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What Happens To Your Clothes Thrift Stores Can't Sell

Ann-Elise Henzl
Bob and Sandy Woycke stand in front of bales of old textiles that are destined for new uses at Milwaukee Textile Recycling, a family business in Riverwest

A number of people celebrated Earth Day over the weekend, perhaps renewing their commitment to eco-friendly habits. There's one practice that might not be on everyone's radar: finding new life for old textiles, from clothing to household décor.

Bob Woycke recycles textiles for a living.

"As a kid, I was living on 12th and Becher. I remember the ragman coming through with the horse and cart in the alley. Little did I know, I'd end up in that business," Woycke says.

Woycke is president of Milwaukee Textile Recycling in the city's Riverwest neighborhood. The firm buys unwanted clothes from thrift stores. The items won't sit around for long. Workers gather armloads of textiles and push them into a pit in the floor. A big machine presses everything into a large cube of fabric, weighing at least 1,000 pounds.

Woycke says the company sells the bales as a commodity. Some buyers sell the garments to people in developing countries who can't afford new clothing. Woycke's company also buys used textiles from hospitals.

"We take their recycled linens, the flannel blankets, the sheets, and that all will be processed and used as a wiping rag," Woycke says.

Textiles people donate to Goodwill stores also may be transformed into wiping rags or other products, according to Ron Tatum, senior logistics manager for the stores. Tatum says not all donations are deemed appropriate for retail sale.

"One of our practices is that we want to put the best of the best on the floor. We do not put anything on there that may have a rip that may be torn," Tatum says.

Goodwill gathers the damaged items and sells them as a commodity. Tatum says the proceeds help support Goodwill's mission. So the stores actually welcome donations of any type of textile, even if the condition is poor.

Tattered textiles be used for other purposes too. Jackie King is executive director of SMART, a national association based in Maryland that promotes textile recycling. King says you might be surprised what can be repurposed: frayed curtains, shabby pillows -- even worn stuffed animals.

"Some of our member companies take those materials and grind them up into their basic components, and then they make them into some other products. And those can range from carpet padding to insulation that you would find in a car, or soundproofing kind of insulation," King says.

King says it's important to recycle textiles because they make up 5-6 percent of the waste stream. And she says almost all of it could be put to new use. Bob Woycke of Milwaukee Textile Recycling shares this message: "You recycle plastic. You try to recycle aluminum, all that kind of stuff. It's just the right thing to do."

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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