LANSING — John Samland takes a slight right onto East Genesee Street, driving past South Lansing’s Oak Park. He hangs a left onto Dorrance Place and slowly drives up the street.
He’s searching for a recycling bag in telltale bright orange.
Samland is on the job as a driver for Simple Recycling, a textile recycling company that picks up these bright orange bags filled with used textiles. From there, the bags are weighed, and then they hit the thrift store market.
Samland spots a pile of bags and pulls over the white box truck with “caution frequent stops” in red on the back.
Every other week when he comes to this part of Lansing, he knows there will be a pile of bags outside one particular house.
“Like clockwork,” Samland says.
Samland swiftly grabs the bags, tosses them in the back of the truck and ties another Simple Recycling bag on the recycling bin so it doesn’t blow away on this windy day. Then he’s off again, driving up and down each street to continue the search.
A couple of hours later, Samland makes a stop at Mayflower Congregational Church on West Mt. Hope Avenue, where more than 10 bags await him.
The church just had a rummage sale, and unsold items went into Simple Recycling “Let Your Clothing Be Loved Again” bags.
The whole process takes several hours before Samland drives the items to Simple Recycling’s Michigan base near Detroit.
Simple Recycling is a 5-year-old company based in Solon, Ohio, whose main purpose is to collect used textiles so they don’t end up in the landfill.
How it works: Residents in municipalities that partner with Simple Recycling can get a bag by request at the company website. They fill the bag and put it out on recycling day. A driver collects it and leaves another bag.
In addition to Lansing, 28 Michigan municipalities participate in the program, including Shelby in Oceana County, Harrison in Clare County, and East Lansing.
“The idea is to help the municipality become a better place to live by diverting more material” from landfills, said Sonny Wilkins, the company’s vice president of municipal relations.
The most recent Environmental Protection Agency estimate is that of 16 million tons of textiles generated in 2015, 10.5 million tons went to landfills, 3 million tons were incinerated, and about 2.5 million tons – or about 15 percent – were recycled.
In Michigan alone, textiles made up 2 percent of the recycling stream in 2014, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.
Textiles could be a valuable market for Michigan if more were recycled or donated. The 2016 Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in Michigan report found the potential value of discarded textiles in the state to be close to $25 million.
Simple Recycling is a for-profit company, so it makes money by diverting material from landfills at no cost to its municipal partners.
In fact, municipalities actually reap some financial benefit from the arrangement. For every pound of textiles Simple Recycling picks up, the municipality gets a penny.
In East Lansing, Simple Recycling collects on average about 4,000 to 5,000 pounds a month, bringing in $40 to $50. That money helps pay for recycling educational materials.
“It was an opportunity we saw to help with contamination,” East Lansing environmental services administrator Cathy DeShambo said. “It’s just such a convenient service.”
Lansing partnered with Simple Recycling after receiving questions from residents about how to donate textiles.
“It’s a question we get all the time, and it’s just one of those things that we don’t take on a weekly basis in our recycling program,” Lansing environmental specialist Lori Welch said. “It gave residents a really easy and convenient way to properly dispose of that stuff or donate it.”
On average, about 15,000 pounds of textiles are collected monthly in Lansing, bringing the city an average of $150. The money goes to recycling and beautification projects.
“Our biggest challenge is really letting people know that the program exists,” Welch said. “I think if more people knew, we would certainly be collecting a lot more material.”
At Simple Recycling, after material is collected and weighed, domestic thrift stores are first to sift through it to sell.
“I am going to get the most out of keeping it here and selling it as it sits,” Wilkins said.
About 25 percent of the material stays in the U.S., while 50 percent is sold overseas and 15 to 20 percent is sold to companies that break down the textiles. The rest goes to landfills because it’s not usable.
Wilkins said the company collects several million pounds of textiles every year that he “absolutely” believes would otherwise be sent to the landfill.
“Charities aren’t able to handle all this material, or else they would be getting it,” he said. “There’s a lot more going to the landfill now than there was ever.”