It's second nature: Most North Americans don't think twice when it comes to recycling old clothes they no longer use. According to a report published by thrift retailer Savers, more than 70 percent of consumers polled said they often donated their usable, resellable clothing to thrift stores. A quarter or more of those polled said they made sure family members or friends received those reusable shirts, jeans or kids clothing that their family had outgrown.
And those habits are no coincidence. For our grandparents and great-grandparents, passing our clothing, shoes and baby blankets to the next generation wasn't just a personal choice. It was an ingrained habit that helped ensure those just starting out would have the clothing and bedding they needed in harder times.
Today, our recycle and reuse habits are often motivated by environmental concerns. Half of those surveyed said the environmental impact of the new-clothing industry mattered to them and was a great motivator toward recycling and buying used clothing. The amount of water lost in making new clothes, for example, had an influence on where consumers bought that next outfit.
But those same conscientious choices aren't always as evident when it comes to textiles we don't think can be reused. An old sock with a heel missing, for example, is less likely to be donated to a charity for recycling. So is a soiled, torn shirt or place mats that have seen one too many dinner parties. Textiles deemed to be unworthy of reuse are often a large part of the 250 million tons of waste U.S. residents send to the landfill.
In the province of Nova Scotia, Canada, nonprofits are working to turn that statistic around. Six organizations, Value Village (a subsidiary of Savers) the Canadian Diabetes Association Clothesline, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Salvation Army Thrift Store, Canadian Red Cross and Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation have joined forces to promote AFTeRwear. The recycling program is a province-wide network of collection points and donation drives run by the participating sponsors (The Canadian Red Cross and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation work with local recycling organizations, LML Trading and Eastern Recyclers, that help them collect and distribute donated goods.)
The organizations collect and bring bulk donations to Value Village, where they are sorted according to potential use. Those items that can be resold in the thrift store are prepared for resale. Textiles that aren't eligible for the sales floor don't get tossed out; they are sold to other companies that repurpose them into wiping cloths and other secondary products.
The program not only helps divert textiles from the landfill, but also raises money for some of Nova Scotia's most important nonprofits, said Tony Shumpert, vice president of reuse and recycling operations for Savers. Organizations are paid for the bulk poundage they bring into the store, providing another revenue stream for things like youth-mentoring programs through Big Brothers Big Sisters.
"Donation bins [are] located all across Nova Scotia," Shumpert told TriplePundit. The drop-off points are located in high-traffic areas -- like malls, grocery stores and gas stations, Value Village and Salvation Army stores -- so residents don't have to go far to drop off their donations. Nonprofits like the Canadian Diabetes Association and the Canadian Red Cross manage bins and receptacles as well. This multi-prong approach helped spread the word not only about the social benefits of donating textiles, but the environmental benefits as well.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about what can be done with textiles," Shumpert said. Savers' research shows that consumers often think that if a product can't be cleaned up and resold in the thrift store, it isn't worth donating. But many types of textiles are incredibly versatile.
Items that can't be sold on Value Village's sales floor are directed toward alternative sales streams. Some are sold overseas to markets that may still be able to use, say, a shirt with a small stain on it. Others are sold to be repurposed as industrial wiping rags. Still others end up as "shoddy," or yarn that has been broken down and woven into newer products. These tertiary markets not only help keep textiles out of the landfill, but also support a growing demand for recycled fabric.
The AFTeRwear program also complements Nova Scotia's own mandate to reduce landfill waste. The province's support for comprehensive textile recycling and reuse fits in line with its other innovative approaches toward waste diversion, Shumpert said.
"My experience in Nova Scotia is it appears to be a very collaborative environment," he told us. The province's mercury collection program points toward that innovative spirit where public-private partnership fill an important role in community-wide programs. "We recently discovered that used textiles here in Nova Scotia make up at least 10 percent of [the province's] waste stream. That number is a fairly high number compared to other areas." That realization, Shumpert said, has helped bring the public and private sectors together in search for an answer. The result was AFTeRwear.
The program is now in its third year and, according to Shumpert, its success is already being measured. In 2015, 11 million pounds of textiles were redirected in Nova Scotia alone. Value Village's two stores, in Halifax and Dartmouth, handled the bulk of the donations. Half of the donations were either sold in the stores or sold to overseas marketers. The majority of those products that wouldn't have stood up to the discerning eye of the consumer were repurposed as wiping rags or shoddy for alternative products. Only about 5 percent of that 11 million pounds ended up as waste.
"It is a pretty efficient process," Shumpert explained. "We keep working on ways to get that 5 percent even lower."
And the program is growing, with a new store in New Minas Nova Scotia expected to open soon.
"The topic of textiles recycling and reuse is getting a lot of traction," Shumpert said. He noted a "growing awareness" in many cities in Canada, as well as the United States, of the need for a circular economy that addresses not just how we deal with paper, plastics and those things we commonly associate with carbon emissions, but our clothes and housing materials as well.
"Mitigating textile waste has recently become one of the areas that [cities now] focus on," when it comes to mapping successful recycle and reuse policies and bylaws, he told 3p. "It continues to get more and more attention, and I think we'll see more [programs] like this in the future."
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.