When Sean Keely, owner of Positive Apparel Thrift Store in Nelson, saw the amount of unsold clothes he was dumping into the landfill he wondered if there was a better way. Like most thrift stores, Positive Apparel relies on clothing donations from the public, but many clothes are either un-sellable because they’re dirty or ripped, or just might not sell. All that unsold and unusable clothing ended up at the landfill, which also cost the thrift store a dumping fee.
“My wife and I knew when we started up the thrift store that there was going to be waste—every thrift store has waste,” he said. “Every thrift store has stuff that needs to be thrown away—they’ve sat too long. But they’re not necessarily garbage. So rather than throw it into the landfill right away we began to stockpile it.”
Keely came up with the idea of taking his unused, leftover clothing and binding it together and shipping it to a company in Vancouver, which then processes the clothes and sends them overseas.
“We were originally doing about 10 tonnes every four weeks doing it out of our building and hand bombing truckloads ourselves,” he said. “But it became clear that there were more thrift stores and more textile waste in the area that we could bring in to the fold.”
Business took off quickly and soon Keely was driving around in a cube van and picking up un-saleable clothes from thrift stores throughout the West Kootenay and Boundary area.
Keely said they are now doing around 50 tonnes each month.
“I’m now bailing it myself,” he said. “We acquired a bailer, a new location, a new forklift and a scale. We’re able to, for the time being, relocate it to Vancouver as we always have been but in larger quantities. It adds to the little bit of profit we have. It doesn’t pay a lot but it sure keeps it out of the landfill and allows us to cover our overhead.”
Keely said the next step is for the company to start milling (re-purposing) the clothes themselves. He said that would save the step of having to send the clothes to India to be milled.
“There are people in North America that buy raw, recycled material like denim,” said Keely. “We could mulch it, mill it and bail it and sell it to a fellow (who makes insulation) in Quebec who is currently buying it from India. It would be a much smaller footprint, probably less cost to him.”
On one of his trips to Grand Forks, Keely came across Alfie and Marilyn Paul. The Pauls had been taking clothes from Grand Forks to Penticton for a non-profit organization called Food for Children.
After talking to a thrift store in Penticton, the Pauls began to bring back un-saleable clothes from there to Grand Forks to be picked up by Keely.
We’ve been taking clothes to Food for Children in Penticton for a number of years using our truck and trailer, said Marilyn. “We told them about this organization in Nelson (Positive Apparel) that would take the clothes that were dirty and no good and process it,” she said.
“When we told them about that they also said they had a horrific bill for the landfill. Instead of putting clothes in the landfill now, when we take a load of clothes up to them that are good that they send to disaster areas—they have saved us bags and bags and we bring them here to go to Nelson.”
Marilyn said instead of the un-saleable clothes going to the landfill in Penticton, the Pauls bring it back on the empty truck. Keely (now new driver Al Williamson) then picks up the clothes from the Pauls on his regular trip through Grand Forks to bring to Nelson.
“They’ve started talking about the project up in Penticton and stores up there are sending (Food for Children) their unusable clothes so now when we go up there and bring it back, we’re bringing back from other communities up there too,” she said. “So it’s spreading quickly now that it’s gotten going.
It’s just a happy thing that groups don’t have to spend money on the dump,” said Marilyn.
“It’s not just the money, but why put stuff in the landfill when it can be used again?”