I emerged from the 59th St. Subway station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn into a vibrant, energetic neighborhood. Blocks of 3-5 story, multi-tenant, walk-up brick apartment buildings lined the streets, many with small Asian or Hispanic shops, bakeries, and restaurants on the first level. A happy, multi-lingual chatter of families filled the air as parents escorted their children to morning drop-off at local elementary school PS 503/506.
Crossing 3rd Avenue, the sky was blocked by the elevated Gowanus Expressway. I could hear the muffled rumbling of traffic overhead. Busy delivery trucks and taxis carefully made their way up 3rd, dodging construction teams working on the underside of the Gowanus.
I was headed to volunteer with FabScrap – New York City’s largest fashion recycling organization – whose goal is to help end commercial textile waste by recycling waste generated during pre-production and production of consumer products.
Located in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, FabScrap works with teams of volunteers to help sort and recycle over 2,000 pounds of fabric a week – keeping it out of landfills.
The Brooklyn Army Terminal is tucked against the edge of the community, along the NY Bay. During WWII it was the United States’ largest military supply base, a sprawling complex of two enormous warehouses and a spattering of other buildings, spanning 6 blocks, 9 floors, and 55 acres. The warehouses themselves completely dwarf the buildings in the surrounding neighborhood. Today, the complex is used for commercial and light industrial/manufacturing use, artist studios, and maker-spaces.
FabScrap is in Building B, at the far end of a long internal atrium that once was a busy hub for weapons and supplies, but now seems weary and out of place and time. The metal frame of a once-glass-ceilinged dome sits rusting to the elements and open to the sky. An old, WWII-era train sits decomposing on moss-covered rusty rails leading up either side of the atrium. Dozens of cantilevered concrete ledges run up and along both sides. Each ledge buts up against metal garage door entrances, some long defunct. Large, chicken-wire frosted windows line each floor.
This morning was grey and drizzling and stepping into the atrium I took in a sharp, deep, breath. I felt as if I had entered an apocalyptic dystopian movie set. The air felt weary. A musty smell and the sound of the drizzle on sets of metal chairs and tables added to the chill.
Hidden beyond the atrium are over three million square feet of renovated space. The Terminal is a highly functioning industrial complex that houses over 100 businesses and 4,000+ good manufacturing jobs!
On the far side across the atrium, up on the 5th floor, FabScrap takes in more fabric than it can process most weeks (up to 3,000 – 5,000 pounds). They work with well over 400 NYC clothing labels, designers, furniture companies, and costume studios to help recycle their manufacturing waste (642 brands between NY and their second location in Philly).
FabScrap provides these companies color-coded canvas bags into which excess fabrics are placed (brown for general waste and black for proprietary fabrics the brand indicates cannot be resold or reused). This can be fabric swatches they no longer need, or fabric scraps from making sample items. Sometimes clients send damaged or unfinished samples as well. Clients leave the paper/cardboard headers, tags, and stickers still attached so FabScrap can identify the type and composition of the fabric.
FabScrap charges a small, tax-deductible pickup fee and provides empty bags at every pickup. The bags are brought back to the warehouse for sorting and recycling by teams of volunteers. This morning the volunteers were a mix of artists, quilters, regular citizens, and students from FIT – whose programs mandate a certain number of hours volunteering so students are introduced to the often-unseen side of textile production.
Each volunteer had a table for sorting, surrounded by bins labeled for each type of material. Our job was to pull apart bundles of fabric then remove paper, pins, stickers, and staples, and sort the fabric into the bins.
It is a very manual, time-consuming, and tedious process and up to 11 volunteers help during any 3-hour session.
Behind us, across the length of the warehouse room, was a floor-to-ceiling hill of pristine textiles in trash bags, waiting to be sorted.
After sorting, the fabric has a variety of end uses. Proprietary material and small scraps are shredded to create a colorful pulp called shoddy, which will be used to create insulation, carpet padding, furniture lining and moving blankets. Non-proprietary material is used by students, artists, crafters, quilters, sewers, teachers, and even other clothing designers who focus on eco-wear.
How much commercial textile waste is generated each year in NYC alone? It’s hard to say as there is no current industry model for tracking and laws in most states are non-existent. NYC has passed a regulation that all businesses are required to recycle textiles if textiles are over 10% of the business’ waste.
According to Grow NYC, the average New Yorker tosses 46 pounds of clothing and other textiles in the trash each year. All told, that’s almost 200,000 tons of textiles every year.(1) It is estimated that commercial textile waste could be as high as 40x consumer/residential waste.
Designers have difficulty recycling their textile waste. There is a lack of recycling options, recycling partners, and infrastructure, and commercial fabric scraps do not fit into the current resell-at-thrift or donation models. FabScrap steps into this space to help NYC designers and brands recycle their waste.
They also provide each company an “Impact Report,” which includes the end use of all sorted materials, the total weight diverted from the landfill, and the overall environmental impact. FabScrap has another warehouse location in Philadelphia which they launched in 2021.
According to Fabscrap’s annual report from 2021, they saved 305,977 pounds of fabric, 90% of which was recycled or reused and only 3% ended up in a landfill. They saved over 1,400 tons of CO2 emissions – the equivalent of planting over 20,000 trees.(2)
After each 3-hour shift, volunteers are able to choose and take home up to 5 pounds of material for free, either from their own sorting piles or from the large fabric recycle room. There were so many choices it took a solid hour for me to decide what I wanted!
In the end I took home materials to make two throw pillows for my couch – and a great experience and story to share with others! On my subway ride back to Manhattan, I thought about fast fashion and how often I’ve “cleaned my closet” by tossing clothes. While I tend to donate ones in good condition, I had been throwing away certain well-worn items. I think I’ll be trying to figure out how to reuse the fabric instead for potholders, to make fabric-rope baskets, maybe for quilting… What would you do with your unwanted clothing going forward? Send me some suggestions!