Woman of the Cloth: Diverting fabric from landfills one pair of pants at a time

The average American tosses upward of 70 pounds of T-shirts, jeans, sweaters and towels into the garbage. Each year.

Do the math in the nation’s capital alone—and that translates to the annual trashing of some 48 million pounds of clothing and other textiles.

That staggering figure from the Council for Textile Recycling so weighed down D.C. resident Kaveri Marathe that it spurred her can-do spirit.

Texiles, the business she founded to bring “new life to old clothes,” is her one-woman attempt to relieve that burden. The distinctive name reflects her objective of halting the flow of “exiled textiles” to the refuse heap.

Since September, she has charged a nominal fee to pick up castaway—but laundered!—clothing from households that contact her website. From there she coordinates with a wholesaler savvy about such wastestreams. The still-wearable is distributed to vintage and second-hand shops, while the holey socks, stained baby clothes, worn shoes and other beaten-up leftovers become fodder for carpeting, seat cushion stuffing, insulation, rags and soundproofing material.

“Part of it was existential angst,” Marathe tells Renewal News about the inspiration behind Texiles. “But I thrive on mission. I see a huge problem and also an intellectual challenge and I’m trying to figure out solutions.”

Seven months into her start-up, the 33-year-old is fully educated about why textile recycling is so rare nowadays.

“I can explain why,” she says. “It’s really hard.”

Perhaps it will become less so with this month’s introduction of ReThread DC by the city’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE).

As part of an interagency Zero Waste program, its goal is to divert textiles from landfills by teaching residents where they can donate still-useable materials and how they can upcycle, repair, reuse and care for what they already own—or connect with somebody who can.

Marathe was one of the entrepreneurs invited to participate in the standing-room-only March 14 launch of ReThread DC at the Textile Museum on The George Washington University campus.

Before earning her master’s degree at Georgetown University five years ago, Marathe likely wouldn’t have been drawn to such an event. She was laser-focused on a Foreign Service career until she enrolled in classes covering energy and environmental policy.

“I realized that we’re going through an environmental crisis,” the Florida native says about her journey to becoming a woman of the cloth, so to speak.

She immersed herself in green issues by working for a sustainability consultancy in Norway from 2014 to 2016. That led to a job back in D.C. that guides start-ups.

“I learned all I could there about starting my own business,” she says.

In this global market, so many clothes and other textiles designed and sold in the United States are manufactured cheaply overseas, she explains. Once Americans tire of them, it doesn’t make economic or environmental sense to dump them on people in Ethiopia and other African countries as feel-good donations.

“We have this massive amount of raw material in clothing,” Marathe says. “The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

One challenge with recycling is figuring out how to separate fibers when so many clothes and other textiles are blends of cottons and various polyesters.

“This is a big problem that needs a technological solution,” she says. “No commercial technology is available.”

Clothing made from polyester, nylon and other synthetics takes hundreds of years to biodegrade in a landfill because its fibers are petroleum-based, Marathe notes.

Like Texile, the DOEE’s ReThread program is focusing on the city’s residents before tackling the commercial sector.

Danielle Nkojo, who is spearheading ReThread, says it costs D.C. more than $200,000 per year to dump trashed textiles at landfills. Hauling all of those rags, clothes, bed linens and towels contributes to emissions of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is warming the planet to dangerous levels.

When natural fibers such as cotton, linen and silk degrade in landfills, they emit methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

The city will be conducting a waste audit to categorize its trash, Nkojo says. It’s estimated that textiles make up roughly 5 percent of what DC disposes of at area landfills.

In fiscal year 2016, the city recycled in some fashion about 33,000 tons of the 143,343 tons of residential waste materials it handled, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Public Works. Textiles were not part of the recycling mix.

Marathe, who now balances her venture with a contracting job in sustainability at the World Bank, is in the midst of hiring interns to expand the reach of Texiles. And, as her original idea was to turn recycled fabrics into a clothing line, she’s exploring the notion of crafting tote bags from old pants.

She hopes D.C. can eventually mimic New York, San Francisco and Canadian cities that have instituted textile reuse and recycling programs.

In the meantime, Marathe continues with her bold, one-bag-at-a-time textile recovery venture.

“I have a Prius,” she says with a smile. “The seats fold down.”