Kingston Council approves textile recycling pilot project

On Tuesday, Sep. 19, 2023, Kingston City Council approved a nine-month textile recycling pilot project. Screen captured image.

At its Tuesday, Sep. 19, 2023 meeting, Kingston City Council voted to approve a nine-month pilot project which will see the City partner with RenewalSquared Inc. of Trenton, Ontario, to facilitate textile donation bins at City-owned buildings. The program will seek to divert materials such as linens and towels from ending up in area landfills, at no cost to the municipality.

The proposal for the pilot first came to Council back in July; at that time, councillors voted to defer recommendations from staff in order to allow for more consultations with local non-profit organizations that rely on textile donations for their charities. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, councillors heard from Trevor McCaw of RenewalSquared, who presented them with some distressing statistics. 

“The textile industry is one of the largest contributors to global environmental degradation,” he said. “A staggering 80 per cent of textiles still end up in the landfill today. It doesn’t need to be that way… The clothing industry alone accounts for 10 per cent of global emissions, and despite the vast number of garments produced annually, most textiles still get wasted.”

As part of his delegation to Council, McCaw explained how the pilot project would directly benefit the local non-profit organizations that already collect used clothing and textiles, something councillors were concerned about during the initial July discussions. “We believe in giving back,” McCaw said. “It’s core to our mission; it’s something we believed in when we started the company. A portion of all of the clothing donations and the funds gathered will directly benefit Kingston non-profit thrift stores.”

RenewalSquared’s Trevor McCaw addresses Councillors during Tuesday’s meeting. Screen captured image.

McCaw added, “We’ve spoken with several [non-profit organizations], [and] they’ve been interested in collaborating with us throughout the pilot. I don’t think anyone believes we have all the answers today, but… part of the benefit of the pilot is to work with Kingston non-profits, so that we can map out what is that ultimate win-win between the residents, the companies or groups providing the recycling, and the Kingston non-profits.” 

As for the environmental impact of the proposed pilot project, McCaw explained the program could save up to “250,000 pounds of clothing” over a 12-month timespan. He also noted the collection bins would be monitored “24/7 to ensure [they] are emptied and serviced before overfilling.” 

Following his presentation, McCaw took questions from councillors. Lakeside District representative Wendy Stephen asked where the textile materials end up once they are left in a drop-off bin. Mc Caw replied, “Once we have a local presence, we typically work with for-profit and non-profit thrift stores, or online resellers, or fibre recyclers, and we try and keep it local. The perfect scenario is the clothing never leaves the community; that’s the top priority.”

McCaw noted that any materials not sourced locally are eventually sold off to domestic or international grading and sorting agencies following their donation, depending on the state of the market. 

As for what materials RenewalSquared would be able to accept as part of the pilot project, McCaw said the organization takes a wide range of garments: “Stained shirts, ripped clothing, singular shoes, stained baby clothing — we take it all.” One thing that cannot be donated, however, is “wet clothing” due to the potential for mould. Items that cannot be sold for commercial reuse are either used for industrial purposes or are recycled. 

When asked by Countryside District Councillor Gary Oosterhof how consultations went with local non-profit thrift stores, McCaw said, “There is so much capacity for additional recycling. The current non-profits are taking out a tiny slice of the textiles in the waste stream today.” He noted that a significant amount of textiles still end up in landfills, despite the efforts of local organizations to facilitate donations for reuse. 

The proposal as presented in July would have seen RenewalSquared donate the proceeds of textile recycling to local non-profits, but McCaw said that, after consultations, it was determined that the organization would also be able to donate clothing items directly to stores that need them during potentially slow seasons.

“We didn’t even consider the clothing donation [possibility] initially. When we came in July, that wasn’t even on our radar, so we learned that as we went,” he remarked. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, councillors also heard from Simon Langer, Diabetes Canada’s Manager of Government and Strategic Partnerships, who proposed a similar pilot as RenewalSquared, but one that would put a non-profit organization in the driver’s seat.

“When charities and not-for-profit organizations have the opportunity to collect those donations first, that allows us not only to drive down environmental impact, but [there’s] also a very social significance,” he said.

Simon Langer makes his presentation to Council on behalf of Diabetes Canada. Screen captured image.

Langer went on to explain that Diabetes Canada recently met with City staff regarding the potential pilot project. While the council agenda did not include any additional information on the proposal from Diabetes Canada, staff did include an update to the initial report from July, which gave councillors a second option to consider. Instead of the pilot project that was first presented in July, staff also included an option to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to establish a permanent textile recycling program in the City of Kingston. 

In the updated report, staff noted that a “large charity” contacted the City after the July 11 meeting regarding the potential implementation of a textile recycling program in Kingston. While the report did not name the charitable organization, it was their interest that prompted staff to recommend issuing an RFP for the service, instead of moving forward with the initial concept for a pilot project. 

Following the delegations, councillors first debated the deferred motion from July, which recommended the City enter into a partnership with RenewalSquared for a nine-month pilot project. However, with two different groups presenting similar but distinct proposals to Council, Collins-Bayridge District Councillor Lisa Osanic put forward a motion to amend the original, deferred motion. This proposed amendment called on the City to collaborate with both RenewalSquared and Diabetes Canada, with the former setting up 15 collection bins on City property, while the latter would be entitled to five bins. 

“Since we’ve heard from Diabetes Canada, and they’re just as interested, I want to give both players a fair shake… When Diabetes Canada was presenting, they talked about how they did go to staff back in 2017 and 2019… [but] we’ve had staff turnover since that time. Now Diabetes Canada is coming to the staff we have… Now we’re hearing it with fresh ears for the first time tonight,” Osanic said in support of her motion to amend. 

Mayor Bryan Paterson expressed appreciation for the intentions of the amendment but spoke out against Osanic’s motion, due to issues raised during the delegation from Diabetes Canada. “I appreciate the spirit of what the amendment is trying to do,” Paterson said. “I do agree that often when there’s an opportunity for compromise and working together, we should pursue those opportunities. The issue I have [with] Diabetes Canada is that they were clear they did not want to work with RenewalSquared… If you’re going to pilot both, then you need both organizations to want to work together. We heard from RenewalSquared: they’re happy to work with everybody. But the converse was not true.”

Sydenham District Councillor Conny Glenn also spoke against the motion to amend, saying, “I’m not going to vote for the amendment. If we’re talking about fairness, then let’s be honest. With a new business trying to get a foothold in this sector, it is now competing against a very large and well-known entity. It may be a non-profit, but all that means is we don’t have money going back into a corporate pocket. It doesn’t mean much more than that.”

Glenn also elaborated on the important role entities like RenewalSquared will play in helping municipalities like Kingston divert textile waste away from landfills. “I appreciate Diabetes Canada… [but] we’re talking about recycling. To get a handle on this, we need to give opportunity to new entities to actually be able to thrive in this market,” remarked the councillor. 

Meanwhile, Meadowbrook-Strathcona District Councillor Jeff McLaren decried the “lack of entrepreneurial spirit” presented by just having one organization involved in the pilot project. Having two “would be an increase of opportunities for the people of Kingston to deposit their spare clothing,” McLaren said, pointing out that the five Diabetes Canada bins could be located at different locations from the 15 RenewalSquared bins. 

The motion to amend was defeated by a vote of 10-2, with Osanic and McLaren the lone votes in favour. When it came time for councillors to debate the deferred motion, as originally intended, many spoke in favour of the work RenewalSquared has done to consult with local charitable groups, as well as the organization’s ability to launch the pilot as soon as possible. 

Stephen, speaking in favour of the deferred motion, noted the company’s emerging status and close proximity to the Kingston region. “I am a fan of  RenewalSquared,” she said, “and that’s because they’re small, they’re central here in Eastern Ontario,… and they’re just starting up. They answered my questions when it came to shipping and what they would take. Frankly, I think staff have spent enough time on this issue. We need to make a decision tonight.”

Council ultimately voted unanimously to support the pilot project. Once an agreement is signed between the City of Kingston and RenewalSquared, it should take approximately two weeks for the organization to set up the donation bins at various City-owned properties throughout Kingston. If the pilot project is a success, staff are expected to return to City Council at the end of the nine-month period with a proposal to extend the program. 

With representatives approving the deferred motion, Council did not end up debating the staff recommendation for an RFP, as it was declared moot. 

Members of the public can find the agenda from the September 19 council meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.

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