Bright yellow donation boxes dot Falmouth’s landscape, bins that call for used clothing and shoes. While these boxes are perfectly visible, the organization behind the collection sites is less well-known. The box sites are often abused in Falmouth, becoming dumping grounds for unwanted items.
The yellow boxes are owned and operated by Planet Aid Inc. Planet Aid is a multi-million dollar 501(c)(3) organization, established in Boston in 1997. Planet Aid collects and recycles used clothing and shoes to save them from ending up in landfills. The nonprofit recycles millions of pounds of used clothing every year, and its website says, “Your donated items will find new life with a new owner.”
However, not all clothing makes its way to a new owner in the recycling process: after being collected, clothing goes to a warehouse location, where it is processed by a baler and wrapped tightly into bundles. These bundles are sold by Planet Aid to independent sorters, who grade the pieces by separating them into different quality groups. Sorters then sell the clothing to domestic thrift stores or send the clothing overseas to private merchants. In 2012, Planet Aid sold less than $200,000 worth of clothing in the United States, and more than $10 million overseas. Textiles that are of poor quality are made into kitchen rags, or shredded to make insulation.
Planet Aid’s activities and executive staff have been the subject of widespread controversy in the media and nonprofit evaluation community for the past 20 years.
There are upward of five Planet Aid boxes in Falmouth. These boxes are labeled with the organization’s name, contact information, and mission statement. The words “clothes” and “shoes” are posted on all sides of the boxes, in large black lettering.
Some also have surveillance warnings, such as one on the property of the Carleton Circle Motel at 579 Sandwich Road that says,
“Smile, you’re on camera.” A video camera wobbles above the sign, attached to a tall pole with black tape.
Planet Aid leaves clear instructions for donations on the yellow boxes. Signs read, “NO DUMPING Rubbish-Furniture-Appliances” and “Please put your clothes in bags. Don’t leave them outside.” Despite these instructions, prohibited items pile up outside some of the boxes. Select items in Falmouth include baby strollers, books, whole pieces of furniture, loose birthday cards, wooden stakes, and empty cardboard boxes.
Planet Aid’s website says the collection boxes are emptied twice a week. However, bins in Falmouth are often overflowing with clothing, both in and out of plastic bags.
David M. Quinn, regional waste reduction coordinator for Barnstable County, said that more and more people are pushing for textile recycling, a form of re-use often forgotten by community members. While philanthropic, the effort is specifically environmental.
Mr. Quinn said that he knows very little about Planet Aid, but is familiar with another textile recycler locally, Bay State Textiles, which is doing good work in Barnstable County. Bay State Textiles’ goals are threefold: to keep textiles out of local landfills, to support local communities through monetary donations, and to aid developing countries overseas through provision of used clothing..
Like Planet Aid, Bay State Textiles does not give the clothing to local thrift stores, but sends it overseas. The phrase printed on the side of its trailer, “Support your local community,” may be misleading.
However, a portion of profits made from clothing sales is given back to the community. Bay State Textiles is a for-profit company, but the organization works directly with municipalities and schools, offering a rebate of $100 per ton of clothing collected. Paul A. Curry, director of Bay State Textiles in Brockton, said the company has also written checks to the Falmouth Service Center and the Duffy Health Center in quantities totaling $6,000 to 7,000 a year in the past.
Bay State Textiles is currently struggling in Falmouth, where its trailer was ousted from the Falmouth Plaza. Now, the collection trailer is parked next to the Planet Aid bin at the corner of Davis Straits and Dillingham Avenue.
The organization is currently paying $750 a month in rent to keep the trailer on Davis Straits. Mr. Curry says Bay State Textiles cannot give back to the Falmouth community the way it wants to right now, since the company is spending so much money on rent. However, he notes that the company is having great success in other towns and school systems, such as in Chatham, and he plans to turn his attention back to Falmouth shortly.
Donors who want their clothing and shoes to be re-used by another person within the community would do better to donate to a local thrift store, where they know exactly where their clothing is going. However, damaged and threadbare textiles can be recycled and kept out of Cape landfills by donating to Bay State Textiles or Planet Aid Inc. Neither of these organizations take non-textiles.