Don Mariani was a Lyft driver when he came up with an idea that could change how Warwick residents – and eventually other Rhode Islanders – dispose of clothing they no longer need or want.
Mariani, who once operated Recycling Associates in Cranston using curbside bins, is one of three partners in Curbside Textile Recycling LLC with offices at 55 Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick. Joining him in this venture are Melanie Flamand and Marjorie Muller.
What struck Mariani as a driver is the expectation that purchases are delivered to the home door, whether it is a pizza or a piece of furniture bought over the Internet. By the same reasoning, he said people are ready to have unwanted clothing and shoes collected from their homes rather than dropping them off at a bin, which may be filled to capacity when they get there.
“It’s always been around. It’s basically, ‘Call us and we’ll pick it up,’” he said. “It’s the new way everything comes to your front door.”
In one respect it’s even easier, as there’s no calling and collections are made on an established routine.
Based on what the company is experiencing in West Warwick, Curbside could be right. To start the process, Curbside Textile mailed more than 15,000 letters along with a plastic collection bag to West Warwick residents in late October. Instructions are simple – place unwanted clothing in the bag and place it on your doorstep (not alongside your recycling cart) on the morning of your weekly recycling collection. Curbside drivers will pick up the bag and leave another in its place.
That’s all there is to it from the standpoint of the homeowner.
Thus far, Curbside has collected more than 15,000 pounds of clothing from West Warwick.
From Mariani’s perspective, that’s scratching the surface, and once people become accustomed to the service the numbers will increase dramatically. Under an agreement approved by West Warwick – although the contract has yet to be signed for some inexplicable reason, says Mariani – the town receives 12 cents per pound of clothing collected. In addition, Curbside is giving one cent per pound divided between Angels in Action, West Warwick Animal Shelter and the West Warwick FOP.
While Flamand said she has spoken with Mayor Joseph Solomon about Warwick collections, there is no requirement that Curbside gain municipal sanction for what it is doing or that it share any of the proceeds from the resale of clothing. Curbside is moving ahead with a mass mailing to Warwick ZIP code 02886 and plans to start collections following the city’s recycling collection schedule starting in about two weeks.
There’s a give-back element to the Warwick program that has Flamand especially excited. She said every six months, Curbside would select three local nonprofits to share a one-cent per pound set-aside. Based on a projection of 40,000 pounds collected weekly in Warwick, she believes $20,000 would flow to local nonprofits annually. Selected for the first round of Warwick charity recipients are the Warwick FOP, Friends of the Warwick Animal Shelter and the House of Hope.
Curbside is not the first to be offering home pickups of clothing.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island have been doing it for years. In addition to their collection bins, BBBS make home pickups in response to telephone calls or an online request.
In the last year, Simply Recycling also entered the scene. The company has agreements with Coventry, North Providence, Bristol and Middletown. Simply Recycling provides an app to sanitation and recycling collectors that alerts the company when they spot one of the Simply Recycling bags during collections. Simply Recycling then sends out a driver to make the collection. BBBS has seen their collections drop in three of the four communities where Simply Recycling is operating. The exception is North Providence, where Katje Afonseca, executive director, talked to Mayor Charles Lombardi, and he helped in finding additional locations for BBBS bins. As a result, there was an increase in donations.
Afonseca said BBBS has a “partnership” with Savers, which buys the clothing they collect. She did not release financial terms of the agreement, but said collections in Rhode Island account for $1 million annually or about 60 percent of the agency’s budget. BBBS collected more than 3 million pounds of clothing in Rhode Island in 2018.
“We do all the work and the marketing and sell [the collected clothing] by the pound to Savers,” she said. Afonseca estimates the bulk of what is collected ends up in Savers thrift stores, providing people who might otherwise not be able to afford it the chance to buy good clothing. She said Savers sells clothing that is not acceptable for resale for textile recycling.
“We would like the better products,” she said emphasizing the positives of the Savers thrift model and what it means for the community.
BBBS is also giving back to the community. Businesses and nonprofits that host a bin are paid based on the poundage collected from that location. This “profit sharing,” Afonseca said, resulted in payments totaling $120,000 last year.
Afonseca recognizes that collection bins are sometimes filled to the point of overflowing and can be depositories for unwanted furniture, toys, appliances and mattresses.
When BBBS gets a complaint, “we send out a driver immediately” she said. “It should be beautiful.”
Afonseca said proceeds from sales to Savers enables BBBS to conduct its mentor program for children aged 7 to 18. She said there are 300 BBBS mentors statewide. Twelve of those are in Warwick. She put the cost of mentoring a child at $1,800.
As Afonseca puts it, “there is plenty of used product” in the state, and as long as people keep donating to BBBS the agency that employs 50 should be able to maintain its mentoring program.
According to her research, Flamand said as much as 75 percent of unwanted clothing is discarded and ends up going into the landfill. She noted that Curbside would not only help nonprofits but also reduce the volume of sanitation collections and the tipping fees incurred by the community.
Mariani expects organizations competing for used clothing to put out more collections bins as home collection entities gain traction. He said he raised this concern with West Warwick officials and they have passed an ordinance requiring a $300 registration of collection bins plus fines for the owner of the bin, leaser of the site and the property owner should the bin become a nuisance.
Mariani said Curbside has an agreement with a broker in Texas, where the clothing will be shipped. From there, he said, it would probably be sold in Mexico.
There is a worldwide market for used clothing, says Edwardo Angulo, an account manager for Bank & Vogue, a Canadian company that is a wholesale purchaser and seller of not only clothing by also handbags, shoes and even toys. Angulo said there are basically two categories of used clothing – “mixed rag,” which is clothing that comes from a thrift store and gone unsold, and “credential,” which has been collected from donors. He said a broker would pay between 9 and 15 cents a pound for mixed rag and 25 to 40 cents for credential. Broker purchases, he said, are in lots of 40,000 to 45,000 pounds.
Mariani and Flamand, who said she learned of the program when Mariani stopped at her insurance company to get Workmen’s Comp, plan to take Curbside statewide. Once Warwick is up and running, they plan to serve Cranston.