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ENVIRONMENTALLY SPEAKING: What’s the fuss about textiles and what are we supposed to do?

Throwing our clothing in the trash is not a sustainable practice, and now it’s illegal! So, what are we supposed to do?

Editor’s note: The author is Chair of the Lee Greener Gateway Committee.

While the Berkshires is not a “fast fashion” hot spot, textiles (broadly defined below) contribute far more to our waste stream than you’d think. Throwing our clothing in the trash is not a sustainable practice, and now it’s illegal! So, what are we supposed to do? Recycle it by bringing your cast-offs to designated collection bins or local charities. Even better, think twice before throwing old items out and buying new ones. If you really need to make the purchase, consider visiting local or online secondhand stores first. Doing this and responsibly recycling your textiles will go a long way in reducing our trash load and helping our planet.

First, some background: Clothing and textile products amount to six percent of the material Americans send to U.S. landfills and incinerators each year. Applying that percentage to Massachusetts means we trash about 230,000 tons of these items each year. That’s 460,000,000 pounds added to the waste stream, or almost 70 pounds per person. For Berkshire County alone, it amounts to more than 8,400,000 pounds annually (yes, count those zeroes).

So what? So, plenty! Massachusetts can’t dispose of all the trash it generates in state, so we must send it to landfills out of state. Suppose that was no longer possible? Where would we put it all? This situation can’t continue. At a minimum, it’s risky.

In response to waste capacity concerns and the fact that robust reuse and recycling markets exist for textiles, the Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection (MassDEP) issued a waste ban on textile disposal, effective November 1, 2022. This means residents need to bag up their clean and dry unwanted clothing, towels, sheets, and more—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and bring them to a textile drop off site. MassDEP’s waste ban defines textiles as “clothing, footwear, bedding, towels, curtains, fabric, and similar products, except for textiles contaminated with mold, bodily fluids, insects, oil, or hazardous substances.” When I use the word textiles below, it is with this definition in mind. To learn more about textile recovery in Massachusetts, Google “MassDEP Textile Recovery.”

There are huge upsides to not trashing unwanted textiles.

  • Compared to other recyclables, reusing and recycling textiles has the second greatest potential to reduce greenhouse gases (i.e., it’s good for the planet).
  • Trashing textiles really is a waste: 95 percent of all used clothing, footwear, and other household textile products can be reused or recycled. Yet, prior to DEP’s waste ban, only 15 percent of reusable textiles were recovered from the waste stream. About 45 percent of donated textiles are reused and sold as secondhand apparel, either in the U.S. or abroad, another 30 percent are converted into industrial wiping cloths, and 20 percent are remanufactured into products like carpet padding, insulation, or sound-proofing material. The final 5 percent is thrown away because it is wet/mildewed, or otherwise unsuitable for reuse.

To retain their reuse value and avoid mildew contamination, all textile donations must be clean and dry.

Textile donation organizations need to earn enough to sustain themselves—whether they’re non-profits or for-profit companies. The most valuable donations are those that can be sold in secondhand stores. The value drops with the condition of the items, but even the worn and torn items are worth money. If you’re worried about stained or torn items, the best approach is to donate a mixture of items in varying conditions. The textile industry is expert at sorting donated textiles into categories for resale and alternative end-uses. Those ratty t-shirts, single socks, or stained pants will be baled and sold to downstream markets and will find new life as shop rags, carpet backing, or insulation.

Apparel Impact’s clothing and shoes collection bin at the Senior Center in Sheffield. Photo by Stephanie Blumenthal.

So, where can you take your textiles for recycling? Many municipal transfer stations host textile drop boxes and others—including schools and private businesses—have drop boxes adjacent to their facilities. For help finding a textile donation location, contact your health or public works department or visit MassDEP’s Beyond the Bin directory. Your trash/recycling hauler might also have information. In addition, Recycling Works offers a Find-a-Recycler tool to help Massachusetts businesses locate textile recyclers.

To get you started, I’ve included useful links, some drop-off locations, curbside pickup options, and more below. There are other textile collection boxes and organizations that serve the Berkshires. If you have difficulty recycling your textiles, contact Susan Waite, MassDEP’s Municipal Assistance Coordinator for western Massachusetts (swaitewmassmac@gmail.com).

  • A range of information about textile recycling, including a list of some companies that take (back) textile products (sometimes not even their own), is available here.
  • Municipal recycling web pages can be found here.
  • Here are some local drop-off locations (there are probably more):
    • Egremont – CMRK (a partner of the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation) has two bins at the transfer station.
    • Sheffield – Apparel Impact has several bins in Sheffield (at the Town Hall, senior center, and transfer station).
    • Great Barrington – Goodwill; Hartsprings Foundation, a partner of the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation (bin at 444 Stockbridge Road).
    • Lee – Goodwill; CMRK has two bins near the Post Office and two at the Lee Premium Outlets; Hartsprings Foundation has a storefront location at Lee Premium Outlets.
    • Lenox – there is a shed/bin at Hope Church co-managed by Hope Church and St. Pauly Textile Inc. of Farmington, N.Y. (585-924-7941).
    • Pittsfield – Apparel Impact has a bin in Pittsfield at the offices of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (20 Chapel Street).
  • Curbside pickup:
    • CMRK (reachable at (508) 466-4590), a partner of the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation, offers curbside pickup in the Berkshires.
    • Hartsprings Foundation, also a partner of the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation, offers curbside pickup in Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, and Pittsfield.
  • And there is another option: Google “recycling clothing by mail.”

Here are examples of all the items MassDEP considers included under the term textiles.

  • Clothing: tops (t-shirts, blouses, shirts, tank tops), sweaters, sweatshirts, dresses, outerwear (coats, jackets, blazers), bottoms (pants, jeans, sweatpants, skirts, shorts), suits, socks, pajamas, bras and underwear, bathrobes
  • Footwear: shoes, heels, flats and sandals, boots, sneakers and cleats, slippers
  • Accessories: hats, bags (purses, totes, backpacks, duffle), belts and gloves, ties, scarves
  • Linens: sheets and blankets, comforters, towels, curtains, aprons, dish cloths, table linens

While conscientiously recycling textiles might take a little effort, donating your unwanted items helps others and the planet. It’s worth it. I hope you find this information useful. If you do, please share it.

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