Ginger Zee takes a look at how donated clothes are processed: Reporter’s Notebook

ABC News is taking a look at solutions for issues related to climate change and the environment with the series, “The Power of Us: People, The Climate, and Our Future.”

You’ve seen the mountains of landfill fast fashion from Kenya to Chile, right? We went there and checked in on them for “Nightline.”

I know I have been keenly aware that the influx of clothing consumption as fast fashion became instant fashion over the last few decades has been a major problem.

That’s why I took the No New Clothes challenge almost two years ago.

PHOTO: ABC News Chief Meteorologist Ginger Zee examines how donated clothes are processed.

ABC News Chief Meteorologist Ginger Zee examines how donated clothes are processed.

ABC News

But my kids are growing, and we still use sheets and towels beyond their lifetime. So, in my closet, I realized I had six bags of discards — not just one.

One is for the place that says we take care of sneakers right, the place that takes undergarments, and the place that takes towels and bedding and says it won’t go to the landfill.

That’s when my algorithm served up Trashie, one of a few companies saying they would take it all and make sure it doesn’t end up in a foreign landfill.

Like so many of us, when we were growing up, we would donate to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. While those services and employment are wonderful for our communities, they only resell a fraction of what is donated (most say around ¼ stays in stores).

The rest is sold to sorters and graders or directly to second-hand markets overseas, according to Maxine Bedat, executive director of the New Standard Institute.

“And if it doesn’t sell, they will bale it up. And sell it by per pound or per kilo,” Bedat said.

PHOTO: ABC News Chief Meteorologist Ginger Zee examines how donated clothes are processed.

ABC News Chief Meteorologist Ginger Zee examines how donated clothes are processed.

ABC News

70% of the world wears only second-hand clothing exclusively, Kristy Caylor, Trashie founder and CEO, said, and is backed up by data. So this has been big business for almost a century.

But that business is getting flooded with our low-quality fashion.

According to the United Nations, the U.S. exports the most second-hand clothing in the world, more than two times the amount that China exported, according to the latest data from 2019. Most of the clothing exported ends up in either Latin America or Africa.

“A lot of that clothing that is ending up in the Global South doesn’t find a home,” said Bedat. “Globally, we throw about 85% of textiles into landfills.”

Clothing waste is now infamously showing up in landfills from Chile to Kenya. According to Bedat, research shows that 40% of the clothing exported to Ghana was never sold and ended up as waste.

So I combined my six bags and packed my Trashie bags, then followed them down to their facility to see how they claim they add transparency and hundreds of “grades” in the sorting process to help ensure the clothes don’t end up in the landfill.

Caylor explains that the company approaches clothing donation differently.

“The reality is that different donation centers have different priorities. When you think about used clothing that comes in, certain things are used, and often the majority are actually not used,” Caylor said.

For $20, Trashie will supply one of its “Take Back Bags,” which can even be filled with torn or stained clothing. In return, you get Trashie cash that can be used at different partners, like DoorDash and Lululemon.

The sorting process begins once a “Take Back Bag” arrives at Trashie. The bag is opened up, and the items are analyzed to determine what can be reused and recycled.

“Everything finds a new home,” Caylor said. “[The sorting process] is a really important part of the process for keeping things out of a landfill.”

The donated items are then put on a conveyor belt. Some items, such as shirts and pants that are torn or have stains, will be sent to be cut up and used for industrial purposes.

Higher-grade products will be sent to a different part of the facility to be more closely analyzed in hopes of being resold to domestic stores.

Despite various efforts to reuse or recycle many of the items the company receives, Caylor says that a lot of the products they receive still end up in Central and South America.

PHOTO: ABC News Chief Meteorologist Ginger Zee examines how donated clothes are processed.

A view of how donated clothes are processed.

ABC News

However, Caylor says Trashie’s efforts minimize the chance that unwanted clothing will ultimately end up as waste and in a landfill. In addition to accepting a wider range of items and enhancing efforts to reuse and recycle, Trashie signs supplier agreements with everyone it works with.

“They know exactly what they’re getting before they receive it,” Caylor said.

In addition to Trashie, other companies like Retold and Subset accept most clean and dry household textiles and clothes.

While companies and organizations like Goodwill and The Salvation Army try to figure out what to do with the tons of global clothing waste, some fashion and environmental experts point to the production side as the real way to reduce the massive amount of waste.

The secondhand market has been criticized for the clothing-filled landfills. However, Bedat says there’s no magical place where they can put these garments.

“It’s still going places. But I feel like the blame is pinned on them when the blame should be the industry that is producing them, to begin with,” Bedat said.

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