West Chicago clothing recycler expands despite recession

Wed March 24, 2010

daily herald logo
By Anna Marie Kukec | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 3/24/2010 11:45 AM

Next time you drop a bag of used clothing into a red-and-white bin at a local grocery store or school, take a good look. It may be taking its route to charity -- or to recycling -- indirectly.

A for-profit company based in West Chicago has expanded nationwide in the last 10 years by collecting more than 500,000 pounds of clothing and keeping it all from going to landfills.

U'SAgain LLC, a textile recycling company, has about 1,350 collection bins accepting donations in Chicago and the suburbs. The company then sorts through the material and sells usable items by the pound to thrift stores and recyclers here and overseas.

"We take something that's surplus, that could go to landfills, and we take it to where there's a need," said U'SAgain CEO Mattias Wallander, a native of Sweden.

Wallander and a partner started the company in 1999 in Seattle and expanded to Chicago in 2000. Today, the company has operations in 14 states and has about 100 employees, including 30 in West Chicago. The company also plans to hire about 10 to 20 more people by the end of this year as it expands, said Wallander.

But don't confuse them with other groups that collect donations, such as St. Vincent de Paul Society, Goodwill or Salvation Army. U'SAgain is a privately held company that aims to reduce the world's carbon footprint and, of course, earn money.

"We always wanted to be very clear about this from the start," said Wallander. "It states that on the bins and most people learn about us through our drop boxes."

In fact, the company aims to increase the loads in those boxes by collecting about 1 million pounds of recyclable clothing and shoes from April 1-30, or Earth Month. The whole collection process also takes about a month from donation to thrift store to consumer, Wallander said.

U'SAgain empties the drop boxes at least once a week, sometimes more often in some areas. Those items go to distribution centers where they're sorted into four categories: clothes, shoes, miscellaneous items like toys or ceramics, and books.

Items in good condition are rebundled and sold to wholesalers, thrift stores and various recycling companies. The remaining 5 percent is often waste due to extensive damage.

In 2009, the company collected about 11 million pounds of items, compared to about 9 million in 2008. Despite the recession, people still consume, Wallander said.

And the company said it's even saved a few marriages along the way.

"There have been times when the wrong bag went into a box, or a wedding ring was dropped in by mistake," Wallander said.

Another time, thousands of dollars were found in a coat pocket in Minneapolis. The wife didn't know the husband kept their vacation money in a coat pocket. And all of the money was returned, Wallander said.

"If people call in within a day, we can have a driver meet them," he said. "But if they call a week later, then the bag is long gone."

Still, if donors are confused about anything, they should take a good look at the drop-off box for information, said Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general's office.

"It's important to be an informed donor before you make any contribution, whether it's clothing or a monetary gift," Bauer said. "(We) strongly encourage consumers to do their homework before making a donation -- asking plenty of questions to determine exactly how your contribution will be used."

Local U'SAgain drop boxes

Here are area locations where you can find drop boxes to donate used items to U'SAgain:

Bartlett High School, 701 Schick Road, Bartlett

Chippewa Elementary School, 322 S York Rd, Bensenville

Wheaton Christian Center, 610 East North Avenue, Carol Stream

Apolo Elementary School, 10100 Dee Rd, Des Plaines

Grayslake Central High School, 400 N Lake St, Grayslake

Palombi Middle School, 133 McKinley Avenue, Lake Villa

Community Unit School District 95, 66 Church Street, Lake Zurich

Montessori School of Long Grove, 1115 Coffin Road, Long Grove

Bode Preschool, 946 Bode Rd., Schaumburg

South Elgin High School, 760 E Main St, South Elgin

Dean's School, 600 Dean st, Woodstock