Textiles are the next frontier in recycling for cities looking to cut waste

We recycle a lot in our communities. We sort metal, glass, plastic and paper and leave everything from organics to electronics at the curb. But what about those holey, orphaned socks or threadbare blue jeans? Where should those end up? The CBC's Havard Gould set out to find out.

About 85% of the clothes we discard ends up in the landfill, but some municipalities are trying to change that

It all started with this holey sock, which got CBC reporter Havard Gould thinking about where our discarded textiles end up. (David Donnelly/CBC)

It started with a blue sock. 

I pulled it off and realized it had a big hole in the heel. I balled it up and was about to test my athletic skill by attempting a long, basketball-style shot into a waste can when I paused.

Was that the right thing to do? Shouldn't my sock go somewhere else?

We recycle a lot in my community. I sort metal, glass, plastic, paper and cardboard for pickup. At my house, we compost tea bags and rinse out milk bags. I take batteries and electronics to drop-off points, along with cans of paint. And that isn't the end of it.

But my sock? Could that be recycled?

Research led me almost immediately to Claudia Marsales at the City of Markham, a senior waste manager so committed to recycling she has been dubbed "the Queen of the Heap." 

'Off everybody's radar'

And the queen is making textiles her top priority.

"For 30 years, we have been recycling newspapers," she fumed. "Textiles has just been off everybody's radar."

A recent study in Ontario concluded 85 per cent of discarded textiles end up in a landfill site, meaning just 15 per cent are recycled or reused.

"We want to increase recycling of textiles to 100 per cent," Marsales said firmly.

That isn't as easy as it might sound.

Claudia Marsales, a senior waste manger with the city of Markham, Ont., has been dubbed 'the Queen of the Heap' because of her zeal for recycling. (Havard Gould/CBC)

Some municipalities pick up textiles — Colchester, N.S., launched its program just last week — but there is a basic problem. Compared to glass or plastics, textiles don't lend themselves to curbside pickup. 

While bottles and cans can be thrown in a bin, ready for recycling day, that gently used sweater, which could be sold and worn again by someone else, can quickly become a smelly mess if mixed up with other waste. Or even if it simply rains.

Aided by a grant from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Markham, a city of roughly 350,000 north of Toronto, is rolling out a pilot program with a different approach. 

Discarded clothes, blankets and other textiles are compacted into 450 kg bales at the Salvation Army warehouse in Oakville, Ont., and sold on to private companies. (Havard Gould/CBC)

Working with the Salvation Army, the city is pushing residents to recycle textiles while, at the same time, trying to make that easy.

Donation bins are being set up around the city, some as big as large garden sheds. They will have sensors to signal when the boxes are getting full. All are marked with the city logo, although the Salvation Army will be the one to process everything collected, just as it does with items donated through its own boxes.

The difference is that Markham hopes to bring in absolutely every last piece of clothing any resident discards. 

Lots of money in textiles

The city has spent a lot of time thinking about how to convince people to recycle more. Focus groups turned up some surprising problems. 

"People only thought you could donate something that was perfect," Marsales said. "They really felt the poor shouldn't have to wear something that wasn't." 

Boxes of donated clothing at the Salvation Army warehouse in Oakville. The charity will be helping Markham sort the clothes dropped off in the city's new textile collection bins. (Havard Gould/CBC)

Research also showed that people were more likely to donate high-end clothing. Cheaper items went into the trash.

"All of it can be recycled. All of it should be donated," Marsales said. "There's lots of money in textiles."

A Tommy Hilfiger shirt might feed a family of four.- Bill May, facilities manager, Salvation Army

To prove her point, we met in a huge Salvation Army warehouse in Oakville, Ont., where items are sorted. Top quality clothing sells quickly in the charity's network of stores and generates cash for the organization.

"A Tommy Hilfiger shirt might feed a family of four," said Bill May, the Salvation Army's properties and facilities manager.

No matter how horrible a shape your old gym shorts or work shirt are in, recyclers can find a use for them, says Bill May, the properties and facilities manager for the Salvation Army. (Havard Gould/CBC)

But what comes back to the warehouse, unsold, isn't useless.

The clothing and other textiles are compacted, put into huge 450 kg bales and sold to private companies. Items are then sold outside of Canada or turned into other products, such as rags, certain types of paper, insulation or specialized fibre-based materials used in agriculture, medicine or even diapers

"This is old gym shorts," May said, picking at an article in a bale. "Nobody wants to re-wear them, but we can certainly send them to a cloth recycler who can make them into a useful product."

One of the shed-like structures that will be used to collect clothes and other textiles in Markham. Beside it stands a smaller bin that will also be in circulation. (Havard Gould/CBC)

Even my old sock would be welcome.

"Horrible shape is horrible shape, but we can still find a use for it," May said. "We get about 20 cents a pound for the clothing," 

That's roughly $200 per bale, more money to feed the hungry or to fund other programs for the needy.

Textiles easy to find in waste stream

In Halifax, Bob Kenney, a recycling development officer with the provincial environment department, walked carefully around a mountain of trash at a waste transfer station. A front end loader was busy adding to the pile of bags.

The mountain, he estimated, was likely to be 10 per cent textiles — items that could be recycled. To prove his point, Kenney crouched down and ripped open a bag.

James Wleh sorts through donated clothing at the Salvation Army warehouse. The charity keeps what it can resell in its stores and sells the rest for about 20 cents a pound to private companies. (Havard Gould)

"You've got blankets, pillows, pants, even some new pants," he said. "More blankets here ... it's quite easy to go through the waste stream and find it."

But textile recycling is rapidly becoming a priority, he said, after years when other materials were the centre of attention.

"Maybe we kind of missed this a little bit," Kenney said. "We have been so busy with paper and plastics and organics, and that's great, but textiles is something that is certainly on the agenda."

Donation boxes for used clothing exist, but not enough people use them. One Ontario study found that 85 per cent of discarded textiles end up in the landfill. (Havard Gould/CBC)

Markham unveiled its new program last week at a textile recycling conference in the city, one that brought in participants from as far away as San Francisco. 

Marsales was there, showing off one of her city's super-sized collection boxes. She urged Canadians who don't have municipal programs like hers to find a donation bin run by a charity, and pitch in any textiles they don't want.

"Take it to the boxes," she said. "Anywhere but the landfill."

Recycled textiles can be broken down and turned into other fibre-based materials used in everything from construction and agriculture to medicine. (Havard/CBC)

About the Author

Havard Gould

CBC News

Havard Gould is an award-winning journalist based in Toronto. He has reported from across Canada and the United States with special reports from London, Paris and Buenos Aires. He has, at various times, concentrated on politics and business. Now, however, his interests are almost unlimited. He can be reached through havardgould.com

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