an Francisco is known for its thrift store scene, popular among many of the hip, eco-minded residents of the Bay Area. This trend is gaining traction -- in 2009, an estimated 3.8 billion pounds of fabric were kept out of U.S. landfills through used-clothing operations, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.
However, even clothing of the highest quality simply doesn’t last forever. Whether it’s a coffee spill that ruins your favorite sweater, or the duct tape finally falling off the sole of your boot, clothes reach the end of their lifespan. And once you’re past wearing them, it can be hard to imagine your worn-out garments on the rack of a thrift store.
Some stores will not accept worn-out items at all.
“We look for clean, like-new clothing that is in styles our customers are requesting,” says Emma Robinson, a communication and production assistant with popular vintage store Buffalo Exchange. “We do not buy items that are unclean or have condition issues.”
Bay Area resident Ellen Shehadeh asked Bay Curious:
What can we do with used clothing that isn’t suitable for donation sites? Can the material be recycled or donated to homeless shelters?
“I don’t like to throw things away if they have possible other uses,” Shehadeh says. “I just get appalled by all the waste that’s manufactured here.”
Clothing recycling bins do exist in the Bay Area. A company called USAgain has been operating textile collection sites here since 2010, with 10 locations in and around San Francisco. According to its website, USAgain diverted nearly 3.8 million pounds of clothing and shoes from landfills in the Bay Area alone in 2012.
“More people are beginning to realize and understand the environmental benefits in seeking a convenient way to having their old clothes recycled and reused instead of throwing it in the garbage,” says USAgain CEO Mattias Wallander.
While this is an exciting prospect, textile recycling has a ways to go before it’s as commonplace as curbside paper and plastic recycling.
Plot Twist – Recycling Through Donation
This may come as a surprise -- it did to me -- but it turns out one of the easiest ways to get old clothing into the greater textile recycling stream is donating it, no matter how worn you think it is.
Only about 20 percent of the clothing donated to shops like Goodwill and the Salvation Army actually gets sold in their stores, according to the LaPorte County Solid Waste District in Indiana. The rest is typically sold to textile recyclers, at 5 to 7 cents per pound, with the cash still benefiting the charities.
Many of these “recyclers” are actually used clothing exporters. A large portion of the items not sold in U.S. thrift shops wind up in foreign markets. In Uganda, 81 percent of all clothing purchases are made on secondhand clothes. (Although it may seem like a form of charity and eco-responsibility, the BBC explains how the used-clothing export market is something of a political mixed bag.)
The remaining recycled fabric goes into other production streams, and may end up as insulation, upholstery stuffing or ingredients in paper products.
Even high-end thrift stores like Buffalo Exchange participate in this process. Whatever clothes they’re unwilling to buy they will donate to local charities that pick up from their stores daily.
“This is a service we offer to our sellers so they don’t need to make a second trip to a donation drop,” Emma Robinson says.
So when you take your old clothes to the thrift store, they may not actually end up on the rack -- but perhaps they’ll continue their lives as garments halfway across the world, or find their way into a couch cushion.
Where to Donate
Most thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army participate in textile recycling.
Find an ample list here of Salvation Army donation sites around the Bay Area. Donations are even tax deductible.
But let’s take one step back. It’s possible, even when clothes wouldn’t make the cut at Buffalo Exchange or Goodwill, that someone in your own backyard might appreciate having them for free.
Organizations that serve the needy, like the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, also accept clothing donations. It’s best to call in advance to see if the shelters are in need of items you have to offer, and swing by to drop them off during business hours.
San Francisco has a number of shelters and assistance programs for men, women, children and young people.
Another option to consider is the Humane Society of Silicon Valley. They accept old towels, blankets and comforters, to keep their furry residents warm -- and my guess is that the pups wouldn’t much mind a stain here or a rip there.
We’ve covered recycling, but another important way to cut down on textile waste is to reuse and reduce. In a nutshell, the less we buy, the less we waste. And there are tons of creative ways to reuse the worn items you do have, without ever leaving the house – even the gnarliest of old T-shirts makes a great rag.