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The state’s plastic shopping bag ban, set to go into effect March 1, comes accompanied by a push to use bags made of canvas or artificial fabrics.
But what do you do with worn out tote bags?
As the state takes aim at polyethylene in thin grocery bags, the city Department of Sanitation is trying to get New Yorkers to properly recycle fabric sacks — along with clothing and other textiles.
The average New York City household tosses more than 120 pounds of textiles a year according to a 2017 Sanitation Department waste study. Statewide,1.4 billion pounds of potentially reusable textiles are thrown out improperly annually, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The city Sanitation Department recently kicked off “ReFashion Week,” an effort to make textile sustainability chic while educating people on why clothing needs to be disposed of properly. The series of events features discussions led by fashion designers and experts, pop-up shops, fashion shows and more in Manhattan, The Bronx and Brooklyn.
“We really think that this is about communication,” Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia told THE CITY.
Cotton or Plastic?
The Sanitation Department has distributed 700,000 free reusable grocery bags made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — a recycled polyester known as Dacron in the U.S. — over the last four years. The agency says it’s on track to hand out another 100,000 by the end of the month.
These types of bags would need to be reused 84 times to have as low of a cumulative environmental impact as a traditional plastic grocery bag, according to a 2018 study from Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food.
The same study found that cotton bags would have to be used 7,000 times for the same environmental impact — and organic cotton 20,000 times.
One reason cotton’s impact is so large is how it’s manufactured.
More than 5,200 gallons of water are used to process two pounds of cotton — the amount needed to make a pair of jeans and a t-shirt — according to a report in Textile Today, an industry publication.
Cotton production also uses 16% of all insecticides sold globally, despite the plant making up just over 2% of the world’s cropland, according to the North American arm of the nonprofit organization, the Pesticide Action Network.
Other materials, like nylon and polyester, are derived from plastic, which comes from fossil fuels or is recycled. Their manufacture may consume less water and pesticides, but the products often end up sitting in landfills for ages — or polluting bodies of water.
City and state agencies have tried to provide New Yorkers with ways to properly get rid of used textiles, including old outfits, shoes, linens and bags.
Teaching to Recycle More
In January 2019, the state Department of Environmental Conservation launched Recycle Right NY, a campaign focused on educating people on how to dispose of all kinds of materials, one item a month. The agency dedicated all of last April to properly discarding textiles.
In 2007, the Sanitation Department teamed with environmental nonprofit GrowNYC to set up dropoff locations for clothing at various Greenmarkets around the city. The donations are collected, taken to a facility and processed by Wearable Collections, a clothing company focused on environmental sustainability.
About half of the clothes go to secondhand markets, while most of the rest are “upcycled as rags, or shredded into fiber products, used for purposes like insulation, carpet padding and mattress stuffing,” according to the company. About 4% cannot be repurposed.
Still, the Greenmarkets’ reach is limited.
While Manhattan has 13 kiosks sprinkled around the island, Brooklyn has seven locations, with nearly all in its northwestern neighborhoods. The Bronx has five locations while Queens has four — all but one of which can be found in the western part of the borough. Staten Island has zero drop-off locations.
Officials say the effort has reaped significant benefits. GrowNYC Director David Hurd noted the program recycled 1.1 million pounds of textiles last year — a 47% increase over 2018.
The Sanitation Department also teamed with health and social services group Housing Works in 2011 to kick off ReFashionNYC. The program allows schools, local businesses, commercial and residential buildings to request a textile donation bin.
Garcia declared the program a success, noting that 22 million pounds of clothing have been collected from more than 1,400 bins in apartment buildings from across the city.
“This particular area is a pretty robust reuse sector,” Garcia added, noting that organizations like the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries have helped familiarize New Yorkers with donating clothes. “We really want to sort of leverage that and build on that, and make it so that it just gets easier.”
‘No Perfect Material’
Professor Melanie DuPuis, chair of the Department of Environmental Studies and Science at Pace University, said it’s to hard to quantify the potential environmental impact of hundreds of thousands of polyester bags being used for the first time by New Yorkers. Many of the plastics in them will deteriorate over time, releasing microfibers that end up in our oceans and fish, she noted.
She pointed out that trade-offs like these are very common as industries and cities try to move away from practices that are extremely harmful to the environment, to practices that are less damaging.
“There is no perfect clean material out there that has no environmental impact,” DuPuis said. “In cases like these, it is our job to figure out which has the least environmental impact and move in that direction.”
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