Curbside Clothes Recycling a Hit in Rhode Island

A new service for recycling clothes makes it easier to declutter and curtail waste headed to the landfill.

Simple Recycling, based in Solon, Ohio, offers a unique curbside pickup service for unwanted clothing — and a bunch of other items that can’t go in recycling bins — while keeping fears of hoarding at bay.

Groups such as The Salvation Army and Big Brothers Big Sisters have drop-off bins and pick up of used clothes, but Simple Recycling makes it a bit less complicated by collecting on the same day and in the same spot on the curb as your regular recycling. Once it partners with a community, the company encourages participation by mailing colored collection bags to all residences. New bags are delivered each time full ones are collected.

The service is free and the host community receives a nominal monthly payments based on the tonnage collected.

Simple Recycling started in 2014 and now operates in nine states. Nine communities in Connecticut and 37 in Massachusetts offer the service to their residents.

Within the past year, four Rhode Island Island communities — Bristol, Coventry, Middletown, and North Providence — joined the service, and they all seem pleased.

“It’s working out awesome. Our residents absolutely love it,” said Jackie Anthony, recycling coordinator in Coventry.

The only glitches, so far, have been complaints from some nonprofits that fear the service will reduce their share of revenue from collecting and selling clothes. Simple Recycling, a for-profit company, says no cities or towns have curtailed the service over the concern. The company encourages residents to donate their unwanted clothes to charities. Simple Recycling says it offers the convenience of regular curbside service, especially for the elderly and people with mobility issues.

“We’re not trying to hurt anybody. It’s an option, that’s all it is,” said Robert Nascimento, recycling coordinator for North Providence.

Anthony said nonprofits that manage collection bins across town reported no change in the volume of material since the Simple Recycling service started in April.

A small number of collection bags containing clothes have been stolen from the curb in North Providence since the program began in June, but the thefts haven’t hindered the service.

Residents in Middletown are pleased with the program since collection began last December, according to Will Cronin, the town’s recycling coordinator.

“Stuff is being diverted (from the waste stream) and that’s the name of the game,” Cronin said.

Like other textile recycling services and owners of drop-off boxes, Simple Recycling’s only role in the recycling process is shipping what it collects to sorting facilities. The company is compensated based on the weight of clothing it collects.

The sorting facilities, often operated by thrift stores, decide what items go to their stores, which is about 20 percent of what they receive from the collectors. The remainder is sent to textiles exporters that ship between 50 percent and 60 percent overseas. The rest is downcycled either domestically or internationally, where it is then processed into raw material for items such as carpet padding and insulation.

Sonny Wilkins, vice president of municipal relations for Simple Recycling, said municipalities receive $20 or $40 per ton based on the type of mapping employed for the collection service. The revenue paid by sorting facilities allows Simple Recycling to offer the service without a fee.

“The way we are able to do that is to liquidate as early as possible,” Wilkins said.

There is no shortage of volume. Since 1960, textile waste has increased 811 percent, and only 15 percent is recycled or donated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The apparel industry is driving up clothing sales with the trend toward cheap, disposable, and “fast-casual” products. The industry generates pollution and requires significant amounts of energy and resources to manufacture and ship.

“Most of the world’s textile factories are in developing countries where governments can’t keep pace with the industry’s massive pollution footprint,” according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Donating unwanted clothes helps the environment, as does closing the life-cycle loop by shopping for secondhand clothes and other used goods. Repairing clothes yourself or sending them to the tailor for alterations extends their usefulness and keeps money working close to home where it helps the local economy.

“The whole purpose of the idea to keep textiles out of the landfill,” Nascimento said.

Here are some clothing waste stats:

Textile mills generate one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution and use 20,000 chemicals, many of them carcinogenic, to make clothes, according to the NRCD.

Textiles account for 5.5 percent of waste in the Central Landfill in Rhode Island, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.

85 percent of all clothing ends up in landfills or is incinerated, according to the EPA.