Several correspondents have mentioned donating shirts to charity; they seemed concerned that using the abandoned T-shirts for an art project might be depriving someone needy from clothing that they could not otherwise afford. I thought that the well-worn shirts I was gathering were of no use to anyone, really, but I decided to look into it. Plus, a foot injury has kept me from long walks this week, so my T-shirt tally is 0.
First, I took a trip to the local Goodwill Industries shop to see what they can use. I was met by a WALL of T-shirts, neatly arranged by color.
These shirts were in very good shape, showing very light wear if any at all. Prices ranged from $1.99 for the white shirts to $2.99 for the brightly colored ones.
Now, the shirts I've found are not what Goodwill wants. It seems that some charities will accept heavily used or stained T-shirts, which they in turn sell to rag pickers, who cut them into--what else--rags. But not all charities will accept these unwearable garments, so it is important to check with the charity ahead of time. Otherwise, the well-meant donation is simply a drag on the charity's time and budget--they have to pay disposal costs.
Some municipalities have fiber recycling programs that will accept cotton goods (none of them that I found mentioned cotton/acrylic blends).
I'll post about how fibers are reclaimed and reused at another time. Let's get back to what happens to T-shirts that are donated to charities.
As you can see from the photos I took of a nearby Goodwill, they are rolling in T-shirts (the more upscale charities here don't even accept them). The problem is that each item a charity sells in a shop like this costs them a certain amount of money--rent, utilities, worker pay. A T-shirt costs more to clean, sort, label, and sell than it can earn, especially in the days of 5-for-$10 new T-shirts. It is true that the purpose of many charities is to train workers, but they cannot operate at a deficit for long. When they get to the point that they cannot afford to sort, clean, label and sell garments, they bundle them and ship them to third-world countries, generally Africa.
The do-gooders among us (and I count myself as one) say, well, great--as long as someone can use this item.
Of course, life is not that simple. For one thing, a percentage of that giant bundle is unusable by anyone for any purpose and just goes into a landfill in Africa rather than one in America, having gobbled up tons of shipping fuel on the way. As for the rest? The influx of used garments has destroyed domestic manufacturing. In Zambia, for example, "the skills, the infrastructure, and the capital of an entire industry are now virtually extinct, with no a single clothing manufacturer left in the country today" (from T-Shirt Travels, a documentary that follows the path of a donated T-shirt to Africa).
Sigh. Unintended consequences indeed.