British Columbia

Closure of Return-It textile recycling program could add to landfills, advocates say

Clothing sustainability advocates fear the end of Return-It's textile recycling pilot will lead to more people dumping reusable clothing into their garbage.

55 Return-It depots across Metro Vancouver will stop accepting textiles by June 30

Sara Blenkhorn, founder of the Textile Lab For Circularity, is working to increase clothing sustainability in British Columbia. She says the closure Return-It's textile recycling is 'devastating.' (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Clothing sustainability advocates fear the end of Return-It's textile recycling pilot will lead to more old clothes piling up in B.C.'s landfills.

The depots run by non-profit Encorp Pacific, which also recycles drink containers and old electronics, will stop accepting textiles at its 55 locations on June 30.

"It's a really easy one-stop shop for you to return all of your things that you don't want to send to the landfill," said Sara Blenkhorn, founder of the Textile Lab For Circularity.

"Without that being accessible, folks are faced with throwing it in the garbage."

Return-It introduced the textile recycling pilot program in 2019, collecting all types of textiles and clothing including those that are worn and ripped. Last year alone, it says it collected 478,900 kilograms of textiles. 

Along with bottles and cans, Return-It has been accepting old clothing and textiles for recycling since 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In a statement, Return-It said it could no longer afford running the program after its partner, The Salvation Army, chose to end their relationship because it has "sufficient supplies of used textiles from other sources."

Textiles collected by Return-It are sent to The Salvation Army for sale in its stores, or sold for reuse in other countries or recycled into other items.

In a written response to CBC, The Salvation Army did not give a reason for the break-up.

Unusable clothing

Patricia Penrose, founder of Surrey-based Trans-Continental Textile Recycling, says she is also disappointed to hear about the end of the program.

"Every opportunity that the public has to dispose of their unwanted textiles means that less material goes to the landfill," she said.

She says she's worked with materials collected through the Return-It depots through The Salvation Army, and had concerns about the quality of textiles collected.

"There was a lot of material that was unusable — wet, contaminated, soiled," Penrose said.

It devalues the textiles, she says, making them hard to reuse or resell.

Most clothing donated to thrift stores end up in warehouses like this one in London, Ont., baled and ready for shipment to markets overseas. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Return-It refutes the allegation, saying its materials met The Salvation Army's standards.

"The quality of textiles Return-It sold to its partners was appropriate for resale markets," they said in an email statement. 

The Salvation Army did not respond to CBC's inquiries about the issue.

'Think Thrice' campaign

For anyone looking to dispose of gently used clothing or textiles after Return-It's program ends on June 30, Metro Vancouver's recycling website lists specific locations that accept them. 

Socks with holes or ripped shirts can still find a second life as rags or recycled into new fabrics.

But advocates say the best way to avoid adding to textile waste is to consider the entire lifecycle of clothing starting with your purchasing decision.

"We're encouraging people to buy good quality, to repair it when it needs repairing, to donate it to used clothing stores," says Jack Froese, chair of Metro Vancouver's National Zero Waste Council and mayor of the Township of Langley.

He says the region has a public awareness campaign underway prompting people to "think thrice" about clothing waste.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lien Yeung

@LienYeung

Lien Yeung is a host and reporter with CBC Vancouver News. She has covered stories locally and nationally from Halifax to Victoria on television, radio and online. Find her on Instagram or Twitter @LienYeung or via email at lien.yeung@cbc.ca.

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