It's now against the law in Massachusetts to throw out that used Halloween costume, ripped T-shirt or moth-eaten sweater.
Starting today, Massachusetts residents must recycle their old clothing and other textiles instead of tossing them in the garbage.
But don't worry, police aren't going to break down your door if you slip up and throw out your skinny jeans. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees waste disposal, says it targets major offenders of waste bans, not individuals.
"Our approach is to go out and conduct inspections of solid waste facilities and to identify loads of trash that have large amounts of banned material, and then look to identify where that's coming from and take enforcement that way," said John Fischer, the DEP's deputy division director.
State environmental officials say they believe Massachusetts is the first state to ban disposal of textiles. That regulation is one of a few new and expanded waste bans going into effect this month. The state is also requiring people recycle mattresses, and that businesses and institutions producing more than a half-ton of food waste each week — like a hospital cafeteria or grocery store — donate or compost some that material.
Even though the DEP's regulations are focused primarily on larger businesses, Fischer said individuals can do their part to help reduce the amount of waste produced in Massachusetts.
What textiles can be recycled?
All types of textile items can be recycled, said Steve Lisauskas, vice president of government affairs at Waste Zero, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing trash nationally.
That includes shoes, socks, jackets, coats and cloth used in draperies or bedspreads.
"It doesn't have to be pristine off-the-rack clean," he said. "We are interested in used socks. We are interested in used underwear."
But there are limits to what can be recycled.
"If your textiles are wet or moldy or oily, you should not be putting them in a textile donation bin or collection program," Fischer said. "But everything else, including if it's worn or torn or stained, all has some value."
Why is this mandatory?
"I think what's surprising to people is how much of this [clothing] winds ends up in our trash," Fischer said.
Homes and businesses in Massachusetts collectively dispose of about 250,000 tons of textiles in the trash each year, Fischer said.
"We really don't have adequate capacity to manage all of the trash we're disposing — either in Massachusetts or really throughout the northeast part of the country," he said. So the state is trying to find ways to divert as much material as it can, to reduce how much winds up in landfills.
Lisauskas said the change in regulations sends a signal to cities and towns that they need to provide options for residents to divert their textiles from incinerators or landfills.
"Right now in Massachusetts, we're exporting two million tons of solid waste to other states," he said. "More than half of the trash disposed of in New Hampshire is Massachusetts trash."
And about 95% of textiles can be recycled in some way, he said.
How can you donate or recycle old clothing?
Options for donating textiles vary, based on what community people live in. Some cities and towns are offering curb-side pickup of textiles, while others are relying on collection bins offered by charities or private companies.
The state has set up a directory website to help residents search options.
In Boston, Chelsea, Cambridge and more than a dozen other Massachusetts communities, residents can schedule an appointment onlineto have old textiles picked up by the for-profit recycling company Helpsy. The company said they collected 62,000 pounds of textiles in Boston during September.
"There are probably 60 communities in Massachusetts that have adopted at-home textiles recycling and many, many more that have adopted textiles recycling at central locations like a transfer station or schools or municipal buildings," Lisauskas said. "So the fact that most cities and towns are providing an option, that's the beginning. That's not the end. And hopefully the waste ban will provide further impetus for cities and towns to do more and for residents to participate more in the program."
Even though it's a new regulation, there's nothing new about textile recycling. Groups like Goodwill have been doing this for a long, long time.
"We've been around since 1895," said James Harder of Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries in Roxbury. "We're the first and founding Goodwill. So since that time, we've been collecting textiles, collecting donations from the community and giving them new life."
What happens to these textiles?
In a cavernous warehouse measuring more than 50,000 square feet, Goodwill worker Alicia Taylor recently sorted through a pile of donated clothing.
"What we have here is old school Adidas jacket," she said, holding it up. "It looks like it's actually in perfect condition. I don't see any dirt. I don't see any stains. I don't see any fading or balling on it from too many washes."
She tossed the jacket into a pile of items that will be hung up and sold in Goodwill stores. The Roxbury store puts out 27 racks of "new" clothing each day, each with 120 items on it. Items that don't sell are marked down by half in their last week in the store, then moved to an even more discounted "outlet store" on the site.
Anything that's not sold after that store-to-outlet journey, or that didn't make the cut in the first place, is machine baled and sold to a textile recycling company in Nova Scotia called Acadian Wipers. Anything that company can't sell in its thrift stores is cut into industrial cleaning rags or exported to Central America, South America or Africa.
That's similar to how Helpsy handles the clothes it collects. Helpsy Chief Executive Officer Dan Green said the company offers pickup operations like the one in Boston, operates collection bins in 16 states, and purchases unsold thrift store items. That has helped Helpsy collect nearly 100,000 pounds of clothing a day.
Some of those clothes are then sold to people who try to make money reselling the items through online marketplaces like Poshmark.
Other items that are no longer marketable for resale as clothes are sold for wiper rags or as "shoddy," Green said, which he described as "mechanical fiber-to-fiber recycling" that essentially breaks down a piece of cloth into threads that can be used for other products.
Finally, Helpsy will export clothes if they can still be worn but are unlikely to sell in the United States.
Not everyone wants those exports. Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya announced a ban on the imports of used clothing in 2019, saying the imports hurt domestic clothing industries. The trade group for the industries exporting that clothing from the U.S. hasfought those bans.
Industry experts say overall there's more transparency in the used clothing business than there used to be.
"The textiles recycling business is really continuing to grow, evolve and to change," Lisauskas said, adding that the industry has come a long way from the early days when it had just a few operators. "There were relatively few people engaged, and it was a fairly murky marketplace."
Now, he said, there are more "professionalized organizations that are bringing scalable solutions to bear. And that's a really positive trend."
While many textile collection bins prominently feature the logos of charities, it's not always clear how much of the value of those donations goes to a particular cause. Some textile recycling companies have been criticized as short-changing the charities they work with.
Liskausas cautioned donors to pay attention when they make a donation.
"In some instances, the entity that's collecting for the charity simply pays a small fee for licensing the name of that charity, but the textiles you're donating don't go to that charity and don't go to that charity's mission," he explained. "In other instances, it's a small percentage of revenue [that] is shared with that nonprofit organization."
Kirstie Pecci, executive director of the waste-reduction nonprofit Just Zero,said she hopes Massachusetts' new textile regulations mean that the state DEP will take a more active role in regulating the industry.
"This gives them a way to start measuring what's actually happening to the textiles and regulating that secondary market," Pecci said. "It hasn't happened thus far. When you drop your clothes off at a bin ... many times you don't know where they're going. So we need to do a better job of tracking in the future where those materials are ending up."
While Pecci says expanding Massachusetts’ waste bans is a step forward, it’s important that the state do more to enforce its existing bans.