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Don’t Be Trashy: NYC’s Waste Warriors

Not-so-fun fact: New Yorkers throw out 200,000 tons of clothing, shoes, accessories and linens every year. In this series, we’re looking at people and organizations who are changing the way NYC deals with fashion’s waste problem. Kicking off our lineup is FABSCRAP, the Brooklyn based textile rescue service, community, and resource center brainchild of Jessica Schreiber.

all photos courtesy of FABSCRAP

fabscrap brooklyn army terminal onsite shopping

For most people, the words ‘textile waste’ call to mind images of cheap fast fashion piling up in landfills. But while end-of-life fashion pollution is the most obvious association to make with fashion’s waste, it’s definitely not the only kind. There’s also a huge amount of excess material generated on the way to the way to the landfill —before and during the production of garments —and that’s where FABSCRAP comes in.

It’s not waste till you waste it

Created as a service for New York’s textile recycling needs in 2016, FABSCRAP now receives about 6,000 lbs of discarded textiles each week— extra material produced in the course of designing and making clothes— from participating fashion houses in NYC. The ‘trash’ is comprised of everything from sample swatches to production scraps to deadstock yardage, all in good condition and otherwise destined for landfill. There’s also the mendables collection: development sample pieces that have never been worn. Turns out that when a designer makes a garment that ultimately gets nixed from final production, the common practice is to slash the design – literally cut holes in it. Some of the mendables are in near-perfect condition – Erin, who’s showing me around, is wearing a sleek black top from this rack that she confides has a small hole in the back. Others are shredded beyond repair, but made from fabric so striking they’re worth salvaging for the parts.

Here it doesn’t matter whether it’s a swatch of polyester or a near mint Proenza Schouler top (yep, it’s a partner brand). All the unwanted materials the organization collects are treated as objects of value, worthy of a second life. Through an impressive sorting system, FABSCRAP is able to reuse or recycle 92% of the fabric it collects.

how clothing recycling works

The Fabscrap System

The whole operation is at once a well-oiled machine and a thriving community.

FABSCRAP first partners with fashion brands, who pay the organization a fee in exchange for collection bags and services. The companies fill these bags with their excess textiles and they’re brought to the organization’s warehouse at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Here each bag is labelled, weighed, and documented before sorting.

Volunteers sort through the hauls; each is given a bag and a sorting station, where they remove any stickers, labels, or staples before putting each piece in its proper pile. Materials for reuse go in one pile, and of the rest, almost everything is recyclable: cotton and polyester are sent along with the shred category scraps (blends or materials impossible to decipher) to a third party vendor who downcycles the materials into shoddy, a reworked wool-like insulation that’s used for everything from army blankets to furniture stuffing. Denim scraps are sent to a non-profit called Blue Jeans Go Green that turns denim into insulation as well.

fabscrap brand partner imapact data template

Beware of Spandex

The one caveat here is spandex. Something I learned, that I think we should all be aware of, is that spandex is one of the most difficult materials out there to break down. For whatever reason, the shredder can’t handle it, so sadly, anything that’s suspected of having even a fiber of spandex in it has to go in the trash. That doesn’t mean no one’s allowed to ever wear leggings again, but for all the Lululemonites reading this, keep in mind those tights are likely headed straight for landfill once you’re done with them, so be sure to get as much wear out of them as you possibly can.

Once the materials are sorted, they’re weighed again. FABSCRAP records how much of each bag is reused or recycled and how much ends up in landfill. They send the figures back to the partner brands, making each one aware of how much waste it individually generates. This is major for transparency and accountability, and it’s also a valuable tool for setting future targets in waste cutbacks.  

fabscrap fabric sorting station

The Fab Family

The system is simple and logical and increasingly popular in the industry: FABSCRAP now partners with over 700 brands in New York. Their ability to scale to meet demand is especially impressive given their commitment to keeping their community culture. In today’s AI obsessed climate, it probably wouldn’t take much to shift the sorting operations from human to machine-led, but the volunteers are a central part of the organization’s identity.

The volunteer experience is more swap than charity. Each shift is four hours long, three for sorting fabrics and one for shopping, and in exchange for their time, each volunteer gets to take home up to five pounds of free fabric. This can be anything from stuff they find in their own sorting bag to pieces from the impressive assortment of fabrics in the shop. Everything is free except leather, which can be purchased at a generous discount.  The shop is open to the public and constantly running specials. Volunteers and shoppers alike include students, artists, and sewists – creative types with like-minded interests who keep coming back time and again.

FABSCRAP nurtures its creative dimension in other ways too. Every season, the team selects an artist or designer who works with used textiles. These artists are spotlighted as examples of viable businesses that also source responsibly, and the organization serves as a sort of host venue whereby the artists sell their work across FABSCRAP locations and on its e-commerce platform.

Next for FABSCRAP

NYC waste warriors

The organization opened its second location in Philadelphia about a year and a half ago, and it’s been a huge success. It’s hard to imagin­e this organization going any direction but up. As of 2023, FABSCRAP had diverted 1.4 million pounds of fabric from landfill. The model is clearly effective, and as more fashion houses begin to look for answers to their waste woes, this is the game-changing service that they ­­need.

-By Steph Lawson


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