Sneakers in the Trash Were Made for Recycling

By JIM DWYER

“I know perfectly well,” Cynthia Magnus said, “that garbage is not glamorous.”

Certainly not. But it can be famous.

Last winter, as Ms. Magnus, a graduate student at the City University of New York, walked along 35th Street in Manhattan to get to class, she often spotted bags of unworn clothing left with the trash. Some of the garments had been thrown out by H & M, the retail chain, which has a branch on 34th Street. The clothes had apparently been deemed unfit for sale.

To make sure the items would never be worn or sold, H & M employees had slashed them. Outside another building on the block, Ms. Magnus found unworn clothes tagged with Wal-Mart labels and punched through with holes to make them unwearable.

When this column reported her discoveries, tens of thousands of people posted comments on Twitter, many of them appalled that on the coldest days of winter, perfectly good clothing had been destroyed. H & M said some unnamed employees had made mistakes, and it promised the practice would end.

Having seen something and said something, Ms. Magnus resumed her regularly scheduled life. She continued to walk down 35th Street. She also kept an eye on the trash.

“On the 24th of May, a Monday night, I discovered two Dumpsters filled with new children’s sneakers on that same block,” Ms. Magnus said last week.

This was more than indifference to the poor on a single block in a wealthy city. Every year, millions of pounds of textiles that could be recycled wind up, instead, in landfills. The fabrication of shoes and clothing requires large amounts of energy. Risking catastrophe, we drill a mile under water to get to oil that ultimately will be used to make mountains of garbage.

New York is considering sensible steps to recycle more textiles and other materials. Under legislation before the City Council, rigid plastics would be added to the list of items that are collected for reuse.

Another bill would require the city to put recycling baskets next to the regular trash cans in public places like parks and schools. There would be efforts to do more composting — allowing food waste to naturally decompose — without creating buffets for rats. (About 15 percent of the city’s garbage is food, and about 70 percent of the weight of that food is water — which means that the city is shipping tons of water to landfills, according to testimony before the Council last month.)

As for textiles — clothing, shoes and so forth — the Department of Sanitation hopes to set up collection bins in the city in the next year, expanding piecemeal textile recovery efforts now available for residents. Under this plan, a not-for-profit group would collect the items and sell them to recyclers. Businesses would continue to make their own arrangements.

New York’s commercial garbage has its own economic logic: Cardboard, certain grades of paper, scrap metals and food waste from restaurants are commodities, which means that sometimes they are quite valuable.

If textiles make up 10 percent or more of a company’s waste, the city requires the business to separate them. Ms. Magnus found, however, that the law is toothless and commercial textiles are often sent to landfills.

The fine for companies that don’t separate their textiles is $25, unchanged in the two decades that the city has been recycling. The recycling legislation before the City Council does not increase those fines. It calls only for a study of commercial waste.

“The quantities of textile that I have seen discarded regularly by the garment businesses in Herald Square exceed in a single day what a family of 10 would discard in an entire year,” Ms. Magnus said.

But if there’s a recycling market for textiles, no matter what the law says, why aren’t the businesses taking advantage of it?

“People are often not aware that what they have is of value,” said Robert Lange, the director of the city’s recycling programs. He said the city needed a close study of commercial waste to see how it should change its laws. The low fines, Mr. Lange said, are a big flaw, but there has been little political interest in increasing them over the past 20 years.

On the day she spotted the piles of sneakers, Ms. Magnus said, she was running late for class, so she grabbed a few samples from the container, as well as a few yards of unused fabric. Her walks along 35th Street have convinced her that the city needs to look beyond the trash thrown out by individuals.

“One guy doing the right thing with his tuna cans does almost nothing to curb the impact of the steady stream of toxics that businesses abandon daily with near impunity,” she said.

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