Mon December 13, 2010

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When we think of recycling, we think of cans, bottles and newspapers. We understand the importance of separating these materials from the regular trash, even use special colored waste bins to help us make sure we do it right. We accept -- and applaud -- the companies that pick up our recyclables and take them away to be repurposed into new materials.

Some of us are so accustomed to "sorting" cans, bottles and newspapers that we gasp in horror to see a Coke can mixed in with coffee grounds and banana peels. Recycling today plays an important and permanent role in the lives of most of us.

That's why I'm always perplexed when I hear people complain about companies that collect discarded clothes to be reused or recycled (disclosure: I'm CEO of one of these companies). The fibers in textiles -- I'm talking about everything from shoes to drapes -- are every bit as recyclable as a wine bottle or yesterday's USA Today.

In fact, unlike plastic and paper, 100% of all textiles and used clothing can be reused. When compared with the amount of new clothing consumed by individual Americans each year -- a whopping 65 lbs each, according to the EPA -- that's a lot of recycling we could all be doing.

In other words, we shouldn't put old clothes in a different category than cans, bottles and newspapers. If left in the trash, all go to landfill. If collected by professionals, all get reused.

Our environment -- not to mention tax payers, who foot the bill for landfill costs -- benefit enormously when any kind of recyclable materials are diverted from the trash. That includes jeans, sweaters and socks.

Some argue that old clothes should go to charity, not to be resold elsewhere in the world or broken down by graders (i.e. textile recyclers).

I'm all for charity. In fact, charity clothing donations are their own form of recycling -- the clothes get repurposed without ever seeing a landfill. That's terrific.

The problem is, altruistic as we might all purport to be, everyone's busy and distracted with work and kids. Sometimes we find ourselves with four garbage bags of old clothes -- too big, too small, out of date, property of your ex -- and nowhere to take them. You know you don't want to put them in the trash -- they're perfectly wearable, after all -- but you don't have time to look up a charity.

Sound familiar? I thought so.

It's this exact scenario that explains why more and more people are embracing clothing drop bins.

These bins, set out across American cities and towns, accept clothes of every kind, of every quality. Some send the clothes to charity, some collect them to be resold back into the use cycle or recycled like your cans and bottles. All do their part for the environment.

In an age when convenience reigns, bins like these allows us to still feel good about protecting the earth. Let's not limit ourselves when it comes to recycling -- there's more to it than aluminum and glass.


Mattias Wallander is CEO of USAgain, a textile collection company headquartered in Chicago. The company collects used clothing in major markets across the U.S. including Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Milwaukee and San Francisco.


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