At Aristeen president Tracey Birkenhauer’s suggestion, Livonia, Mich. launched the Simple Recycling curbside textile recycling program on Dec. 9, 2019. This free service diverts clothing and a variety of household items from landfills.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 11.2 million tons of textiles went to landfills in 2017 — 8% of all landfilled municipal solid waste. The recycling rate for all textiles was 15.2% in 2017, with 2.6 million tons recycled.
Americans throw away roughly 80 pounds of clothing per person per year. Simple Recycling aims to reduce that number dramatically.
Simple Recycling is an Ohio-based, for-profit company that has a long list of Michigan clients, including Westland, Canton and Novi.
How it works
Simple Recycling partners with municipalities to offer curbside recycling in addition to the recycling programs already offered. Simple Recycling collects many items that most curbside recyclers do not, including textiles of any kind, hairdryers, pots and pans, small appliances, and dishes.
There is no cost to the homeowner or the municipality. In fact, the municipality gets a small financial incentive — usually a few hundred dollars.
Before the service begins, Simple Recycling sends residents information packets, bags, and tags for larger items. On garbage day, a Simple Recycling box truck collects the bags and tagged items. They leave a replacement bag for each bag used.
Simple Recycling partners with the Value World thrift store chain. When a truck finishes its route, they unload and weigh collected materials at a Value World store. A team of Value World employees sort the materials. Any premium items are priced and placed on the selling floor. Everything else gets bailed and loaded back on the truck, headed for a facility in Westland.
From there, the items go to a recycling facility in Ontario where they are separated again. Clothing that is tattered but wearable goes to Third World countries. Textiles in serious disrepair, such as ripped towels and destroyed clothing, are recycled into a variety of items, such as shining rags and backing for car seats.
“Pretty much everything we pick up does not go to the landfill,” said Bill Wilk, regional manager of Simple Recycling. “Over 85 percent of used textiles still go into landfills and we are trying to reduce that number.”
Unpaid, enthusiastic proponent
An unpaid and enthusiastic proponent of the program, Tracey first informed Livonia City Council member Scott Bahr of Simple Recycling on March 30, 2018. She did this following a meeting with former Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, who said Scott Bahr would be the most receptive Livonia council member.
A recovering journalist, Tracey had done her homework. She knew one of the biggest barriers to Simple Recycling adoption was the perception that this for-profit company steals resources from trusted charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Foreseeing this potential barrier to entry, Tracey interviewed charity directors and recycling program managers from communities that offer Simple Recycling before sending the proposal to Livonia.
Not one charity she contacted said donations had gone down after Simple Recycling launched. In fact, every nonprofit director said they embraced Simple Recycling as a benefit to their community. And every municipal recycling manager said their community had saved money on landfill tipping fees by diverting thousands of tons of waste from landfills. They agreed implementation and long-term program management were both relatively seamless.
“I think Simple Recycling would be great for Livonia and its residents,” Tracey wrote to Councilman Bahr. “It reduces tipping fees for Livonia, the city gets a stipend for participating and it reduces the amount of waste that Livonia sends to the landfill — likely thousands of pounds per year. Oakland County diverted 234,000 pounds of waste in 2016.
“Are you willing to consider implementing the Simple Recycling program? I can arrange a meeting with them to get the conversation started.”March 30, 2018 email
Tracey sent this recycling proposal while president of The Conservancy Initiative, a nonprofit environmental charity. She stepped down from the nonprofit she founded to launch Aristeen, a Livonia-based digital content company. At Aristeen, Tracey uses tools, strategies, and tactics similar to what she employed to stop a massive landfill expansion in the heart of a residential area.
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