• 02.04.14

San Francisco Mixes Design And Technology In Its New Plan To Recycle All Textiles

These clothing drop-off bins are friendly and simple. They also notify Goodwill when it’s time for a pickup and link users to an IRS tax deduction form–all in the city’s quest to get residents to stop tossing their unused clothes.

San Francisco Mixes Design And Technology In Its New Plan To Recycle All Textiles

Every year, 39 million pounds of textiles end up in San Francisco landfills. It’s a big sticking point in the city’s bold plan to eliminate waste completely within seven years, but the city’s Department of the Environment has just launched one attempt at a fix: A network of textile recycling bins throughout the city.


One set of the bins, designed by the firm Frog and managed by Goodwill, will eventually go in or around every large apartment building in San Francisco. Since many San Franciscans live in apartments rather than houses, and some people have bikes rather than cars (making it harder to drop off donations), the city expects that simple convenience will help divert much of the waste.

Frog also took pains to make the bins easy to use. “The typical public textile donation bin is cold, industrial, dirty, and unpleasant to use. Why not re-design the bin to make it irresistible?” asks Frog creative director Peter Michaelian.

The GoBin replaces heavy security doors with a friendlier, smile-like slot, and everything is wirelessly-connected. Donors can use a QR code on the bin to access a tax donation form, and a sensor inside signals Goodwill when it’s time for a pickup, so there’s never an overflow of clothes.

There were already some collection bins out on city streets, thanks to various nonprofits and businesses. But the city new plan unites all of the efforts. After mapping out existing bins, they’ve plotted out where more are needed. Most will be managed through a partnership with I:CO, a company that specializes in sorting through old textiles. (Most, it should be noted, will also be a simpler design than Goodwill’s GoBins).

It’s trickier to recycle clothes and other textiles than materials like paper or soda cans; one of the challenges is that so many different materials are involved. I:CO uses 400 criteria to sort through the waste and figure out what should happen next for a particular product.

“We’re looking at the highest, best use of textiles. Some of it will go back into the resale market, some will go into other textile products, and some will be broken down back into the fibers and put into products like insulation,” says Guillermo Rodriguez from the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

It’s not that San Franciscans were throwing away every single textile item, but too much was falling through the cracks. “I think San Franciscans are doing the right thing–if they have a shirt that no longer fits, sure, they’ll take it to a thrift store,” says Rodriguez. “But then used tennis shoes, or that single sock you haven’t been able to find the pair for–that you don’t take to a thrift store. You think, who’s going to want to buy this?”


Likewise, old shower curtains or tattered towels are most likely to end up in the landfill, because people don’t know what else to do with them. Part of the city’s initiative includes a multilingual campaign to give citizens pointers on how to recycle textiles. They’ve also partnered with retailers like Levis and H&M to not only put bins in their stores, but help with marketing recycling to their own customers.

Rodriguez says the city’s approach to uniting everyone in the textile business, from nonprofits to retailers, is unique. “There are thrift stores throughout the country. But if you look at EPA numbers, 21 billion pounds of textiles in the U.S. are going to landfill. That’s a lot. I think there are programs out there, but nothing really unified like we’re doing in SF.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.