'We're giving life to a T-shirt'

Recycling program at Goodwill a riches to rags story

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Fall cleaning season is approaching, and Maryam Kamangar wants residents to use more rags — so long as they're from Goodwill.

Last September, Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires and Southern Vermont launched its recycling business, Thrifty Rags, to take unwanted clothing and repurpose the items into cleaning rags for commercial and residential use.

"What we're doing is, we're giving life to a T-shirt," said Kamangar, community development manager. "When [locals] go and buy brand-new rags from Home Depot or Carr Hardware, that means the farmer had to actually grow [the cotton] in China, Bangladesh, Pakistan or the United States."

In 18 months, Thrifty Rags has recycled approximately 50,400 pounds of T-shirts and towels that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill, according to Goodwill.

At the Tyler Street recycling center, workers cut fabric — unwanted clothes, torn or bleached that were donated — into rag sizes and package them into 5 and 20 pound bags that can be purchased by local residents and businesses in construction, painting or auto repair.

For Kamangar, the biggest challenge has been convincing donors that Goodwill isn't just a clothing store — it's also a recycling center. Since 2018, Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires and Southern Vermont has kept almost 1.7 million pounds of trash out of landfills.

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"In the past, they've only been giving us good T-shirts and good towels because they're thinking nobody's going to go to Goodwill and buy a T-shirt with a hole or a rip or bleached," she said. "So, since September of 2018, we started this as a business model. Now, we are bringing awareness to the community to say if you are throwing away your T-shirt or your towel, it will go to the landfill. And it was very, very hard for people to understand that."

In an effort to keep fabric out of landfills, Kamangar encourages residents to trace the environmental footprint of their clothes. Taking into account the costs of growing and processing cotton, she estimates that it requires up to 2,700 gallons of water to make one T-shirt, enough for one person to drink for 900 days.

"Forget all the energy [used in textile production]," she said. "Imagine how many T-shirts a person has in their household and how many gallons and gallons of water they have already wasted."

Thrifty Rags, along with the referral program Suit YourSelf, are two Goodwill programs unique to the Berkshires, aiming to follow the nonprofit's philosophy, "Hand up, not hand out."

Job training participants in this program gain experience and learn skills in textile recycling processing, workplace safety, inventory management, customer service, bookkeeping, sales and distribution, according to the organization's website.

So, one rag at a time, the program gives employees the chance to develop operational skills and gain work experience, creating a stepping-stone financially and professionally.

"Anybody in the community who gets a job [here is], most likely, either single and getting married or they have a family that they are feeding," she said. "So, it just makes the whole community because then they can spend money in the community. It goes like a circle, and we all help each other."


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