Renewal Squared Inc. launches textile recycling pilot program in Kingston

A Renewal Squared Inc. clothing donation bin located in
Bill Hackett Park, on the west side of Portsmouth Avenue.
Photos by Josie Vallier/Kingstonist

Visitors to several City of Kingston-owned properties may have noticed a new sight in recent weeks, as clothing donation bins have been installed at 19 different locations throughout the city; part of a new textile recycling pilot project which was approved by Kingston City Council earlier this fall

At a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, members of Kingston City Council voted to approve a nine-month pilot project which will see the City partner with Renewal Squared Inc. of Trenton, Ontario. As part of the pilot project, 19 bins have been installed at various City-owned buildings, parks, and other locations, to divert materials such as linens and towels away from area landfills. The program comes at no cost to the municipality. 

In an interview with Kingstonist, Trevor McCaw, founder and CEO of Renewal Squared Inc., explained the program is meant to divert clothing waste from local landfills, “What we know is the vast majority of textiles… [are] still ending up in landfill,” he said of the materials which include “linens, drapes… and all types of clothing.” 

McCaw added, “North of 80 per cent [of textiles] end up in landfill. And what’s crazy is the vast majority of what ends up in landfills can be reused. It’s not stuff that needs to be landfilled, it actually could have a second life,” he explained, noting many textile items can be reused or industrially recycled. 

The CEO remarked, “The premise of the program was to help Kingston divert more of those textiles from landfill,” McCaw said, explaining the program he initially proposed to Kingston City Council was based on a similar pilot tested by the City of Markham. Since 2015, Markham’s textile donation program has successfully diverted approximately nine million pounds of textile materials.

While various textile recycling programs have been trialled throughout North America in recent years, McCaw explained the convenience offered through his company’s program is a major step forward. “We realized, through looking at Markham, [that] convenience matters. Textile recycling at the curb-side just doesn’t work, it’s been tried all over North America, and it’s expensive,” he said, noting effective textile recycling requires a dry environment, something the green Renewal Squared donation bins allow for. 

By placing bins at various City-owned locations, McCaw noted the program will be able to reach a wide range of Kingston residents, “What we wanted to do is work with the City of Kingston to make it as convenient as possible for residents and getting it spread out throughout the city,” he said. “Convenience drives the success of these programs. If people need to put it in their car and drive across the city to something that’s only open 8-4, they’re much less likely to recycle their clothing than if it’s right down the street.” 

While the pilot program aims to divert waste from area landfills while offering residents added convenience, concerns have been raised regarding the potential impact of the program on local not-for-profits, which rely on textile donations. When the program was first brought forward to Kingston City Council back in July, members voted to defer the pilot in order to allow for more consultations with local non-profit organizations, such as the Salvation Army, and The Goodway. 

Despite concerns the Renewal Squared bins might divert items away from local organizations, McCaw explained the pilot will directly benefit the organizations in question. For one, Renewal Squared will donate a portion of all clothing items to local non-profits. The company will also donate “hard goods” such as “kitchen appliances or decorations;” any item the company cannot recycle or reuse. 

McCaw also explained a percentage of all proceeds generated through the pilot project will be donated to local not-for-profit organizations, “That’s another aspect that makes us really unique. Our ultimate goal is not to be at odds with the not-for-profits, it’s actually to collaborate with them,” he said, explaining other organizations like Value Village and Talize receive clothing donations but do not directly benefit local organizations.

Pointing to evidence from similar municipalities, McCaw argued that, without textile donation bins, many of the items would likely end up in landfills, as opposed to at other donation facilities, “A lot of what people donate to these bins out in the community would have ended up in landfill… Most donations to the non-profits are mission-driven and they’re doing it because they want to give back,” he remarked, adding all 19 Renewal Squared bins in Kingston have been strategically located so as to not take away potential donations from not-for-profit organizations.

In addition to the added convenience of having 19 different bins located throughout the city, McCaw noted the pilot project includes other unique elements such as 24/7 electronic monitoring of all bins, “We empty the bins when they get full, which is unique. It’s ecologically better [because] you have a smaller carbon footprint; you’re not driving out to bins that are half-empty,” he said, adding the constant monitoring also reduces the risk of garbage piling up near the bins. Renewal Squared bins are also built in a manner that prevents individuals from getting inside them; an effort to reduce safety risks and potential theft. 

As for what items can or cannot be donated, McCaw explained the Renewal Squared bins can accept “any clothing… or household soft textile goods,” such as “clothing, drapes, blankets, tea towels, shoes, anything you can wear or is made of a soft fabric.” Meanwhile, items that are soiled or wet should be left out of the bins, “Water is the enemy of this, we really need [dry] items.” A full list of accepted items can be found on the Renewal Squared website.

While the company does accept shoes, the CEO noted items that are “really worn or in rough shape” are less recyclable. McCaw also mentioned “hard” and “perishable” items are not to be donated, which includes “small appliances, books, magazines, food, [and] medicine.” 

In terms of what happens to the items once they are donated, McCaw said there are several “levels of priority” to determine where the product ends up. “The first level is to get items back in the community, either donating them or selling them to for-profit used clothing [businesses]. Our whole goal is to have the circulatory economy, and what we want to do is take clothes out of the landfill and put them back into the community… and that can either be through donations or sold for profit.” 

The CEO continued, “The second [level of priority] is to distribute them domestically. This is a market… that ebbs and flows and fluctuates, so we follow the market. Sometimes there’s demand… Our goal is to put as much clothing as possible back into the domestic and North American market,” he said, adding items that cannot be distributed domestically are provided to the international market. 

McCaw explained, “We work with a supplier who is reputable and sells [textiles] into retail chains that are selling [them] so that it’s not dumped into landfills.” Given the amount of textiles that end up in international landfills, notably in areas like Africa, the CEO said his company works to prioritize certain markets, “It’s not perfect, yet. But, we don’t sell anything to Africa. We only sell to international markets that have a well-established circular economy and where most of the clothing ends up back for resale or recycling.” 

As of mid-December, all 19 bins have been installed at various City of Kingston-owned locations, and are now ready to accept donations from members of the public. Due to the nature of the pilot project, after nine months, the program will return to Council for review; which is when members will decide whether to make the bins a permanent fixture in the city. 

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