June 21, 2012

Kenyans Don't Always Want Your Old Clothes

I believe in recycling. But we kid ourselves sometimes about how effective it is.

Take those bins for recycling plastic bags that are in supermarkets nowadays. Are they really about saving plastic stock, or are they chiefly a defense against anti-plastic bag laws.

"Look, we care! We're recycling!"

Supposedly they go into plastic decking. or into more plastic bags, but if the market dropped—especially in China, which is entering its own recession—they would probably going to landfill while we keep stuffing more of them into the collection boxes.

Then there's clothes. We drop them at Goodwill or Salvation Army or ARC, knowing that people with little money to spend—or college students looking for something ironically retro—will buy them.

Or not. The fact is, there are more used garments than buyers. So they go to a different kind of recycler.
There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. I visited Trans- Americas Trading Co., a third- generation textile recycler in Clifton, N.J., which employs 85 people and processes close to 17 million pounds of used clothing a year. Inside Trans-Americas, there is a wall of cubed-up clothing five bales tall and more than 20 bales long. “This is liter­ally several hundred thousand pounds of textile waste, and we bring in two trailer loads of this much every day,” Trans-Americas president Eric Stubin told me. The volume they process has gone up over the years alongside our consumption of clothing.
Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we cre­ate. . . . . After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa. 
But even poor Africans do not want or cannot use it all. Now when every little kid in the smallest village in the bush has a Chicago Bulls shirt, what happens to the rest?

Read the rest.

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