How to Responsibly Purge Your Closet in the Bay Area

12 min
Goodwill’s CEO William Rogers, left, and Aaron Schroeder, sift through some of the clothes available in a Goodwill outlet, where clothes are sold for $1.75 a pound. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

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pring cleaning, Marie Kondo-ing, whatever you want to call it — there is a massive purge of clothing coming out of people’s closets right now. Thrift stores across the country have reported unprecedented surges in their clothing donations — which have just happened to coincide with the popular Netflix show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”

The show has convinced people that purging leads to moral satisfaction. But what happens to all those old throwaways?

This is what Bay Curious listener Ellen wants to know. Her question: What can you do with used clothing? And what if it's not suitable for donation sites? Can you recycle the material?

Ellen's question recently won a Bay Curious voting round by the largest margin we've ever seen.

And for good reason. In North America, 10.5 million tons of clothes go to landfills every year.

First, Try to Keep Clothes as Clothes

To find out what is being done about this in the Bay Area, I started with my own closet. I’m moving from the Bay Area and I asked a friend of mine, Mairin Wilson, to help me sort my stuff. She's an expert on sustainable clothing and says the first step in the recycling process is to try to keep the clothes as clothes.

“The longer the clothing can just be worn as clothing, the more sustainable it is,” she says.

She suggested we try to resell as much of my clothing as possible. We separated it into piles, ranked from high to low quality, to sell on online platforms like Poshmark, thredUP and Instagram.

Wilson says this is an exciting moment in the fashion world because consumers are starting to get value back from their clothes.

“It makes you want to buy that higher-quality sweater,” she says. “Clothing no longer becomes this one-time purchase. It becomes an investment. And it's not just buying high-quality clothing for yourself. It's for the future of the garment.”

Donating clothing to a thrift shop or Goodwill is a solid option, too —we'll get more into how that works below.

But then, there was the clothing that I couldn’t resell or donate, the pile of my old socks, undies, and clothes with rips and stains. The stuff usually destined for the trash can.

The best option for these worn-out items is to be turned back into fabric, if possible. There are just a handful of facilities worldwide that do this.

Woman lighting small piece of clothing on fire over a plate.
Mairin Wilson lights the corner of a T-shirt to test what material it is. This shirt is cotton since it immediately ignited — and it smelled like a campfire. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

One of the first challenges that textile recyclers face when they receive used clothing is determining what type of fibers an item is made from. Wilson demonstrated how companies will burn pieces of clothing to learn if they're cotton, polyester, wool or some type of blend.

"Every fabric is going to burn a little bit differently, and the smell of the smoke will be a little different," says Wilson. "With polyester, it's like if you were to burn plastic. At first it curls away. But then 100 percent cotton will immediately ignite."

A close-up look at clothes compressed in a clothing bale at Goodwill. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

If You Can't Resell or Donate ... Recycle

One clothing company based in L.A. is working with textile recycling facilities in South Carolina and Spain to turn used clothes back into new clothes. It’s called For Days and it has a unique membership model.

“We offer a join-and-swap model,” says co-founder Kristy Caylor. “Basically, you select your tees, tanks or sweats, and then you can change the old ones out for new ones anytime, for any reason.”

For Days takes those used clothes and turns them back into new ones using a mechanical recycling process. (And if you send in a bag of used clothes to be recycled, they will give you a discount. That’s what I did.)

“We chop up the old clothing, it gets blended together, some virgin fiber is added to it, it's made into yarn and then it's remade into clothes or other stuff, depending on the yarn,” says Caylor. “So that's why we know how to recycle clothes, because we do it as part of our business.”

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Right now, For Days has a waitlist to get started that is several thousand people deep. But once you're a member, it costs $38 for your first item, and then $8 any time you want to exchange.

While For Days does purchase carbon offsets, it would be better to recycle closer to home.

On the Horizon in Bay Area Textile Recycling

There are two recycling facilities in the Bay Area in the works. The first is called InnoFabrix. It’s a worker- and community-owned facility that will sort your clothes and “down-cycle” them into materials for other industries. So, for example, it could turn your clothes into insulation or carpet or acoustic sound paneling.

The second facility is in the early planning stages by Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties. CEO William Rogers says their Goodwill chapter is at the very beginning of developing recycling technology.

Tiffany Lumpsey sorts through clothing at Goodwill’s sorting facility in South San Francisco. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

“We're sort of leading the charge around working with innovators who are able to separate fabric, right? So if you have something that's 50% cotton, 50% polyester, they're able to separate it mechanically and then use these as virgin fiber. So virgin polyester. Virgin cotton,” he says.

Right now, the clothes that Goodwill doesn’t sell in its retail stores or online boutiques either get packaged in bulk to send to vendors or go to the landfill.

Clothes that Goodwill can’t sell get compressed in this baler and sold to third-party vendors. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

Some of the vendors buy Goodwill's clothes to turn them into rags, like United Textile in San Leandro. But many of the other vendors ship the clothes to Mexico or overseas to sell in secondhand clothing markets.

While Rogers made the case that these clothes help people in poverty, other argue the influx of cheap clothes destroys local clothing industries, and that a lot of the clothing ends up in landfills abroad.

Rogers says that Goodwill currently sends about 5 percent of its clothes to the landfill, which is typical for the fashion industry overall. But they are hoping, with their new facility, to get this down to zero.

“So it's a really exciting moment because it means that we may actually have the opportunity to never have to put a textile in the landfill again,” says Rogers.

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