

Helpsy maintains about 1,800 outdoor bins from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania. Cambridge bins are outside schools, which get paid a small amount for each pound of donated material. Helpsy seeks good-quality clothes as well as old and damaged clothes, all of which should be dry, and, ideally, clean and bagged. Clothes accepted include bathing suits, unraveling sweaters and surprisingly, even old underwear. “There’s a great shortage of underwear in general, but particularly of bras, in some pretty big chunks of the developing world,” Green said.

Shoes, including Keds with holes, can be dropped in Helpsy bins. “They would get sold to a kid who would rather have sneakers with holes in them than no sneakers at all,” Green explained.

Clothes collected from bins are trucked to a warehouse in Wilmington. Helpsy also collects overflow from thrift stores – items a store can’t sell or hasn’t had time to sort through.

After workers check for wet items and trash, clothes are baled into 1,000-pound bricks. The material is sold to Helpsy’s customers: thrift-store chains and sorting companies.

“Half the material goes back to thrift stores [U.S. and international], which is what our goal is,” Green said. “Another quarter gets cut into rags. The least valuable quarter is ground into what’s called ‘shoddy’ for carpet padding, insulation, etc. About 5 percent to 7 percent will get thrown out.”

Last year, Helpsy collected about 112,000 pounds of textiles and 27,000 pounds of books from Cambridge bins. “That’s a lot and we’re grateful, but it’s a very small percentage of what’s being thrown away in Cambridge,” Green said.

Student move-out problem

More than 20,000 undergrad and graduate students are housed in Cambridge during the school year, which makes for a messy move-out each May.

Harvard recycling and waste manager Rob Gogan and colleagues have made an art out of diverting reusable items from the trash.

“The undergrads don’t really throw away clothes until the end of the year,” Gogan said. “They’re up to their ears in academic work and final exams, and 24 hours later they have to move out.”

Tasked with emptying their rooms quickly, students must dispose of books, mini-fridges and clothes. Often, they don’t have the hours or wherewithal to recycle or donate goods. Harvard doesn’t want everything to end up in a giant pile of trash. “So we set out collection boxes in the lobbies of all the undergraduate dorms and houses and invite people to donate,” Gogan said.

More than 60,000 pounds of clothes were collected during move-out in 2008 – the highest recorded weight. (By 2015, it was down to 16,000 pounds.) Clothing was sorted and bagged and sold to vendors, with proceeds benefiting the Harvard Habit for Humanity.

What next for Cambridge?

“There are a number of different things we’re looking at,” said Cambridge’s Orr. “One possibility is a curbside textile collection program similar to what Somerville and Brookline have. Another option is working with nonprofits to expand drop-off locations throughout the city.”

When it comes to textile recycling, Somerville is ahead of most cities. “We’re always looking for ways to divert material from the waste stream in an environmental and cost-effective way,” said Oliver Sellers-Garcia, Somerville’s director of sustainability and environment.

Somerville’s textile program launched in July 2018, partnering with Simple Recycling, which operates in cities across the United States. “There’s no cost to the city and its residents, and the material is reused and recycled,” Sellers-Garcia said.

Residents place clothing and other items to discard in pink bags and put them out on the curb on trash day. Simple Recycling picks up bags every week, on the same schedule as trash and recycling pickup. When full bags are picked up, free replacement pink bags are left behind.

“Some people were concerned that it would reduce donations to school drop-offs or the Goodwill or Salvation Army in Somerville, but they’ve actually all risen,” Seller-Garcia said. “It’s counterintuitive, but donations to other locations actually increase because of the general awareness of being able to do something with all that stuff in your house.”

In the first year of Somerville’s program, Simple Recycling collected more than 200,000 pounds of material. “There’s a couple of ways to look at that,” Seller-Garcia said. “One: It’s good that a lot of people are using the program. Two: It’s too bad that we all have so much stuff that we don’t need. I hope we can buy less of it in the future.”

Heartache and value

“If the only reason we got rid of clothing was because it was worn out, that would be my idea of bliss,” Harvard’s Rob Gogan said. “The speed with which people go through clothes is really heart-aching.”

Cambridge’s Orr takes a practical approach. “Textiles are amazingly good items to recycle and among the most valuable items that get thrown away. I strongly suggest that people take the extra time to find a place to donate or recycle their textiles. That could be clothing, bedsheets or towels. There’s a lot of value in all those thrown-away items. We’d love to see that captured.”

Feature image is by yuankuei via Flickr.

Martha Henry is a member of Cambridge’s Recycling Advisory Committee and writes about recycling and consumption.

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