Textile Recycling in 2016

Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of living in two of the most environmentally conscious locales: San Francisco, California, and nestled under the Green Mountains in Vermont. By default I became somewhat of a recycling and composting devotee because there was no good reason not to be. Both of these places provided the education and the infrastructure that enabled me to better consider my contribution to the waste stream and actively participate in making it smaller. Would I have started composting or even thought about doing it when I was nineteen, broke, and living in a crammed apartment without a backyard? Probably not, but I’ll never forget the day that I came home from work and found composting instructions attached to a small plastic bucket with a lid that had been left by the city. After much planning, San Francisco made it not only mandatory but most importantly easy for me to think twice before I threw something away.

Photo courtesy of Recycle Nation

Photo courtesy of Recycle Nation

When I moved to New York I realized how spoiled I had been living under a bubble amidst green bins and ideas like “Zero Waste by 2020.”  My rational mind knew it was unfair to compare a city of 8 hundred thousand to a city of 8 million, but still I couldn’t help wonder why, in this day and age and in a city rich with resources, composting regulations were referred to as “initiatives” instead of laws. After living in Brooklyn for a few weeks, it became clear that as a city we were still working on elementary non-littering initiatives. As a transplant I was faced with a major reality check and my waste related neuroses took a more practical backseat.

Today, as a studio intern at the Textile Arts Center, one of my daily responsibilities is to help keep things tidy and organized in the Brooklyn space. While some of my peers might groan over the chore, I relish in taking out the trash and sorting through the recycling every week. I can’t help but take note of what’s getting tossed that could be reused or what items end up in the recycling bin most often despite not being recyclable at all – plastic bags!

Photo courtesy of Filthy Rebena

Photo courtesy of Filthy Rebena

Although the Textile Arts Center runs a relatively small-scale operation, we produce waste just like any other organization in the textile industry (albeit a lot less). After a few weeks of back to back classes, workshops, and afterschool programs, the pile of yarn and fabric scraps that collects in my dustpan is sizable, and it should come as no surprise that recently I wondered: does it need to be? Is there a better place for pre-consumer thread waste, dye swatches, leather cut-outs, and unfinished woven warps?

With my curiosity sparked, I’ve spent the last few weeks digging around on the internet, making calls, and writing E-mails in hopes of unearthing a local textile recycling initiative for the Textile Arts Center to potentially be a part of. Immediately I noticed a trend: almost all of the blog posts, articles, or recycling websites I came across started out with the same harrowing statistics:

  • 85% of post-consumer textiles ends up in our landfills every year, or 21 billion pounds annually (Council for Textile Recycling)
  • The average American throws away 70 pounds of reusable textiles each year (Council for Textile Recycling)
  • 77% of Americans believe that cities should include textile recycling in municipal recycling programs (USAgain)

While this information certainly points to a problem in our society, it looks as though the overwhelming consensus is that it is one that should be solved, and quickly.

Photo courtesy of GrowNYC

Photo courtesy of GrowNYC

Here’s the good news: most every major U.S. city already has multiple textile donation and clothing collection operations in place. For example, here in New York, GrowNYC has partnered with Wearable Collections to help citizens recycle their old clothing, paired shoes, linens, handbags, belts, and other reusable textiles. By requesting a donation bin or dropping off second hand goods at one of 31 Greenmarket locations, New Yorkers can easily lighten their loads and lessen their carbon footprint at the same time because of initiatives like this!

Here’s the bad news: According to GrowNYC, large volumes of scraps, fabric bolts, or non-wearable textiles are currently not being accepted “due to a shift in market conditions.” When I looked elsewhere in the city and even nationwide for a different answer, I came up short. Although textile scraps and yarns are materials that can be recovered in sorting facilities and then reused as wiping rags or turned into low grade fiber products, there remains a divide within the industry between those who create the waste and those who can repurpose the waste.

When I realized that in New York there wasn’t yet the proper infrastructure in place for TAC to donate its reusable materials to, I widened my perspective and started reaching out to larger textile processing mills throughout the country. I contacted Miller Waste Mills Inc. in Minnesota, a processing and recycling plant that reclaims original fibers from textiles to manufacture new material such as cotton, synthetic fibers, sisal, wool, hemp, jute and wood. Through their innovative milling and conversion process, Miller Waste Mills successfully diverts reusable waste from ending up in our landfills while simultaneously meeting the needs of a variety of industries. Nancy Hunze, the sales and marketing manager at MWM, explained to me that cotton, fleece, denim, and other fabrics are often turned into wiping cloths, insulation, or stuffing. Wool can be machined and made into felt, and pre-consumer thread waste can be used for oil filtration and metal or furniture polishing.

Photo courtesy of Filthy Rebena

Photo courtesy of Filthy Rebena

I thought I had hit the jackpot but Nancy later explained to me that due to the costs of transportation, small quantities or shipments are not feasible for MWM, or really anyone else in the industry, to accept.

And so I am back where I started with a big, but apparently not big enough, pile of yarn and scraps in my dust-pan with nowhere to send and recycle it. With the number of local and craft-based businesses on the rise, and considering the almost tectonic movement happening in arts like weaving, I imagine that the Textile Arts Center is not the only fiber focused operation facing this dilemma.

As we find ourselves in an age of exponentially growing information and technology, it seems fitting that the knowledge we have about textile waste and how to deal with it is way ahead of the waste and recycling industry itself. Perhaps someday with a little ingenuity and engineering, the two will sync up and textile production will move closer to being a sustainable and possibly even a closed-loop industry. I know that would make me feel better about what I personally love to do and make. In the meantime, lets all remember that while plastic bags are reusable, they are not recyclable. Your clothes on the other hand, are both! Don’t forget to donate the next time you clean out your closet.

One Comment

  1. Jean Stillmock

    I search for used and abused natural fiber clothing to recycle in vain. Would love to find a source

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