With New Textile Waste Ban, Pantry Swamped With Unusable Donations

by Alan Pollock
A Family Pantry worker prepares donated clothing for resale at the Second Glance Thrift Shop. FILE PHOTO A Family Pantry worker prepares donated clothing for resale at the Second Glance Thrift Shop. FILE PHOTO

NORTH HARWICH – The Family Pantry of Cape Cod relies very heavily on the donation of used clothing, both to distribute to its clients, and via its thrift shop, to raise revenue to buy food. But for the last year, they’ve been swamped with donations of other types of fabrics, from shredded and stained clothing to dirty rags.

“For instance, somebody brought their garage quilts they use to change the oil, you put it down so you don’t get your floor dirty,” Family Pantry Executive Director Christine Menard said. The Pantry has seen the volume of unusable textile donations triple or quadruple in recent months. “It’s a symptom of a bigger problem, I think,” she said.

On Nov. 1, 2022, the state put in place a new ban on disposing textiles in the trash, as part of a larger program to promote recycling and foster new business growth. Around the state, people were turned back when they tried to throw out worn-out clothing, mattresses or other textiles.

“The law has changed, and I think they have been holding on to [their textile waste] for a while. All of a sudden, it’s landing at our door,” Menard said.

Clothing donations are central to the Family Pantry’s operations. Volunteers sort through the contributions at the Pantry’s headquarters in North Harwich, saving the very best items for resale in the Second Glance Thrift Shop in West Harwich. Clothes with minor imperfections are given to clients of the Pantry when they come to pick up groceries. Items that are completely unusable are recycled by the private contractor Bay State Textile, which pays the Pantry a small amount for the items.

“We’re super grateful for the clothing. That’s part of our main mission,” Menard said. “But it’s been overwhelming, the amount of clothing that is not usable: it’s torn, it’s destroyed, it’s filthy.”

While the Pantry receives a small amount of revenue even from unusable textiles, the volunteers who process the donations are completely swamped.

“You have to sort through all of this stuff to get to the usable goods. They can never see the end of it,” she said. “It’s really hard on them.”

Controlling the amount of textile waste sent to landfills is a serious challenge for regulators. According to a study by the state Department of Environmental Protection, “more than 230,000 tons of usable textiles — including clothing, footwear, towels, bedding and other fabric-based products — were sent to landfills and incinerators in Massachusetts in 2010.” On its website, Bay State Textiles indicates that 45 percent of its collections are reusable clothing.

“Bay State Textiles will accept your textiles in any condition, as long as it is clean and dry,” the site reads. “If it can’t be reused, it gets recycled into wiping rags, or broken down into fibers and made into new materials.”

Together with groups like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross, Bay State Textiles has collection bins for textile donations. Chatham DPW Director Rob Faley said there are a number of choices for dropping off usable clothing at the transfer station, and other textiles can be put into a bin for Bay State Textiles. “But we don’t throw any textiles out in Chatham,” he said.

Harwich DPW Director Linc Hooper said residents of his town can also use donation bins at the transfer station, but there is no bin for unusable textiles. “We’re trying to divert as much as possible” from the waste stream, he said, but if residents have to, they can put unusable textiles in with the trash. “We’re doing what we can to comply with the waste bans,” Hooper added.

For her part, Menard said the Family Pantry is glad to facilitate the re-use of clothing that might otherwise be tossed, but she asked donors to be selective with what they bring.

“I don’t want to turn anybody off to think we’re not grateful,” she said. “But you can’t send us your garage mats.”

Learn more about textile recycling at RecycleSmartMA.org.