February 1, 2011

Where do your donated clothes go?

Donna Jesmer unloads some clothing at a New England Clothes Recycling bin in Derry.  Contrary to her hope that they will be used to help a local family in need, the company will sell them in bulk to an overseas textile operation.

Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- Every couple of months Donna Jesmer loads up a shopping bag or two of old clothes and drives to the nearest “public clothing drop.” Normally, she hits one of the two donation bins on Route 128 in town, but yesterday she had to divert her bags to a receptacle in the parking lot of the Derry Meadows Plaza, one town over. 
This New England Clothes Recycling bin in Londonderry is
overflowing and the lot is unplowed, making donations impossible.
The two yellow bins she usually feeds in Londonderry were filled to overflowing and impossible to access, due to mountains of unplowed snow. 
“It bothers me that nobody plowed, and that people put things in there they shouldn’t be putting,” said Jesmer, who said she often finds the clothes drop bins beyond capacity. 
Still, said Jesmer, it’s good to know her clothing donations help those in need locally. 
Or at least, that’s what she has always thought was happening with her bags of clothing, based on the words “Public Clothing Drop,” and the smaller sign that reads “New England Clothes Recycling” off to the side of the yellow bins on Route 128. 
What Jesmer didn’t know is that those particular bins — and just about every other clothes drop bin in the state — are tended to by for-profit textile recyclers, who take the castaway clothing, bundle it into 40,000pound bales and sell it to the highest bidder in a competitive commodities market. Once sold, the clothing is sorted by how wearable it is, and then shipped to people in foreign countries -anything that’s too worn or dirty is recycled as textile scrap. 
Making money from donated clothing is nothing new. Today, textile recycling is a booming business in which castaway clothing is sold by the pound in a process comparable to the way cardboard and newsprint are bundled and sold by municipalities for profit. 
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans in 2009 generated 12.7 million tons of discarded textiles, accounting for 5.2 percent of total municipal solid waste generation. 
Generally speaking, people misunderstand the life-cycle of recycled clothing, said Peter Shellenberger, who runs Ecosmith Recyclers Inc., a Londonderry textile recycling operation on Tinker Avenue. 
“What’s funny is that people who donate want their old clothes to do the most good they can possibly do. But if you bring a bag to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army, those organizations are going to use less than 10 percent of what’s given to them in-house for their operation. The rest, they sell to people like me,” said Shellenberger. 
He mentioned a church organization in Milford that calls him regularly to pick up the bulk of their donated clothing, which aren’t suitable for sale at their thrift store for one reason or another. “What’s in style is subjective,” Shellenberger said. 
“We pay them for what we pick up and that money goes right back to the church, so in that way, the donated clothing benefits the charity — just not in the way people think,” Shellenberger said. “Every bit of clothing you keep out of waste stream helps taxpayers, and it doesn’t cost the non-profits a thing to give it to us. I like to think of myself as the local guy doing something to help the local economy. What I hate is to get thrown in with rest of ‘them,’ other for-profit recyclers who don’t take care of their bins and let the clothing pile up on the ground and get ruined by the weather,” Shellenberger said. 
New England Clothes Recycling, based in Chelsmsford, Mass., does not work with local charities and municipalities to return a portion of their profit to those who host collection bins. Shellenberger’s operation, which he runs with his wife Susan, gives back between 10 and 15 percent of their gross income to local organizations, among them, Goffstown Parks and Recreation Department. 
Department Director Rick Wilhelmini said an Ecosmith bin at the Goffstown Hannaford supermarket has for several years provided money for the town’s youth and senior citizen programming. 
“For example, we needed to equipment for our youth basketball program, and we were able to use money generated from the clothing donations for the costs, which weren’t covered by our recreation budget,” Wilhelmini said. Shellenberger said over the years Goffstown has probably made about $50,000 from its percentage of his profit. Although Shellenberger would not disclose how much he gets paid per pound for selling the clothing, he said groups he works with usually make about 3 cents per pound. 
“Every location is different. Some, like at the Boys and Girls Club in Derry, don’t generate so much — people just don’t seem to know the bin is there. But we have some PTOs out there —like in Exeter for example — that earn several thousand dollars a year,” Shellenberger said. 
His biggest competition, however, is from Planet Aid, an international non-profit organization that has six times the number of collection bins he has in New Hampshire. 
Calls made yesterday to Planet Aid for comment on this story were not returned. 
Yes, he’s in it for the money. But Shellenberger said he believes what he’s doing is important, with the rapid rate at which landfill space is filling up. He launched his textile recycling business 20 years ago, after running the Amherst transfer station for 13 years with wife Susan. In that time they saw what a problem discarded clothing was posing for municipalities. 
“For me, the most important part is getting clothes out of the waste stream. Statistically, only one-third of all the clothing people donate gets used by charities. That means twothirds of it ends up in the trash, one way or another,” Shellenberger said. “Better for me, or another textile recycler, to bundle it up and ship it overseas, where they can really use it.” 

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