Measuring Textile Reuse

Marisa Adler
Senior Consultant

Reuse is one of the most preferable waste management techniques, toward the top of the waste hierarchy, as it has a much lower environmental impact than other waste management practices, like landfill, incineration, and even recycling. This is because reuse requires low levels of reprocessing (to determine reuse), it preserves an item’s original embedded energy, and it potentially offsets the need for a new replacement item.

Yet, reuse is hard to measure. How widely is reuse practiced? How much waste is prevented every year because it’s being handed-down, bartered, exchanged, given away, or donated? We don’t have good ways of tracking these activities, or much less, calculating tonnage diverted from the waste stream.

The practice of reuse has been around for millennia. We all do it in some capacity. There are informal economies of reuse: hand-me downs, garage sales, clothing swaps. And formal reuse economies: charities, thrift stores, commercial waste exchanges, and non-profit reuse enterprises. But how do you capture the metrics? How do you track an exchange? How do you know when one person no longer has a use for an item (classifying it as “waste”) and transfers that item to another person (classifying it as avoided waste)?

This presents a problem for municipal solid waste managers who are on task to show progress toward waste reduction and zero waste goals. Not being able to quantify the extent to which reuse impacts the waste stream means that municipal solid waste managers can’t plan for how reuse can play a larger role. After all, we are all familiar with the old adage “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. On the flip side, having data on reuse could shed light into the extensiveness of the practice and the latent potential for playing a larger role as a waste management strategy.

The New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has begun developing a methodology for measuring reuse in the city. Through the Center for Materials Reuse (CMR), a program created and funded by DSNY to provide support and resources to the city’s reuse sector, the NYC Nonprofit Reuse Sector Data Management Project was born. The Data Management Project collects transactional data from each reuse member organization (think Goodwill, Housing Works, and Salvation Army) and applies general assumptions about weights-per-product by category to estimate the overall tonnage diverted through that member organization’s activities in any given month. The tonnages are added up among organizations and used in calculating NYC’s overall diversion rate (currently around 17%). It’s not a perfect system. The model incorporates several assumptions, it’s only as good as the data that goes in (it’s reliant on submissions from members), and only a handful of organizations are members of CMR out of the estimated 80 reuse organizations in the city. But it’s a model that can be improved over time, scaled to include more organizations, and applied in other cities.

I do leave you with one question, though – while the ability to measure reuse means that we can increase the numerator of our diversion calculation, does it mean we are also forced to increase the denominator?