New textile recycling program places bins across Kennebec Valley

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A new textile recycling bin Wednesday at the Winslow Library. The bins are the result of a collaboration between the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments and a New Hampshire-based apparel company. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

In an effort to provide the residents of central Maine with more ways to dispose of their clothing, the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments has partnered with a New Hampshire-based company to launch a new textile recycling program.

The new partnership between KVCOG, a Fairfield-based nonprofit, and Apparel Impact, of Manchester, New Hampshire means area residents can can now take their textile items to designated drop-off boxes. Bins are in Athens, Chelsea, Fayette, Hartland, Madison, Pittsfield, Skowhegan, Wayne and Winslow.

The items will then be collected on a biweekly basis by employees of Apparel Impact and properly recycled or donated, effectively removing them from the solid waste stream.

Acceptable items include clothing, bedding, towels, bags, purses, shoes and hats.

Gabe Gauvin, KVCOG’s environmental planner, wanted to bring a textile recycling program to the more rural communities in Maine to ensure that  residents of those towns had the opportunity to properly dispose of their textiles like residents of larger communities do.

“I realized there was a need in our area for more comprehensive waste diversion strategies,” Gauvin said during a phone interview. “A lot of the communities that KVCOG serves are very rural, so I wanted to make sure those towns had the same kind of programs available to them as cities like Portland and more affluent towns like Gardiner are more likely to have access to.”

Officials said the new program not only relieves some of the pressure on local transfer stations by diverting some of the solid waste but also provides residents with an easy, no-contact option for textile recycling during the coronavirus pandemic.

A map of drop-off locations can be found on KVCOG’s website.

Apparel Impact was particularly appealing to Gauvin because of its methods and the fact that it doesn’t charge the town or residents to use the drop-off boxes.

“They do the right thing, rather than other organizations in the past have collected these materials and if it made sense and the price was right, they would recycle it, otherwise there wasn’t a whole lot of accountability for where this material was going,” Gauvin said. “Apparel Impact on the other hand has been able to create a program where they collect this material and they’re able to sort through it, and if it’s in decent enough shape, they make sure it gets donated to those in need. They’re following the waste hierarchy they’re doing reuse before they try recycling.” 

Apparel Impact is able to provide its services at no cost to residents or municipalities thanks to the money it receives from recycling the materials as well as from community outreach, nonprofit partnerships and fundraising efforts.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer Joe Whitten started Apparel Impact in 2014 after he heard about the textile recycling efforts in California from a friend.

Joe Whitten is founder and chief executive officer of Apparel Impact. Photo courtesy of Apparel Impact

“I was actually in technology and software for 10 years, so I wasn’t in any environmental field whatsoever,” Whitten said in a phone interview. “But a friend brought it up to me, because he didn’t see a lot of it around New England. He lived in California and saw more textile recyclers and waste diversion out there. I thought it was an awesome idea, and I did a bunch of research on it. And I thought it could be done really well here New England.”

Whitten, a veteran of the U.S. Army, has placed a focus on employing veterans and working with companies and nonprofit organizations that help veterans causes.

Today, Apparel Impact has more than 500 drop-off locations in communities across New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and upstate New York.

“We provide these communities the opportunity to recycle their clothing, whether it’s in good or bad condition,” Whitten said. “We can keep it from landfills and find a new use for it. Whether that’s to be worn for its intended use, a small percent of what we take in can’t be re-worn so we recycle it for other use like insulation or wiping rags …” 

Whitten said more than 85% of the items Apparel Impact collects can be reused for its intended purpose. 

A major reason Gauvin sought out this partnership was to decrease the amount of textiles in central Maine’s solid waste stream.

According to Gauvin, the amount of textiles going to landfills has increased over the past few years due to “fast fashion,” or the rapid production of inexpensive clothing.

“When you think about solid waste stream as a whole, nationwide, somewhere between 6%-7% of all the solid waste that is going to either landfills or … waste energy (facilities) is made up of textiles,” Gauvin said. “With fast fashion and everything going on in the world, people are consuming more than ever because it’s cheaper. And they’re not holding onto them for as long as they used to, so textiles have been a growing segment of the solid waste stream for a long time.” 

Whitten shared similar sentiments about the fast fashion industry.

“Over the last 10-15 years textile waste has actually become a really big issue across the U.S. mostly due to fast fashion and less expensive clothing,” Whitten said. “Although it’s great that we have access to more affordable clothing, what that means is the product is not as well made. So it doesn’t last as long, and we’re also buying more of it so that all ends up in the landfills. …” 

The new program also offers a solution to issues with textile recycling that appeared due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Partnering with Apparel Impact was a creative idea that was implemented quickly at a time when our region was suffering from some of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” KVCOG’s Executive Director Laura Cyr said in an email. “Unfortunately, the popular ‘Swap Sheds’ that many communities rely on for recycled home goods were closed down as one of the measures of health safety. The absence of these community-based recycling options led to an increase in illegal dumping, curbside drop-offs and an increase in recyclable goods being thrown away as trash.” 

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