The Tricky Business of Recycling Your Old Clothes

Jed Oelbaum

In a white Isuzu truck, we weave our way down Manhattan’s East Side, idling outside residential buildings, jumping out and ducking through service entrances, hauling out sacks of clothing from laundry rooms and basements that smell like chlorine. We stop at the farmers market across from the United Nations, where more full bags are waiting to be picked up. We visit offices, adding old Polo shirts, thread-worn socks, and rejected baby clothes to the growing mountain of near-bursting garbage bags in the truck bed.

I’m making the rounds with Wearable Collections, a textile recycling company in New York City. According to the nonprofit Council for Textile Recycling, the U.S. sends about 21 billion pounds of textile waste to landfills every year. And while many people drop off their old clothes with charities like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, currently only 15 percent of America’s used textiles ever see a second life via donation or recycling.

Not only are Americans’ leftover fleeces and cheap track pants piling up in the dumps at a catastrophic rate, but making all this fast-fashion finery also employs chemicals that put our health and the environment at risk and wastes an enormous amount of water. Clothing refuse trickles down into streams and rivers, disrupting delicate ecosystems and poisoning marine life. And more often than not, low wages and poor worker conditions are key factors keeping the stores at the mall so cheap.

With an increasing public awareness of the garment industry’s damaging impact, Wearable Collections co-founder and CEO Adam Baruchowitz saw righteous opportunity in textile trash. A former day trader, he started the company in 2004, and when the financial crisis hit in late 2007, he decided to get out of trading for good, making Wearable Collections his full-time job.

There are thousands of textile processors around the country, and Wearable Collections isn’t even a particularly big operation. But Baruchowitz’s outfit has helped pioneer effective concepts for fabric recycling in urban areas. Aside from installing bins in residential high-rises, the company also collaborates with local community groups and maintains drop-off points at the New York City farmers markets, where shoppers can drop off bags while browsing for local heirloom tomatoes. “One of the things I’ve grown to love about the company is just raising consciousness about the value of our waste stream,” he tells me at a bar down the block from his home in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

A smiley, enthusiastic schmoozer with an oversized shock of frizzy hair, Baruchowitz says “we all live better lives not living in a disposable society.” The clothes he collects, “have already gone through the process of production, the cotton has been grown, it’s been turned into a fabric, it’s been dyed. Except for shipping, all the damage has already been done to the environment to make this good,” he says. “This thing shouldn’t end up in the garbage.”

This is how you turn post-consumer textiles into money: After my pickup route ride along, this truckload of Manhattan’s discarded soft goods will go to a sorting facility, to be meticulously separated by quality and condition. Rewearable clothes will be baled into 1,000-pound cubes, sold to brokers, and shipped to emerging markets, where they’ll retail at thrift and secondhand stores in South America, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

Scraps and seriously damaged items are cut into industrial rags or shredded into pulp. The shredded fabric, for the most part, will become mattress stuffing, insulation, or some other type of padding.

The above process is basically the same path that almost all diverted textile items eventually go through—even charitable organizations like Goodwill (after sorting out choice items for its stateside secondhand stores) depend on some version of this revenue model.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Most of the value is in the still-wearable clothing. In fact, selling Americans’ worn-out wardrobes is a nearly $700 million a year industry. Rags have their own minimal value, but there’s only so much shredded or pulped fabric you can sell. Fabric manufacturers, clothing companies, and waste processors that might otherwise be uninterested in recycling will often process it at a loss, just to offset what they’d otherwise pay to dump the stuff. For businesses like Wearable, the poor market for their bottom-tier material means that to stay profitable, at least half of what they collect has got to be “good” clothes destined for thrift stores somewhere.

So unlike, say, plastics or metal recycling, the whole operation relies on a secondhand market overseas. And also unlike other recycling industries, the money is in resale and distribution, rather than creating new raw materials that can be made into new products. For now, Baruchowitz says, “what we’re doing is all downcycling. It’s diverting waste.” However, he says, “there’s a utility, a life extension for these goods, and an efficient way to get them to people who demand them.”

To that end, Wearable Collections has diverted millions of pounds of waste through partnerships and an innovative network of collection sites. MJ Romano, who oversees the company’s operations, explains where all the clothes come from as he drives the collections truck back over the East River to the headquarters in Brooklyn. Romano, rusty-haired, pale, and unflappably chill, tells me Wearable Collections has drop-off bins in about 250 apartment buildings around the city.

“We have working relationships with a number of management and real estate companies,” Romano says. Otherwise, he says, “it’s a lot of word of mouth. … The farmers markets are also a good way to get the word out.”

I don’t need further proof to believe Romano’s last point; I worked for Wearable Collections for a short time in the mid-aughts, doing collections and manning drop-off booths at farmers markets, freezing my ass off outside through long New York winters. A lot has changed in the decade since, but those collection points at the GrowNYC markets—the network that includes the iconic Union Square and Grand Army Plaza shopping hubs—are still the most visible face of the company. Facilitated through nonprofit GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, the partnership has made Wearable Collections a regular presence for New Yorkers.

After residential pickups and farmers markets, the third leg of Wearable Collections’ business involves acting as a facilitator, providing infrastructure for schools and local civic organizations to raise money by hosting clothing drives—the company sells any gathered textiles, and a cut of the proceeds goes back to the partner organization. Romano says schools that keep a bin on the premises or maintain a weekly drop-off day will generate a few thousand dollars annually.

“A lot of the drives we do with schools raise money for the PTAs,” says Baruchowitz. “Or like the Morningside Heights-West Harlem Sanitation Coalition, the Pratt Towers Community Center. … All these little organizations we work with that do monthly drives or quarterly drives and use these drives as revenue streams.”

“I like to think these proof-of-concepts we do as a flexible, for-profit company that’s not afraid to take risks have led to a lot greater impact than just the clothing we collect,” Baruchowitz says. “We were the first people to put these large bins into residential buildings. Which was copied by other[s]… So we may be in 200 or so buildings, but now there’s clothing recycling in at least 600 or 700 buildings.”

Baruchowitz is referring to a recent partnership between the New York City Department of Sanitation and the nonprofit Housing Works, which uses something similar to Wearable Collections’ residential pickup system. And this expansion isn’t just a local thing—municipalities like Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas, have started partnering with private recyclers to implement their own curbside textile recycling programs.

But many people still have a hard time understanding why they should give their unwanted clothes to a for-profit company. With widely known charities offering a similar service, some people “think you’re a bad guy,” says Baruchowitz. This impression isn’t helped by the fact that a number of shady fronts and outright scams operate in the rag-and-used clothing market. For instance, Thrift Land USA misled clothing donors by pretending to represent charities, eventually paying out $700,000 in a 2015 deal with the New York attorney general’s office.

The notion that used garments should be the realm of nonprofits runs deep. At the farmers markets, “some people will be very standoffish when they find out that we’re not a nonprofit” admits Romano.

Baruchowitz maintains that there’s plenty of waste to go around. Even if all the clothing donation charities and all the for-profit fabric recyclers were to double in size, they would still only capture a third of America’s thrown-out textiles. “Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes,” writes Elizabeth L. Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.

It’s easy to see the case for recycling here, but overconsumption is the real monster in the closet, the reason we have so much excess stuff headed to American landfills in the first place. While changing consumer habits might be the best long-term strategy for addressing the problem, these days the trend seems to be moving in the other direction—U.S. textile waste swelled 40 percent between 1999 and 2009. Not only is there continually more to dispose of, but the flood of cheap apparel also puts downward pressure on the overseas markets in which both nonprofits and businesses are invested.

“Our research indicates that the second hand clothing system is on the brink of collapse,” wrote Greenpeace in a 2016 release, condemning the current textile recycling system as unsustainable. Sale of bulk secondhand clothing overseas has been criticized as at best unhelpful to developing economies that could be building their own textile industries. And fast fashion companies’ push into these countries will also likely shrink the demand for Americans’ castoffs over time. Unless consumers suddenly stop buying such cheap, disposable clothing, if we want fewer textiles in our landfills someone’s going to have to figure out how to make ground-up shirts into something more valuable than mattress stuffing.

But resurrecting used textiles on a large scale is “still far from commercially viable,” wrote Greenpeace. “When you break down the clothes, the fibers get too mushy,” says Baruchowitz. “They’re too short to be made into other materials, so they have to be like, extended with plastics, things like that.” And the popularity of blended fabrics—your cotton-poly blend for instance—complicates processing further.

While the leap to next-level textile recycling might not happen tomorrow, scientists and businesses are experimenting with a range of approaches to mitigate the textile tidal wave. Fiber regenerator Evrnu teamed up with Levi’s last year to make the first-ever pair of jeans from post-consumer cotton. Scientists in Sweden recently unveiled a new method for mixing old cotton with wood cellulose fiber to make new fabric. Researchers are experimenting with incorporating used textiles into plastic composites and building materials. And Teijin, a Japanese company, has developed a way to make new fibers from recycled polyester, a material that makes up an ever-growing chunk of our textile output.

Others are taking less high-tech approaches to the problem: Recycling wool, a centuries-old process, is increasingly used by clothing retailers like Patagonia and prAna. Companies are also simply re-cutting and refashioning trashed fabric, manually upcycling discarded items into fresh products and styles.

If and when one of these efforts turns into a scalable solution, recyclers like Wearable Collections will be able to use their existing infrastructure to feed into a new, more economically viable system.

“Right now the value isn’t there,” says Baruchowitz, referring to reselling textiles as raw material. “And [the technology] is taking a long time.” Reflecting on the apparel industry in general, he adds, “But now it’s on the minds of CEOs, not just the sustainability people. Everyone sees that we’re starting to move in that direction. There’s a lot of work happening on closing the loop.”

Baruchowitz believes the only way American consumers will push for better solutions is if they become more aware of the incredible waste inherent in how we cycle through clothing. For his new Social Shoe Project, which he calls “part Humans of New York, part message in a bottle,” New Yorkers jettisoning their old boots and sneakers can attach a cardboard tag to the shoes, identifying from where, and from whom, they came. The next wearer, likely somewhere thousands of miles away, can connect with the original donor online, giving both a window into the global clothing trade. By bridging that gap, says Baruchowitz, it’s possible to “both raise awareness of the need to extend the life of items we consume and illustrate the reality of how the life is extended.”