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Donation and Recycling Bins: A Brief Review of the Industry

The law firm of Dalton & Tomich PLC has become a leader in defending the rights of donation bin owners to place collection bins, who receive used clothes and shoes, and redistribute them throughout the world for people in need.  A brief explanation of this industry is in order.

Recycling donation bins, usually made of steel and are typically 8 by 8 feet or larger as they are recycled shipping containers, are typically placed by non-profits on private property solely for the collection of used clothes and shoes.  The bin operator first identifies a property that would be suitable for donations, then secures permission from the property owner to place the bin on the property.  Next, the operator reviews the local zoning code to see how the community regulates the placement of the bin.  If there is no regulation, the bin is placed on the lot.  If there is a reasonable regulation, the bin operator will go through the permitting process to place the bin on the property.

When the community enacts an ordinance to ban donation bins, or interprets an existing ordinance to ban bins, operators may contact our law firm and we challenge the ban either through an internal process with a community or in federal court.  We have established a line of case law in federal courts where Courts have concluded that donation bins are entitled to First Amendment Free Speech protection and ordinances denying the use will be subject to strict scrutiny analysis, resulting in the Court invalidating the bin ban


So how did this industry start and where is the industry going?   A recent article in the Kansas City Star explain the clothing donation business.

Most Americans don’t realize that all but 5 percent of textiles can be recycled this way. You may think no one wants your smelly old shoes or ketchup-stained shirt, but they do.

Becoming aware of this fact is the first step in reducing a growing problem: 25 billion pounds of textiles are generated each year and only 15 percent get recycled, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.

Discarded textiles not only take up landfill space when they could be reused or repurposed, but they also release methane as they break down, a highly destructive greenhouse gas.

Keeping textiles out of landfills is a new priority for Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), which is doing outreach to spread the awareness, targeting businesses and organizations with its At Work consultation program, and the public with its website RecycleSpot.org, where consumers can look up which items are recyclable and where to donate them. 

When you drop off a load of clothes at a charity such as Goodwill or Planet Aid, perhaps only a fraction will actually be placed on a retail floor for sale. Your 1970s vintage prom dress or faded denim jacket might make the cut, but most textiles get packed up and sent off to wholesalers with other intentions.

Some may be shipped to Africa where a secondhand market booms or be turned into rags for industrial use.


Charities have tried to make the donation process as convenient as possible.

RecycleSpot.org lists thrift stores accepting donations by zip code, where you can drop bags at the back door, while Planet Aid provides bright yellow bins in the parking lots of many area businesses and organizations. You can find your nearest bin at PlanetAid.org. 

You can even make the task of donating easier for yourself by designating a bag or box in your basement and placing items you no longer want inside over several months until it’s full. “Once it reaches the top, take it to the thrift store on the way to buy groceries,” Riggs suggests.

Riggs gives credit to a handful of retailers who run a Take Back recycling program, including H&M, Levi’s, Patagonia, Puma, North Face and Target, where you can drop off items purchased at the store for recycling. Although, he notes, most giant retailers are creating the glut of cheap clothes headed for the landfill in the first place.

“The biggest issue is the phenomenon of fast fashion with its rapid cycles,” Riggs says. “In grandma’s day, you had a spring collection and a fall collection; now lines are coming out every two weeks.”

More than the overabundance of textiles that must be dealt with are the side effects associated with their production, including the harvesting of virgin cotton, chemical pollution from applications to control pests and weeds, and extreme water consumption (500 gallons to produce a pair of jeans, according to The Wall Street Journal).

“Unlike, say, paper, a lot goes into making an article of clothing,” says John Nagiecki, communications director for Planet Aid. “You have to grow the fiber, produce the cloth and dye it. All these steps impact the environment negatively. There’s also the human cost. Most work under conditions that are not exactly favorable.”

Unless or until the garment industry can close the waste loop, responsibility lies with the consumer.

“We need to change people’s whole mindset. People’s first thought should be that shopping used can be as good as shopping new — and for pennies on the dollar. Second, everyone should buy well-made items that fit well and will last a long time. Third, we need to learn to mend clothing, sew buttons and properly launder and store clothes.”

By donating and extending the life of your clothes after they leave your closet, you contribute to a measurable environmental benefit. According to EPA statistics, in 2015, 23 million tons of textiles were recycled, resulting in a greenhouse gas reduction of 5.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

“That’s equivalent to taking 1.2 million cars off the road for a year,” Nagiecki says.

It’s not the end-all answer, but it sure does help.

Many communities have tried to ban the donation bins through local ordinances.  We have successfully invalidated the bans throughout the United States asserting a variety of federal claims which Court’s have adopted.  If you operate a clothing donation bin operation, whether it is for profit or non for profit, and are running into issues with local communities over bin placement or banning, please contact a professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC to assist you in placing the recycling bin.

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