Hennepin County started a recycling program for clothes and other textiles in 2016 to help cut a growing stream of trash headed to landfills. Just three years later, the county has ended the service — but not for lack of need.
Despite a national boom in new and cheap clothing, Hennepin County officials said they couldn’t find a vendor who could ensure the textiles picked up were actually being recycled in a sprawling global market. And the county isn’t the only one with such troubles.
Eureka Recycling is weighing whether to stop collecting textiles in St. Paul, which is the largest of several cities it contracts with, or significantly change its program. There are companies still accepting textiles that can be used without fixing or alteration, but Hennepin County is now urging people to buy less new clothing.
“Many Americans have closets filled with clothing that they don’t wear,” said Carolyn Collopy, the waste reduction and recycling supervisor at Hennepin County.
A program declines
In 2017, textiles made up 6.3 percent of U.S. waste. That includes clothes, but also belts, handbags, draperies, bedding and other things made of fabric. The vast majority of that has been sent to landfills.
Between 2000 and 2017, textiles in landfills grew from 6.28 million tons to 11.15 million tons. In the prior 40 years, the amount of textile trash grew by only 4.57 million tons. Collopy said the trend is due in part to the “fast fashion” world in which companies market an ever-changing rotation of cheap clothing. “It’s thinner fabrics, they’re not as durable,” she said. “The cost is so inexpensive that you don’t have to really think if you want it.”
Recycling has increased too, and there are many options for textiles in good condition. Goodwill and the Salvation Army are common destinations. USAgain, another textile recycling company, has drop-boxes for the clothes, too.
But Collopy said the county wanted to be a resource for all types of used textiles, including items that are torn or soiled. They solicited just one bid from USAgain in 2016 to buy the county’s textile recycling and have partnered with the company since.
Over the years, however, Collopy said USAgain made clear it really wanted usable clothing. The county did not want to compete with Goodwill and other companies, she said.
USAgain was also selling the material in other countries, primarily in South and Central America. The usable textiles are typically bought, but the rest could be recycled or thrown away. The county said USAgain wasn’t sure. “Once it leaves the country there is just so little information and tracking that we just don’t know what’s happening to it,” Collopy said.
The county searched for another vendor that could ensure all the textiles would be recycled, but came up empty. Collopy said it would be “disingenuous” to keep the program operating.
St. Paul reconsiders
The city of Minneapolis does not have a textile recycling program. But Eureka has picked up textiles in St. Paul for decades. As part of its residential recycling contract with the city, it also sends the material to USAgain. Yet amid similar troubles to Hennepin County, the nonprofit earned a grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to study the best way to run a textile recycling program.
Lynn Hoffman, co-president of Eureka, said the research was aimed first at the best collection system for efficient and environmentally-friendly pickup of various textiles. But she said they also looked at “end markets” and how best to support local reuse.
Hoffman said an anecdotal survey of residents showed many people were selling reusable things, swapping them with friends or donating items to charity. But they were sending their “college choir T-shirt full of paint” to the recycling bins.
Demand for that type of material has dropped with the quality of clothes, Hoffman said. For instance, she said a once robust “rags” market for scrap textiles for uses such as “absorbent towels” and insulation has been dented because there are less clothes made entirely of cotton. Mixed materials and polyester are more common, she said.
“What’s happening is it’s just ending up in a landfill somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere,” Hoffman said of local recycling efforts.
Hoffman said Eureka has concluded that it may have to refashion its program to take primarily high quality, reusable clothes despite decades of preaching “worn and torn.” That could be an option for new recycling efforts elsewhere, but it would take time and money in St. Paul. The city could also drop the program altogether.
“I know the city is really weighing those options and working with us because we really want to be transparent with people about what’s happening,” Hoffman said.
Like Minneapolis, Ramsey County doesn’t collect or market textiles. The county’s environmental health division director, Zack Hansen, said the range of organizations already handling the job are one reason why. Although Hansen said Ramsey and Washington County’s recycling board has earmarked some money to study existing options and whether to support them.
“That said, Ramsey County is also challenged in finding out what exactly happens to textiles after collection,” Hansen said. “It is hard to get information out of this industry. As we proceed, we want to make sure that if textiles are promoted for recycling, that it actually is recycled.”
A plea to reduce and reuse
Not every recycling operation reports trouble tracking its textiles. Melissa Becker, a spokeswoman for Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota, said the organization’s textiles not sold at stores or online predominantly go to Pakistan. Some also end up in a few African and Central American countries.
When the material arrives, it’s either resold as is, repurposed or turned into rags. Becker said those who buy Goodwill products have an incentive to sell it to recoup the original cost. “Ultimately, the textile waste is minimal,” she said.
Collopy, at Hennepin County, said to cut trash, people should buy used clothing and think harder about buying new things. She also recommended buying durable clothing and fixing it when things break, rather than tossing it.
The county has “fix-it clinics” every month to teach people how to mend. When textiles reach their end, she said people can always rip them up to make napkins or rags. “Garbage would be the last resort,” she said.