Why is it so hard for New Yorkers to figure out what to do with their old clothes? According to the NYC Department of Sanitation, collectively we send 200 million pounds of textile waste every year to the landfill. But an estimated 95 percent of this landfilled clothing has market value and could be recycled. What are we doing?
The DSNY suspects that people don’t know how easy it is to donate discarded clothing, which is why this spring, it created a handy map listing the more than 1,000 dropoff spots for used textiles and accessories. Throwing out clothing isn’t just a waste of resources; it’s also environmentally problematic because natural fabrics like cotton, wool, and silk release methane — a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon — once they start decomposing in a landfill. And there’s a financial reason to try to avoid the landfill: New York City will spend $411 million in 2019 on landfilling waste, and the cost to ship one ton of garbage to a landfill ($74.75 in the Northeast) is projected to keep rising.
True, donating old clothes isn’t a perfect solution. Americans already donate so much of it that only 20 to 40 percent can be resold by U.S. thrift stores. The rest is baled up and sold for pennies per pound to local recycling centers, where it’s downcycled into wiping rags or insulation, or shipped abroad for resale in developing countries — which don’t necessarily benefit from this system. (Rwanda is actually planning to totally ban secondhand clothing imports in 2019.) Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to find a store or charity in New York City that doesn’t feed into this system. If nobody wants your promotional T-shirt, it’s either that or the landfill, which is what NYC is trying to avoid.
If you’re trying to do the right thing, your best bet is to shop more sustainably. Buy fewer, better pieces of fashion, so that your future closet clean-outs yield fewer, better donations that people actually want. But in the meantime, if you’re trying to dispose of a garbage bag full of Forever 21 that you just Kondo’d, here are the best ways to do it.
Donate specific items to New Yorkers in need.
There are two main kinds of clothing donations. The first is called “in-kind,” when you get your clothing into the hands of New Yorkers in need, like the autumn coat drive for the homeless, or spring prom-dress drives. Office-appropriate clothing for women can go to Dress for Success and for men to Career Gear. Baby clothing can go to Room to Grow, and your wedding gown can go to Bridal Garden. Drop your bras at Free the Girls collection points in Journelle and Rigby & Peller stores. This type of clothing donation is pretty heartwarming — the only downside is that you often have to go out of your way to find the right drop-off point during the appointed days and hours. So plan ahead.
Donation etiquette rule No. 1: When donating clothing to people in need, skip the cheap, trendy, torn, or stained stuff, and only donate gently used items that respect the dignity of the recipient. It should be classic, versatile, and everyday-appropriate.
Don’t just show up at the shelter.
A common misconception is that women’s shelters love getting used clothing donations, but the truth is that most — if not all — shelters will only accept new women’s clothing (though they will take secondhand men’s basics).
“We receive more secondhand clothing for women than we’re able to distribute,” says James Winans, chief development officer at the Bowery Mission. “We’re trying to communicate dignity and love to women who have not received a lot of dignity and love, so we provide them with new clothing that they can feel proud of so they can get back on their feet and move forward in life with confidence.”
So check your local shelter’s website for its in-kind donation wish list, or call up and ask what is needed and wanted before showing up with your bag o’ stuff.
Donate to a charitable thrift shop.
The second kind of clothing donation is for resale. Unlike Dress for Success, the goal of nonprofit thrift shops like the Salvation Army and Goodwill is not to give your old clothes away to the needy. Instead, they sell your clothing in order to fund their services. Think about it: The $10 earned from selling a sparkly top will be much more valuable to someone in need than the sparkly top itself. For example, Housing Works sells used clothing and home goods to fund lifesaving services for homeless and low-income people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, while Cure Thrift Shop sends funds to type 1 diabetes research and advocacy. If you drop your stuff off at a Greenmarket textile collection point, then the charity GrowNYC uses the funds to support healthy food systems in New York City. Other thrift stores provide funding to the arts, churches, or religious organizations. So, where you bring your clothing depends on what kind of nonprofit you want to support.
The nicer your clothes are, the more money the charity can earn, but thrift shop donations don’t need to be perfect. “We always look for creative ways to sell damaged merchandise,” says Katherine Oakes, associate director of marketing and communications at Housing Works. And like we said before, every NYC thrift shop passes along unsalable items to clothing recyclers.
Some more donation etiquette tips: Definitely make sure everything is dry, so mold doesn’t ruin the whole batch. It’s also polite to wash or dry clean your donation if it needs it. Employees don’t love sorting things reeking of B.O., and most stores and charities can’t and don’t launder every donation that comes in. And don’t leave it outside a store after hours — it will get rained on or picked over and strewn across the street … and become trash.
If you’ve done a huge closet purge or clothing drive and have several trash bags of fashion, some charities will come get it from you. Check the “Only show vendors that may pick up” box on the DSNY donation partner page.
Sell it for cash.
If you’re feeling a little needy yourself, you can bring everything that might have value to Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads Trading Co. Beacon’s Closet, or one of the other yellow pins on the map that indicate a for-profit secondhand store. They’ll sort it in front of you and give you either cash on the spot or store credit. Anything they don’t want to buy (which will likely be most of it; they are picky), they’ll donate for you to charity.
Would it be more generous to donate everything, including the valuable stuff, straight to a charity so they can get the benefit? Absolutely. Do we understand the pain of handing over a designer purse in pristine condition when your checking account is at $50? Yup. Do what you need to do for your financial situation.
Dump it at a brand’s retail store.
If your stuff is looking a bit ratty or came from the sale rack at Forever 21 in 2014 (e.g., it has zero value), bring it all to one of the many brand stores that have a take-back program (the dark-blue pins on the map). Most of these stores will accept textiles (and some will accept shoes) from any brand and in any condition — ripped or stained is just fine — and send it straight to textile recycling facilities. Some brands, including H&M, Kenneth Cole, and North Face, will even give you a discount on your next purchase as a reward.
J. Crew, Madewell, Levi’s, and rag & bone will take any old denim and recycle it into insulation, which is then passed along to community organizations for construction projects. Eileen Fisher and Patagonia take back only their own clothing so they can repair, upcycle, or recycle it before reselling it in their own stores. And Uniqlo works with NGOs to distribute its old wearable items to refugees and disaster victims worldwide and recycle the rest into fuel pellets.
Stuff it in a bin.
Drop-off bins are definitely the laziest, er, easiest way to get rid of clothing, short of putting it in the trash. They’re the green pins that blanket the map in the four boroughs. Keep in mind that these are not all charities. Back in 2014, there was a spate of news stories about how many clothing donation bins are a scam and how the clothing recycling business is rife with bad actors. If that bothers you, you can find a bin associated with Helpsy, which, yes, is a for-profit recycler but is the only one that is a certified B Corp. Last winter, it helped out the New York Cares coat drive by buying back 44,000 winter jackets from textile recyclers and delivering them, pro-bono, to over 300 charities.
Helpsy will take any clothing, accessories, and textiles, but does prefer that the clothes are clean and dropped off in a sealed plastic bag. “If clothes are loose, they get dirty and wet in the bins and become trash,” Helpsy founder Rachel Kibbe says.
And, you know, you would never have to shlep again if you had a reFashionNYC bin right in your building. The city will drop a bin off — for free! — at apartment buildings with more than ten units, office buildings, schools, gyms, fashion companies, laundromats, or hotels. Put in a request here.
Then, remember this next time you pause in front of a store having a basement-bargain clearance sale. There’s probably a thrift store right down the street stuffed with fashion from other New Yorkers for a similar or cheaper price — especially if the DSNY’s donation campaign has any success.