ZWC 2014 Highlights – Alexa Kielty Gives Textiles a New Life

Alexa Kielty, Zero Waste Specialist for San Francisco reports on that City and County’s Textile Initiative, which seeks to divert the 39 million pounds of textiles San Franciscans send to the landfill each year.

Alexa Kielty opens her presentation on San Francisco’s zero waste textile initiative by highlighting the fact that waste crosses social and demographic borders.

“What I love about waste, or as I like to call them ‘discards’, is that they are the ultimate equalizer,” says Kielty. “It doesn’t matter what sector we work in or what demographic we come from, we all produce discards and we all have the power to reduce our consumption, change our purchasing patterns, and make smart decisions when we compost and recycle wherever possible.”

Zero Waste Ambitions Spur Action on Textiles

Kielty explains that the impetus for the textile initiative came about due to San Francisco’s goal of achieving zero waste by 2020.

“Even though we’ve reached an 80% diversion rate, which is touted all over the world, we’re still sending over 400,000 tons a year to landfill, so we have a long way to go in six years. We knew we needed to go beyond bottles and cans and really look at what was being thrown away in our landfills. So we did a characterization study and we found that 20,000 tons of textiles were being sent to our landfills every year.”

In January, the city launched a campaign to increase the recycling and reuse of those textiles. The initiative had three goals, to increase awareness of the issue, make it more convenient for people to choose to recycle their textiles by expanding drop off locations, and finally, to build awareness of those locations.

Taking the Message to the Mall

“So we decided to go into the belly of the beast,” says Kielty. “We went to the Westfield Mall in San Francisco and we knew we needed to talk to people in the mall who are consuming at very high rates and give them information on where to recycle and reuse their clothing.”

With the help of clothing retailer American Eagle, the project commissioned a work of art by textile artist Derek Melander. With the help of volunteers, Melander created a sculpture in the middle of the mall, made from cast-off clothes.

Kielty says the choice created a compelling, easy-to-understand visual for passers-by.

Towers of Clothing Makes Artistic Statement

“We ended up with six towers of clothing,” explained Kielty. “It represented the 4500 pounds of clothing discarded every hour in San Francisco. And people could look at it and understand ‘we’re landfilling that every hour and we need to do something about it.’”

The unique sculpture generated extensive coverage from the press and in social media, helping to lay the groundwork for the second phase of the project; to increase awareness of existing drop-off locations for recycled clothing. For this effort, the city’s ‘recyclewhere’ web app was employed. This allowed residents to enter their zip code and the type of item they wanted to recycle, to find the nearest drop-off location in their area.

“We also did a campaign targeting women aged 25 to 39,” says Kielty. “Because they are some of the biggest consumers of clothing. We wanted to reach out to them and let them know where their closest drop-off location, so we sent out postcards, particularly to women living in apartment buildings.”

Building a Better Bin

The final piece of the program was to increase the convenience of drop-off locations. As part of that effort Goodwill Industries received a grant to develop a new bin designed for apartment buildings. Equipped with a sensor to alert when it has become full, the bin sends a signal to headquarters when it’s time to empty the bin of the collected items. The eventual goal is to place the new bins in the lobbies of apartment buildings across San Francisco.

“What’s great about Goodwill is we do create local jobs,” notes Kielty. “As much as possible we want to keep these materials local to feed the local economy.”

Another of the project partners is I:CO (I Collect) which worked with major clothing retailers such as H&M, North Face, and American Eagle among others, to place collection bins next to checkout stands. A customer can bring in any brand of used clothing to deposit in the bin and are rewarded with a discount on a future purchase.

Inside the outer shell of each I:CO collection bin is a packing box. Once it’s filled up it’s removed and the company pays to have it shipped to their sorting facility. Kielty notes that the program has already seen 500 pounds of clothing collected from the 120 staff members at her office alone.

“People have these bags of used clothing in their homes that they don’t know what to do with, or they haven’t made it to the drop off location, so people are looking for outlets (like this).”

Three Streams for Collected Material

Once collected, the textiles can end up in a variety of places. At the I:CO plant in Fresno, CA, the materials are sorted and sent to over a hundred different markets around the world. Some of it remains as clothing, sold overseas to specific markets. Kielty provides the example of white pants, a common piece of school uniform in Africa that can be supplied through this process. One of strongest markets is for shoes and underwear, clothing basics that are in short supply in many areas of the globe.

Clothing that can’t be reused ends up destined for the ‘wiper’ market. Here the discarded clothing is cut to size and used as cleaning cloths in sectors such as the automotive and painting industries.

The final stop for textiles that can’t be used as clothes or rags is a shredding machine. This so-called ‘shoddy cloth’ usually finds a final home as carpet padding or insulation.

Long-term Goal: Keep it Local

“Ultimately, our long term goal is to have a sorting and grading facility in San Francico,” says Kielty. “We wouldn’t have to ship this stuff to L.A.; we can create local jobs. I’m hoping that’s going to take place in conjunction with our for-profit and non-profit partners and we’ll get that 20,000 tons (of discarded textiles) sorted and contributing to the local economy

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