Creating a Convenient Clothing Recycling Option with USAgain’s Mattias Wallander
June 30, 2014
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and today we’re so honored to have with us Mattias Wallander. He’s the CEO of USAgain and that’s spelled www.usagain.com. Welcome to Green is Good, Mattias. MATTIAS WALLANDER: Thank you, John. I’m excited to be on your show. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, it’s so great to have you and we’re going to be talking about your great organization and all the wonderful things you’re doing at USAgain but before we get to talking about your brand, share a little bit about the Mattias Wallander story. How did you get here? What was your youth like and what led you to running this great organization since the year 2000? MATTIAS WALLANDER: Well, I grew in Sweden in northern Europe and when I was, I think, 19, 20 years old, I traveled through Africa and got exposed to how people live in Africa and actually, I was working with development projects in southern Africa and the way we were funding the projects was by collecting and selling used clothing. That was my first exposure to the industry that I’m now in and after working for a while there, I came over here to the U.S. and was offered a job at a school that trained people to go to Africa, Latin America to do development work so I had many years of working in the nonprofit sector before joining USAgain. I worked in Central America building schools, water systems, latrines in rural communities and then I was approached by a friend in 2000. She had started the company a year earlier and she asked if I wanted to join USAgain and she told about how much clothing is going to waste in the U.S., something I wasn’t aware of. Eighty-five percent of clothing being thrown in landfills every year and it sounded like a great opportunity so I jumped on it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Did you take over this organization in 2000, or were you one of the Founders of USAgain? And for our listeners out there again, I’m on your website. It’s a beautiful website. It’s www.usagain.com. It’s pronounced “use again,” but it’s really USAgain.com, but it’s pronounced “use again” so explain that. Did you found this or did you take it over in 2000, Mattias? MATTIAS WALLANDER: No, Janice Vostick founded the company in ’99 and she started the company and she started the company in Seattle and when she asked me to join a year later, I started up in Chicago in the Midwest and then very quickly after that we made Chicago our base and set off on a big expansion. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, in 14 years, explain how you started with this great idea that Janice started in ’99, you came in a year later, and now really you were there from the beginning, obviously, so explain those 14 years, how you started it and how has it evolved over the last 14 years? Because you were really being green before it was cool to be green so explain how that’s worked. MATTIAS WALLANDER: Yeah, I think the first many years we were just trying to figure out how do you bring a recycling solution to a community and make it convenient for people to drop off clothing anytime they want, close to where they live, close to where they work, close to where they go to school, and do that in a profitable way and that was not easy in the beginning. There was a lot of logistics involved. You have to figure out how to route efficiently and in this period of course, fuel prices have gone up a lot so it’s certainly been challenging but I think the way it’s evolved is that when we started out, we thought, ‘Hey, this is a great idea. It’s basically taking something that would going to landfills and it’s bringing it to places where it still has value’. It’s still perfectly good clothing. Someone can wear it. If it’s not wearable, it can be turned into wiping rags and if it’s not good enough for wiping rags, it can be turned into installation material so it makes sense for the environment and keeps a lot of stuff out of landfills and then as time went on, we started to realize that actually there is a bigger picture asterisk to this and that’s the greenhouse gas impact of clothing and we learned, as everyone has by now, about climate change and how it’s already impacting us and will impact us in coming years and then we learned that the textile industry is responsible for 10% of the global carbon impact and that’s because the growing of cotton, the manufacturing of synthetics, it’s a very energy intensive process so this has added a whole new aspect to what we do because now it’s not just about keeping stuff out of landfills but it’s actually about reducing our carbon footprint so that we can manage climate change to a level where we don’t get completely wiped out. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mattias, now wait a second. You’re a very humble guy and for our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Mattias Wallander on. He’s the CEO of USAgain. For our listeners who want to follow along online, he’s got a beautiful website and a very important mission here. It’s www.usagain.com. Mattias, wait a second. You started this thing in 2000. Obviously, Janice started it in 1999 and then you joined soon there after. I want you to share with our listeners though, you’ve grown it from zero to 14,000 clothing recycling sites across the United States. Explain that. How do two very committed people, you and Janice, have a great idea and now get 14,000 recycling sites in and how much material do you keep out of landfills? This sounds like a big venture now. MATTIAS WALLANDER: We’ve been very fortunate to assemble an excellent and highly committed team that has learned the business along with us and that are committed to keeping clothes out of landfills and getting it reused and that’s how we’ve been able to do it and it’s everything from finding the best locations for recycling bins in a community where people are going to have the easiest access and all the way to collecting the material to handling the material to make sure it doesn’t get wet or dirty or torn and then shipping it to where it’s going to get used and then all the administration. Before we went on the air, we talked briefly about our databases. It’s extremely important to have good data in any business and with 14,000 locations, each location is bar coded. Our drivers have handheld scanners. All the data goes into our database and then we have forecasting tools that tell us when the bin is going to be not full, but two thirds full, so that we can service it before we have unsightly overflows. Of course, it’s a forecast, right? So it doesn’t always get it right but these are essential tools for doing business in the 21st century. JOHN SHEGERIAN: First of all, this is fascinating. As an ecopreneur that you are, how many people run USAgain? How many people do you have and how did you then decide to mix new technology; the forecasting tools, the bar coding, and the tracking, with a very historical business, which is recycling, to make this new industry so successful, this company, which is relatively 14 years old, so successful? MATTIAS WALLANDER: We have almost 200 employees now and we have a great IT department. We have developed this database in house and it’s a commitment of resources over many years that has made it possible but I would say I’ve always been a bit of a nerd and it intrigues me how you can use data to improve whatever you’re doing and now it’s a business, of course, with a triple bottom line but nonetheless, a business, so how do you make a good business so how do you make a good business better leveraging your data? I think it’s very interesting. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, Mattias, you hit on a couple of fascinating points. You are involved with some very big megatrends; sustainability, big data, so you’ve mixed those two and technology. Technology, big data and sustainability are three of the biggest megatrends for our generation and the next generation behind us and you’ve combined them to make a very, very successful enterprise here. MATTIAS WALLANDER: Yeah, I think we’re not successful enough yet because we’re hardly making a dent in the amount of textiles that are being consumed every year. The latest data is that over 14 million tons of clothes and shoes are consumed every year and that’s more than 70 pounds per person and about 15% are being captured for reuse and recycling according to the EPA so we have a long ways to go, John, but of course, I’m very happy with the success we have had but I think it will take a lot of education. A lot of people still don’t think about textiles as a recyclable. Over the last 30 years, we have gotten used to in most of the country we have in-home recycling now with the curbside programs where you recycle paper, plastic, glass, metal, and we don’t even think about it anymore. It’s just habit but textiles is not part of most municipal recycling programs and it’s challenging to add it because it’s a material that’s very sensitive to contamination so you can’t commingle it with your other recyclables. If it gets wet or dirty or torn, then it’s degraded and can only be used as insulation instead of being worn again, which is the highest and best use so it’s challenging to add textiles to municipal programs. Nonetheless, we have to make it more accessible through more drop-off points across the country and we have to educate people about the benefits, that really this is a material that should be recycled just as much as aluminum or plastic. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay, so we’ve got five minutes, Mattias, and I want you to then share what are your favorite programs and partnerships that you’ve created with USAgain and what are your key initiatives with regards to education? Because like you said, accessibility is the key to great recycling but also educating people so they can be motivated to recycle more so talk a little bit about in these last five minutes your favorite programs and partnerships for accessibility and then your vision on education, Mattias. MATTIAS WALLANDER: One program, one partnership I’m very excited about is our partnership with Eureka Recycling, which is a nonprofit zero-waste recycling organization in Minnesota. They have actually been collecting textiles for, I think, over 30 years and we joined their program in 2002 and they collect curbside in St. Paul, Minnesota, and many surrounding communities with specially designed trucks and we’re now looking at a pilot with them for how we can do curbside single stream for textiles so how can we protect the clothing in a single stream program? And that’s something I’m very excited about. Then another thing I’m very excited about is our work with schools. We have over 500 schools participating in our fundraising program and we just finished the Earth Month recycling contest where schools were competing for prizes based on how much clothing they collect during the month of April and that’s just a great program because it provides funding to schools and also because it helps educate the next generation about the benefits of recycling and the benefits of recycling textiles. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last two minutes, Mattias, so can you share some of those other benefits? Why should our listeners recycle their clothing and textiles? Share some of the important benefits of why your business model is so important to the future of our planet. MATTIAS WALLANDER: Number one is that for every pound of clothing that’s manufactured, 14 pounds or almost 15 pounds, actually, of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, which means that if we collect that clothing and reuse it, we don’t need to replace the clothing with new clothing so we’re saving almost 15 pounds of CO2 for every pound that we reuse. If we compare that to other recyclables, we have paper coming in at about 2 pounds. We have plastics coming in at around four pounds. The only thing that compares is aluminum at 14 pounds so this is the most important data point I’d like to share. It’s really important for keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere that we keep reusing our clothing and then there is enormous quantities of gallons of water being used to produce textiles. If we reuse 90% of the clothing in this country, we’d save enough water to supply ever household almost twice the annual water consumption. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so for our listeners out there, Mattias, people have to recycle their textiles. It’s great for the environment, It’s great for our landfills and it promotes sustainability throughout our society and I’m so thankful for your time today. For our listeners out there, recycle your clothing more. Recycle your textiles. Go to Mattias’ great website and be part of it. Find out where you can find one of those 14,000 recycling drop-offs. It’s www.usagain.com. Mattias, thank you for being a textile recycling visionary and sustainability leader. You are truly living proof that green is good.