Clothing Conundrum: What to do with our unwanted textiles?

In Buzz, February 2021 by Ami BrasureLeave a Comment

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For a City of this size and commitment to sustainability, Raleigh has shockingly few options for recycling textiles.

Up until March 2020, some Raleigh residents—those who lived in single-family homes—could recycle their textiles through curbside pickup via a partnership between the City of Raleigh and Ohio-based company Simple Recycling. But when the pandemic took hold, Simple Recycling—which, based on quality, sorts collected textiles to be resold to thrift shops, shipped to international markets or used for raw materials—paused its collections and, eventually, ceased operations in the Triangle.

For context, the average American disposes of 70 pounds of textiles each year, according to data from the Council of Textiles. Per the EPA, Americans discarded 11.17 million tons of textiles into landfills in 2017, and that number increases each year. It can take between 20 and 200 years for some fabrics to break down, and the decomposition process releases potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—the last thing Mother Earth needs.
So what current options exist for recycling textiles in Raleigh—and why don’t we have better ones?

Wake County operates 11 solid waste and recycling facilities in the county. Unfortunately, most of these facilities are located on the outskirts of Raleigh city limits, or in other municipalities in the county, and therefore are not a convenient drive for many residents. Driving 15 miles to recycle old socks or worn-out T-shirts doesn’t seem worthwhile—even for the most eco-conscious among us—and if you don’t have a car and rely on public transit, you can’t easily access any of these recycling locations.

Around town, you may have noticed recycling bins in shopping center parking lots for books, shoes and clothing—including bins from GreenZone, a reputable textile recycler. But there doesn’t seem to be a master list of bin locations or information about the companies that run them on either the City of Raleigh or Wake County websites. As it stands now, if you want to drop off items in one of these receptacles, you just have to drive around until you find one. That’s time-consuming and, again, not an option for people who rely on public transit.

But, until the City of Raleigh revisits its curbside textile recycling options, there are a few avenues you can pursue to recycle textiles. Julia Milstead, a public communications officer with the city, offers the following suggestions:

  • Check with local animal rescue groups or shelters; they will often take items such as old sheets, towels and blankets.
  • Some clothing retailers, including Levi Strauss, Madewell, H&M and The North Face, provide in-store receptacles to take back used clothing—and may offer incentives for customers to participate.
  • Consider donating gently used items to local nonprofits.
  • Reuse textiles in art projects.
  • Repurpose clothing. This can be as simple as turning an old T-shirt into a cleaning rag.

Additionally, Goodwill will recycle clothing from its stores that goes unsold, but it’s not a good idea to take nonsellable goods there (think clothing that is damaged or stained) as the company states it is likely to be immediately thrown away.

For a city so committed to being green—and host to one of the world’s leaders in textiles technology, NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles—we should expect more from Raleigh when it comes to options for textile recycling. Sustainability experts agree: The key to getting people to participate in any kind of recycling program is to make it easy for them—if it takes too much effort, people won’t do it. We should put textile recycling bins in every apartment complex and locate them in easily accessible centers all over the city. There should be a centralized database of shopping centers with these bins so residents don’t have to drive all over to find one. That way, Raleigh and Wake County residents can free up space in local landfills–an especially important consideration as the area continues to grow.

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