SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Anne Watson shakes her head when she thinks about all of the stained, holey T-shirts she has pitched over the years.
"I thought, 'we can't even use that,' " she said of her family, "so why would we donate it?"
But as the executive director of the St. Joseph County Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, she now knows there is a use for clothing that thrift stores can't resell.
"If you bring it here, it will be used for another purpose," she told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/TXeEZE ).
The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing, linens and other textiles each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Textiles account for 5 percent of municipal waste, because only about 15 percent of them are recycled.
And it's not just clothing. Consumer electronics — including TVs, video and audio equipment, computers and phones — comprise about 1 to 2 percent of municipal waste, and plastics — found in containers, packaging, appliances, furniture and toys — make up almost 13 percent of municipal waste.
St. Vincent, Goodwill and the Salvation Army sell clothing items too damaged for retail sales to textile recyclers or salvage brokers, who either ship them to Third World countries or resell them to companies who repurpose them as cleaning rags, furniture padding, insulation and building materials.
Each year, St. Vincent sells 8 tons of wiper rags and 198 tons of salvage rags. Those are items that would otherwise have gone to a landfill.
"The wiper rags, which are 100 percent cotton, are baled and sold to businesses in the community like plumbers, manufacturers and even the city," said Alica McMurtrie, operations manager at St. Vincent. The rest are sold to a salvage company.
"It costs us to haul things off and trash it," McMurtrie said.
"We want to maximize the dollar potential of every donation. We don't want to throw it away, if we can make something off of it."
It's the same with other donations the society gets. It sells 39 tons of scrap metal each year, too.
St. Vincent takes small and large appliances and fixes them up in a small repair shop in the back of its Ardmore Trail store. But, if an item cannot be fixed, St. Vincent sells the cords and metals such as copper and brass to various salvage companies. Even plastic items, computers, cellphones and televisions are recycled.
Last year, Goodwill Industries of Michiana Inc. recycled 660,361 pounds of computers, 1,193,470 pounds of TVs, 323 pounds of cellphones and 8,425 pounds of plastic.
"We have relationships with different organizations who go through and pick the components out and recycle them," said Guy Fisher, fund manager and director of mission advancement. "Dell does a lot of that with computer equipment, as well as with television sets."
The central processing plant for five local Goodwill stores is located on Western Avenue in South Bend.
On a daily basis, the plant recycles 7,600 units of clothing for racks and 5,200 units of clothing for bins in its stores. What clothing and textiles can't be resold, it bales and sells.
"Our goal is to try to generate money to fund Goodwill programs from every item that is donated," Fisher said. "So in most cases, we'll do what we can to get items in salable shape. Stuff that we can take a needle and thread and fix it, we keep. But if it's stained or stuff we know is not going to sell, we cycle it through."
Last year, Goodwill processed 10,200 bales of old clothing between its South Bend and Gary operations. Each bale is just less than 1,100 pounds, Fisher said.
The Salvation Army ships out a semi-truck of these clothing bales every month, said Louis Lightfoot, director of operations. A truck usually holds about 36 bales; any more and they might go over the 43,000-pound limit for transportation via truck.
The Salvation Army has seven local thrift shops in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall and LaPorte counties, which also recycle things like steel, copper, aluminum and cardboard.
"When an item comes in that does not work, we put it in our truck and take it to the scrapyard," Louis Lightfoot said.
Receiving nonworking items is a common problem for all three nonprofits.
"A lot of people drop off stuff at night that doesn't work," Lightfoot said. "People dump a lot of trash and it costs money to haul it away."
It can cost $500 every time a Salvation Army Dumpster is emptied. The monthly trash bill at Goodwill is more than $24,000.
These costs detract from the money the nonprofits raise through recycling and use to fund local programs that develop job skills, teach healthy eating, provide tutoring, offer utility or rent assistance, rehabilitate men with drug and alcohol addictions and support food pantries.
Lightfoot gave a few simple guidelines people can follow to avoid contributing to the organizations' trash bills. Donations, he said, should be in workable or salable condition, and moldy or smelly clothing cannot be recycled.
But the trash problems are slight, he said, compared to the outpouring of community support the organizations receive.
"The community has been awesome this year and we are grateful that the donations have been coming."
And since the nonprofits receive little to no government funding, that is important.
In 2013, Goodwill helped 7,500 people through its programs and career centers and it helped 1,000 people to find employment. St. Vincent helped 84,614 people in some form or another. Proceeds from the local Salvation Army thrift stores benefit its South Bend Adult Rehabilitation Center, which helped 250 men last year.
As Anne Watson explained it, "Your old T-shirt could help someone put food on the table."
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com
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