Little Boxes, a children’s song turned nonconformists’ anthem, written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, comes to mind when I drive through Kitchener-Waterloo. Not because the region is filled with wartime houses that “are all made out of ticky-tacky and all look just the same,” but because little-coloured boxes literally line the streets.
These little boxes are more accurately called donation bins. They’re basically one-way clothes hampers, full of unwanted textiles and sometimes garbage. Both cities are inundated with them. No wonder Canadian-worn clothing exports are estimated to be worth around $200 million per year.
Currently, the two main operators in Kitchener-Waterloo are KB Textiles and Textile Waste Diversion Inc. (TWD.) Both operations are for-profit and have close affiliations with recognized Canadian charities.
KB Textiles uses blue boxes and are affiliated with the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiing and the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario.
TWD use bright green boxes and partners with the Canadian Community Support Foundation (CCSF).
KB Textiles licenses various registered charity logos and pays them a percentage or flat fee. Their best textiles, or what they call their “cream de la cream,” (sic) are sold to local stores like Value Village, Goodwill and small vintage boutiques. The rest of what they collect is sent to “wholesalers from all over the world.” The exact price KB Textiles receives for its used clothing is uncertain but a conservative estimate puts the going domestic rate at around $2 per pound.
TWD diverted “30 million pounds of textiles and two million pounds of miscellaneous items from landfills in 2013 alone.” According to Alibaba.com, an online wholesaler, worn Canadian clothing is currently sold overseas for around $1 to $2 per pound, depending on the season.
That’s about $45 million in gross revenue. Their website boasts that in 2013 they were able to donate $125,000 to registered Canadian charities.
Goodwill is at war with the affiliated charity of TWD in Windsor.
Apparently the CCSF and their easy-to-access drop spots are creating an unfair advantage in the lucrative, free-textiles market. In reply, TWD argues that they use a better operation model. “Despite the availability of used clothing reuse depots and for-profit thrift shops like Value Village, less than 24 per cent of Canadians donate their used clothing. Instead they are more apt to throw them out with their regular garbage, even though 98 per cent of textiles are completely recyclable, regardless of condition.” With the accessibility of bins throughout the region, residents are more likely to donate, reducing textile waste.
Daniela Siggia, former executive director for CCSF and current Textile Waste Diversion Inc. employee, has even had a cease and desist issued to Kevin Smith, CEO of Goodwill Essex-Kent-Lambton. Siggia claims that, “Mr. Smith has been going to locations and slandering us, and getting (business owners) to not want the bins anymore.”
The Little Short Stop at the corner of King Street and Fairway Road, in Kitchener, was unavailable for comment regarding the placement of their CCSF, or TWD, bin — seemingly, the same company operating under different banners and legal statuses.
The owner of Kwik Stop Variety at 2191 Kingsway Dr. hosts a KB textiles donation bin. “They pay $100 quarterly. They come here two or three times a month,” to collect donations and clean up the area around the box, he said. The lock on this particular bin was missing and the door was pried open. It looked like someone may have been living inside.
About a half kilometre away on a Fresh Co. parking lot, at the corner of Weber and Franklin, there are two more donation bins belonging to KB Textiles. These are side-by-side and seem to be in working order. The manager “believes” they were placed there rightly, but doesn’t know for sure.
Last winter, yellow bins predominantly coloured the city. According to signage, they belonged to a company called “ECCA.” Their banner read, “helping community one piece of clothing at a time.” After a public battle with Ray of Hope, a local charity that helps people struggling with addiction, homelessness and crime, about illegally-placed bins on their properties, effectively undercutting Ray of Hope’s own endeavour to collect used clothing, they pretty well fell off the regional map.
Mike Lambkin, the owner-operator of ECCA, who says the acronym stands for Eagle County Community Association, went public with his divisive business practices in the summer of 2012. In a Brantford Expositor article he admitted that of the 80 boxes he set up in Brantford, only half were placed with consent.
The yellow ECCA boxes are now a thing of the past making room for other colours purporting charitable services. One of the few remaining ECCA boxes can be seen buried in a snowbank in front of a liquidation store on Gateway Drive in Cambridge.
Despite the lack of presence Lambkin’s ECCA bins have in the region, he refused to comment. “I’m no longer involved with bins, so (there’s) not really much I can tell you.”
Those involved in the business of used clothing remain tight-lipped. The donation bin operators make a killing by selling a valuable product with an almost non-existent overhead, the charities, in some cases, receive money that they wouldn’t have otherwise and so do property owners, at least those who are aware that companies will pay to place bins on their properties.
The Canadian Community Support Foundation did not return calls requesting an interview, and the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiing turned down the request.
“There’s a pink one and a green one and a blue one and yellow one and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same,” echoes Reynolds’ 1962 classic. It’s a fitting interpretation for what it’s like to have everything but be empty inside, much like the donation bins of today — filled with good intentions by generous donors but having little positive impact thanks to the operators.