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New textile-recycling drop boxes aim to reduce waste in Boston

Boston residents now have a sustainable new option for getting rid of old clothes — dropping them into textile-recycling boxes.

The City of Boston has partnered with Helpsy, a textile collection company, to add 10 textile recycling drop boxes around the city. COURTESY OF HELPSY

The City of Boston, in partnership with textile collection company Helpsy, has added 10 textile recycling drop boxes across various neighborhoods to work toward its goal of becoming a “zero-waste city.”

Brian Coughlin, Boston’s superintendent of waste reduction, said the City wants to make the service accessible and convenient for residents.

“We want to extend those boxes to every neighborhood in the city,” Coughlin said. “We want people to actually see them work in multiple places in the neighborhood and realize that textile recycling is an actual thing.”

Helpsy and the City began working on the initiative in the summer of 2019.

The boxes and recycling events are currently Boston’s only collection methods, but the City hopes to institute a curbside pickup system, similar to trash pickup, by the spring and expand the boxes to every neighborhood.

These plans will push Boston to be a leading municipality for textile recycling, Coughlin said.

About 7 percent of Boston’s average-200,000 tons of trash per year comprises textiles, according to Coughlin. The City hopes to reduce textile waste by 14,000 tons per year through the initiative.

“That would be a huge cost savings to the City,” Coughlin said, “but it more importantly, would be the environmentally right thing to do.”

Although the City has seen success with these new boxes, Helpsy cofounder Dan Green said, COVID-19 has made it difficult to get to this point. 

Green said the pandemic has produced a range of concerns, including the safety of drivers and the general public, as well as how best to advertise the new initiative. But COVID-19 has also “dramatically” increased the amount of donations to the project, he said. 

“As long as we were permitted to operate, it was clearly in our mission to operate,” Green said. 

The pandemic has increased the concentration of trash in residential areas, leading to an overall increase of trash by 20-25 percent in April, Coughlin said, and the issue continues to exacerbate.

“As we’ve seen the trend of the trash continue to rise, it was a good time to get this going,” Coughlin said. “In a short period of time, we’ve already been getting some great feedback, and we’ve actually seen the participation at the drop boxes has been great so far.”

Helpsy’s drivers remove everything from the boxes by hand and bring it back to their dispatch center in Medford, Conn., according to Green.

Once in Medford, the textiles are sorted. Green said the items that are “obvious trash,” such as wet clothes, are thrown away. About half the clothes are sold wholesale to American companies, he said, while another quarter are cut into wiping rags and the “lowest-value” quarter are ground down into carpet padding.

About 95 percent of the material in drop boxes is reusable, according to Green.

“We are big advocates for reuse as it is less environmentally intense and it also creates more jobs, typically,” Green said.

He said textile waste is a much bigger problem than most realize, with each person discarding about 100 pounds of clothes per year on average.

“It’s the fastest growing category of waste,” Green said. “There are happy homes for almost all this stuff, and the solutions need to be on a serious and industrial scale.”

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