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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Clothing production, consumption, and disposal — what’s been called “fast fashion” — is one of the world’s largest producers of waste. On average in the U.S., a person will throw away 81 pounds of clothing each year, piling up millions of tons of unwanted textiles in landfills. About 8% of all municipal solid waste is from textiles, a number that has doubled since 2007, according to the EPA.

Recycled clothing has become part of this loop, and as fast fashion has grown, so has the industry for textile recyclers. In Billings, Nathan Belden and Joshua Young and identified a need to take unwanted clothing from regional charities and nonprofits. They founded On-Q Recycling and Salvage in April 2018, starting first in a 1,500 square foot warehouse in Billings that they outgrew in two months, relocating to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 3105 Drury Lane near Shepherd.

“When we first started this, we thought it was going to be a side gig,” Belden described. “We realized within two weeks, this was going to be a full-time job, and there was a whole lot more product out there than we thought.”

By picking up the excess clothing that piles up in thrift stores across the state, Belden and Young now have a cycle of product that fills a semi-trailer weekly with as much as 44,000 pounds of clothing, which is transported to the west coast then purchased and shipped overseas.

The business has been so busy that they helped a friend open a franchise location in Yakima, Washington. Between the two locations, goods are obtained from 52 nonprofits and charities in Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon. In 2019, they shipped 4 million pounds of clothing out of the country.

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From charity to China

Across the U.S., millions of tons of fabrics and clothes are recycled each year, often starting at the doorstep of a local charity. What clothes and items the charity can’t use or doesn’t sell after a certain period of time go on to processing facilities, textile exporters or rag yards that shred textiles.

All that unwanted clothing is big business, where sorters, balers and resellers all have a hand in moving the clothing overseas to developing countries where its afterlife ranges from home insulation to local vendors to just additional waste. Unwanted clothing is a cash crop, sold to processing facilities that can bale the items into thousand-pound cubes and ship them to foreign markets in Asia and Africa, among others.

Belden decided to add an additional layer to the recycling business, and in mid-February opened Blue Bin Outlet in the former Granny’s Attic building at 2804 Minnesota Ave., where clothing, accessories and shoes are sold by the pound. There’s also a selection of household goods, books, toys, suitcases, hats, backpacks, purses and more.

Since opening on Feb. 15, Belden said he’s had around 70 to 100 people a day through the store. “I did not expect this kind of response that quick. I figured it would be a pretty big hit, but we are ahead of schedule and significantly under budget.”

Belden runs the store with his wife, Catherine Guttierez, and has a handful of volunteers helping get the store established. All clothing and goods are obtained from Belden’s other business, On-Q Recycling and Salvage, which obtains all its products from regional nonprofits and charities.

About 200,000 pounds of clothing and accessories end up at On-Q Recycling and Salvage per month in Billings, Belden estimates. In Billings, charities include St. Vincent de Paul, Montana Rescue Mission, Family Service Inc. and Gratitude in Action. He won’t disclose the full list of charities, but describes shopping at Blue Bin Outlet as an opportunity to shop 52 different thrift stores.

Belden also won’t disclose what On-Q pays charities for their discarded clothing, but said he copied the pricing structure for reselling clothing to the public by the pound from Goodwill. Customers will pay $1.99 per pound for up to 24 pounds of clothing, and $1.59 for 25 or more pounds.

“I looked at what stores were busy, had materials like I had, and what price made sense,” Belden said. Before opening, he also loaded up carts with items his family might want to purchase, just to gut-check the pricing.

“If I could feel good about buying that, then my customers should feel good about buying it, and I can feel good about selling it,” Belden said.

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Big business

Before opening Blue Bin Outlet, Belden visited about 30 locations across the country with similar operations, including Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul, and Salvation Army stores across the country, located primarily in the south and major metro areas.

“We had nothing like this in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas,” Belden described. “There’s a five-state blanket where these don’t exist.”

Many of the larger charities have automatic balers that compress clothing and other surplus items for shipment into thousand-pound cubes. Smaller organizations and charities in remote areas rely on secondhand textile processors to take unwanted donations and ship them to markets around the world.

“You understand how consumerism works when you are around a thrift store for any amount of time,” said Cameron Cook, development director for St. Vincent de Paul in Billings.

Though the organization doesn’t track the number of items donated each year, there are certain times of year it gets a little hectic, such as garage sale season, Cook said.

“The truth is that most thrift stores are in the business of selling goods. But, just because it’s donated doesn’t mean that it will sell.”

About 20% of items in a donated bag of clothing are sellable, Cook said. “If you go to any thrift store in town, it will appear that they are drowning in clothes, but to get those quality items is a challenge.”

The charity recycles what it can, but also rents a large dumpster from the City of Billings that is emptied regularly, for a fee.

“It costs us money to dispose of everything,” Cook said. “The more we can keep out of the dumpster the better we are. It is more ecologically responsible.”

At the local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, located at 3005 First Ave. S., all goods are rotated through the building in five weeks. It’s similar to the Goodwill system of colored tags, where each week that color becomes discounted deeper. At St. Vincent de Paul, the final price — no matter the item — is $.99. Then it heads to the dumpster or the recycle bin.

The excess and the unusable don’t dissuade charities from accepting donations, for the most part, without question. Some charities are getting more specific on what they will take, but Cook said they are always in need. Last year, nearly 50% of the items that left the store were donated to people in need.

“Coats for winter … a single mom that needs an oven … We will give away what we have to people in need,” Cook said. “Our store is working really hard to turn a profit.”

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Donation cycle

Connie Guy, who volunteers her time sorting clothing at Blue Bin Outlet, said brand new items with tags on them come in regularly. Throughout the day, Guy will load up large blue bins on wheels with clothing, and each hour 50 bins cycle through the store. Clothing is not sorted by size or type, it’s simply dumped in bins for customers to pick through, what Belden describes as a treasure hunt.

“People are voting with their wallet on this,” Belden told The Billings Gazette. “Not everybody wants to dig for their clothes, but if you do that work, you find really good clothes for really cheap prices.”

Wednesday is Guy’s least favorite day, when all the items that have cycled through the store are put back out on the floor and offered for half off that day. After its final round on the floor, it’s repackaged and picked up by On-Q Recycling and Salvage, bound up and shipped off to the coast, where it’s loaded to a container ship and sent overseas.

At this point, Belden said he doesn’t see running into lack of supply.

“I could have filled this thing up,” he said, pointing to the back room where mounds of bagged clothing are stacked 10 feet high. “This is the most floor space we’ve seen since we’ve been here. This whole thing was completely packed.”

The building, owned by Montana Rescue Mission, has its share of issues, including a water main that broke in 2016 rendering the basement uninhabitable, and a leaking roof that has caused water damage on the second floor. The building was once home to Granny’s Attic, an expansive antique store that utilized 90,000 square feet of the expansive building and closed in 2010.

Blue Bin Outlet has a year lease on the building and utilizes about 17,000 square feet of the main floor that includes three rooms of clothing and a back area for processing. The basement and upstairs of the building are unusable at this time due to water damage.

Clothing bins take up two rooms of the building, and in the third is an immense selection of tuxedos obtained from Treasure State Costume & Formal Wear after the store closed several years ago. For $45, a customer can pick up a jacket, pants, tie, vest, and shirt.

“We live in a world of excess, and it’s very apparent when you work in any part of the garment industry,” said Belden. “We just want to do our best to make sure the landfill gets as little out of me as possible and I save good stuff out of it.”

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