Clothing street bins have flown below the radar, have proliferated, and have turned out to be deadly. This Vancouver Sun editorial notes that in the last four years five people in this province have died in this containers, seven across the country. Several municipalities including Vancouver have sealed these clothing bins up. University engineering students are working on better designs for the bins. But why do we have the bins in the first place? If we are able to have the clothes picked up by the charities or drop them off at a charity store, is that not a more prudent solution that also allows for better connectedness to the organizations and to their works? Why did we allow the public realm to be peppered with these clothing bins? And who is benefiting from clothing bin profits?
In Metro Vancouver clothing bins are ubiquitous, in different shapes and colours, but all serving the same function~they are donation bins on public and private property with a mail box lid type for people to deposit of cast-off clothes. It is assumed that somehow the charities hosting the bins pick up the clothes, clean and sort them, and ensure that the needy get access to these donations, or that they are sold so that the sponsoring organizations can benefit. However the needy still have to pay for the clothes, and the fact that people die in these containers suggest that the people we intend the clothes to go to can’t afford them or don’t have access to them.
There is a dearth of information on what really happens to those clothes, and those donations become part of a more complex story.
You can take a look at this CBC report that points out that some bins owned by groups like the Salvation Army take the clothes directly to their own stores. But in many cases “Value Village agrees to take the contents of the charities’ bins, sight unseen, and pay them a flat fee based on the weight of the load. That fee is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and is not publicly available.Value Village then sorts the clothes, and — like the charities that do it themselves — only sells about a quarter of it.”
Some of the clothing in the bin never goes to thrift stores, but is sold to ‘for profit” brokers that sell the clothing to merchants in the third world. This is questionable too, as the availability of North American second-hand clothing may suppress textile industries in those countries. Kenya imports 133 million dollars (USD) of worn clothing from China, Europe and Canada. In 2017 21 million dollars was spent by Kenya resellers buying these donated Canadian clothes for second hand stores. There is no tariff on these goods coming into the country, meaning that these goods directly compete with Kenyan produced clothing . Some of that clothing is also baled and sold by the ton for industrial use in third world countries. And lots of Canadian donated clothing just ends up as another country’s waste stream, needing to be disposed.
The fact that the process and the revenue in this donated clothing business appears private and not readily accessible suggests that there is a for profit business here that has reasons for not sharing its model. Regardless, it is time to ditch these death trap bins and ban them from our city streets and spaces. Simply calling a charity of choice for clothing pick up or donating clothes directly to a charity store are doable options. It should not have taken five deaths to ban these bins from our public and private realm.
Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion says it pointedly: “The consumer is at fault here. We’re the ones that are buying too much stuff and then we want our unwanted things to somehow be good for the world. It’s really crazy. It doesn’t make any sense.”
One answer to why we have these bins might be: if we want walkable communities of people living without vehicles AND we want a zero waste economy, then donation bins scattered throughout the city are necessary to make it easy to divert textiles from the landfill.
If you’re asking people to hand-deliver all donations to a charity shop (I’ve never heard of a charity offering to pick up clothing donations – please do share if there is one), you’re making it more likely a portion of people will just toss their old clothes in the dumpster behind their condo building. We need it to be easier to recycle/reuse than to dispose if we want to improve diversion rates.
Perhaps the real question should be: Is there a way to maintain the ease of donating clothing for reuse (without needing a car) while ensuring safety ?