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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Levi Strauss & Co Sponsored Series

Sustainably Attired

San Francisco Program Provides a Roadmap for Eliminating Textile Waste

By Mary Mazzoni
I:CO textile recycling San Francisco

More than 25 billion pounds of textiles are discarded in the U.S. annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which equates to about 70 pounds per person, per year. Only about 15 percent of these textiles are collected for reuse or recycling, meaning a staggering 21 billion pounds of clothing and footwear remain destined for the landfill.

Those numbers are pretty grim, especially when you consider what it takes to produce the average shoe or garment: Manufacturing one T-shirt can consume up to 7,900 gallons of water and create 3.6 kilograms of carbon emissions. At the same time, 95 percent--some even say 100 percent--of the materials that make up our favorite fashions are reusable or recyclable, Jennifer Gilbert, chief marketing officer for I:CO, told Triple Pundit, and the water and carbon footprint of manufacturing can be slashed by up to 95 percent by using recycled feedstocks.

I:CO, which stands for "I collect," is a global, end‐to‐end solutions provider for apparel, footwear and other textiles reuse and recycling. Through its simple take‐back system and worldwide infrastructure, I:CO aims to keep used clothing and shoes in a continuous closed loop product cycle. The company began in Europe five years ago and came across the pond to the U.S. back in 2011. By partnering with top retail brands from around the world, including Levi Strauss & Co., H&M, Puma and the North Face, I:CO gives consumers the resources to recycle used textiles, as well as the education they need to make a behavior change.

The senselessness of tossing valuable materials into the landfill while expending staggering resources to create similar products from virgin feedstocks is more than enough justification for such a program. But Gilbert says an increase in textile recycling is as beneficial for people and profit as it is for the planet--reducing tipping fees, creating jobs and establishing closed loop manufacturing systems in cities around the world.

"It's all about economic growth: creating jobs, increasing awareness and having this become a way of life," she told Triple Pundit. "Our goal is to truly eliminate waste."

To take things a step further, I:CO launched its first ever I:CO City initiative with the city of San Francisco earlier this year. The launch creates a public, private and nonprofit infrastructure to make it convenient and rewarding for residents and businesses to recycle textile related items. In alignment with San Francisco’s goal of zero waste by 2020, I:CO will serve as the lead textile collection and processing partner to divert waste from landfill and give it new life.

I:CO, San Francisco and the Zero Waste Textile Initiative

Dubbed the Zero Waste Textile Initiative by the city of San Francisco, the I:CO City initiative makes it seamless and simple to recycle unwanted textiles. When I:CO approached the city looking to create something of a beta test for its infrastructure-based closed loop system, it seemed like a perfect match.

On its quest to achieve zero waste by 2020, San Francisco identified textiles as a major challenge: Before the I:CO partnership, textile waste comprised 3.4 percent of the city's total waste stream--making it one of the top 10 landfilled materials. Although the city boasts the highest recycling rate in the country at 80 percent, it still sends more than 4,500 pounds of textiles to the landfill every hour, Gilbert said.

To solve the problem, I:CO and its retail partners set up more than 100 collection bins at retail stores, apartment complexes, schools and public buildings around the city, and began awareness campaigns to encourage residents to recycle their clothes and footwear. After the items are picked up by I:CO, the company works with third party sorters and graders to break them into 400 different categories to allocate as second‐hand clothing, reuse as cloths, recycled into fibers and paddings, or upcycled into a product of equal or higher quality.

"We want to sort until there's nothing left to sort," Gilbert told us with a laugh.

Collecting with end use in mind

I:CO partners with brands to collect used clothing and shoes at retail outlets and reward the customer for their efforts, effectively extending product responsibility for manufacturers and allowing them to embrace sustainability as part of their goals. Each retail partner is also given the chance to select a charity recipient for all proceeds that come from collected clothes. But, as Gilbert pointed out, collection is only the beginning: "It's not only about dropping clothes in a box, and our partners know that," she told us.

I:CO's main goal is to create an end use for each of its 400 textile categories. While items in poor condition are often reused for cleaning cloths or downcycled into fiber for padding and insulation, the company has seen great success in creating new clothing from tossed textiles. It should be noted that this is easier said than done: Much like paper, textile fibers shorten and degrade when they are recycled--meaning they have to be combined with virgin material to create a durable garment.

Despite these challenges, I:CO and its partners recently created a product made from 40 percent post-consumer recycled cotton and 40 percent post-consumer recycled polyester--an industry first. It also worked with H&M to create a five-look denim line made from 20 percent recycled fibers collected by I:CO. Although Levi's Waste<Less and Water<Less jean collections were not done in partnership with I:CO, Gilbert pointed to them as examples that brands don't have to sacrifice style to reduce environmental impact.

Though these efforts are surely promising, Gilbert said that I:CO hopes to continue expanding its network of partners to create more end uses for collected waste.

"It's about constantly connecting those dots around the world, creating jobs and creating a more sustainable world," Gilbert said, using up-and-coming designers searching for off-cuts and fine shoe manufacturers seeking recycled leather as examples of successful partnerships. "Our goal is that every textile collected will ultimately never be landfilled and will have a new life."

The company also works with manufacturers to manage surplus and returned goods, as well as production seconds, through its I:CO blue program.

What's next for San Francisco?

I:CO plans to use its partnership with San Francisco as a 'beta test,' collecting feedback, honing its collection categories and tweaking its processes, so it can launch strong in other cities around the world, Gilbert told us.

Eliminating the 20,000 tons of textile waste San Francisco currently sends to the landfill will likely take a while, but when it comes to establishing a truly closed loop system, creating the infrastructure is truly most of the job.

"We'd love to have San Francisco be that closed loop, cradle to cradle process, where you can buy a product made from locally collected materials in each category," Gilbert said. "Look out for 2020!"

Image credit: I:CO via Facebook

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni