Saturday, November 03, 2007

Northwesterners Learn About "Trash"

Sometimes trash is just trash (FORUM)
Jenny Song

Over the summer I noticed a clothing donation box in a fraternity house, left in the entryway so members could recycle their Greek gear. It struck me just how often people try to offset their upper-middle class privileges with easy, "charitable" actions that mean very, very little.

We'd like to think that by donating, we make up for our extravagant consumption. Donors imagine themselves environmentalists, stopping old ratty T-shirts from reaching landfills. They imagine their old wares will become a bargain-hunter's treasure. The money will go toward some type of social service for the poor.

In reality used clothing is more likely to end up in a Third World country, where it will, along with ratty T-shirts from thousands of others, cripple local economies.

This is because sometimes trash is just trash. So before the clothing gets priced and ends up on the racks, much of it is discarded and with any items that sit in the stores for too long, gets sent to baling companies, such as American Baler Company and Trans-Americas Trading Company.

The companies pay the charities a few cents per pound of used clothing, so the charities do gain, although it is comparatively little. The baling companies do not much care what the clothing looks like. Then they sell it again overseas.

Of the billions of pounds of clothing that Americans donate each year, at least half - some baling companies even estimate 80 percent - of the clothing ends up overseas in this way. They eventually land in small markets in the Third World.

Across Africa, in particular, locals often wear American-style shirts and dresses bought from market vendors originally donated by Americans. Some would argue this shows how poor Africans benefit from donated goods because they are able to buy their clothing so cheaply. But this comes at the expense of the textile industries that existed before the donated clothing was dumped onto the local economy.

Clothing made locally can't compete with the influx of secondhand goods. It's particularly tragic in Africa because cotton production is a major industry that already must contend with subsidized American cotton. This means cotton farmers suffer not only in exporting their product but also in selling locally to textile mills, despite the fact that cotton from this region is often some of the world's finest.

Uganda once had a thriving textile industry, but no more. Zambia has no more textile mills. In Nigeria, 80,000 lost their jobs in textiles.

Trash, sometimes, should just be trash. A ratty T-shirt is unlikely to ever become somebody else's treasure. The donor who doesn't admit this is donating not for the benefit of anyone else, but for herself.

As for the guilt of forming garbage-castles somewhere in a landfill, the answer is clearly to waste less, not give more.Medill senior Jenny Song can be reached at j-song3@northwestern.edu.