The average person throws away 68 pounds of clothing per year, which ends up in landfills across the U.S. instead of being recycled or donated. This happens because many citizens don’t have access to convenient options for recycling or donating these items. In an effort to solve this problem, Adam Winfield launched Simple Recycling, a curbside recycling company that partners with cities and towns to add clothing, shoes and reusable home goods to the existing recycling collection schedule free of cost.
Since launching the company four years ago, Winfield has helped Simple Recycling become the largest and fastest growing curbside clothing recycling company in the U.S. The company began with two small pilot programs and now provides nearly 4 million residents in five states and nine marketplaces with services.
In addition to his role as founder and president of Simple Recycling, Winfield is an active participant of the Solid Waste Association of North America’s Young Professionals group.
We spoke with the Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient about how he came up with the concept for Simple Recycling, the company's current service offerings and the proudest moment in his career thus far.
Waste360: How did you come up with the concept for Simple Recycling?
Adam Winfield: For 60 years or so, the primary method of collecting clothing and shoes had been through charitable or donation programs via drop-off locations or telephone solicitations. But that all started to change when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figured for 2011” report, which revealed that only 15.3 percent of clothing and other household textiles gets recycled and about 85 percent gets sent to landfill.
The release of that data encouraged some municipalities to conduct their own waste characterization studies and waste audits, which unveiled that 6 to 10 percent of their residential waste stream was comprised of materials like textiles that they didn’t offer curbside collection services for.
While those municipalities were conducting studies and audits, I was doing my own research, and I found that the market for textiles in the waste stream was one of the highest valued materials that people were throwing away so I decided to take the chance and tap into that market.
To develop Simple Recycling, I applied the proven curbside collection model to that underserved category of the waste stream.
Ultimately, I followed a similar method that led to glass, paper and recycling being available for curbside collection. Those materials were initially accepted at drop-off centers just like textiles, but diversion and participation rates were low. Once curbside collection services rolled out for those materials, participation and diversion rates skyrocketed, which is similar to the results that we are seeing.
Waste360: What challenges did you face while launching Simple Recycling?
Adam Winfield: The biggest challenge that I faced was educating and informing municipal representatives about the textile waste problem. Clothing is the fastest-growing segment of the residential waste stream, but a lot of people weren’t aware of the problem of textile waste when we first launched.
Since we launched four years ago, more and more conversations about textile waste have started and more people have become aware of the impact that we could have on textile waste diversion by forming partnerships to offer curbside collection services for clothing, shoes and home goods to more communities.
Waste360: Tell us about Simple Recycling’s service offerings and where the company recycles the items collected.
Adam Winfield: We have collection agreements with cities and towns to offer curbside collection services for clothing, shoes and home goods, all of which are free of cost for the municipalities and their residents. The unique aspect of our services is that they are fully self-funding; the value of the material collected pays for the collection services.
Once a collection agreement is in place, we begin working on the launch process, which involves creating direct mailings to send out to the customers informing them on the services available and providing residents with the bags they need to place their materials in.
When the residents receive those materials, they can begin filling their bags and placing them beside their recycling carts on their regular recycling collection day to be picked up by our fleet. Once a bag is picked up, a new bag is left so that residents are always stocked up on bags.
The collected materials are then graded and sorted locally and/or regionally based on quality and condition. The top-quality materials are resold to local thrift outlets, mid-grade materials are exported to international markets and unusable items are processed for raw materials.
Waste360: You currently service residents in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Texas. Do you plan on expanding your services to other states the future?
Adam Winfield: We have expanded dramatically over the last year, and we now service nearly 4 million residents in five states and nine marketplaces. We are launching in the Chicagoland area in July and a couple more marketplaces later in the year.
Waste360: What are some of the goals that Simple Recycling is currently working toward?
Adam Winfield: One of our constant goals is to stay in front of residents’ eyes so that they don’t forget about our services. We continuously run our services throughout the year, but residents really only participate in the program a couple times a year.
To keep us on their radar, we send out direct mailings with information about our service offerings. We also work with our partner municipalities to post promote our program on social media sites, in newsletters and other outlets.
Waste360: Can you highlight a moment in your career that you’re most proud of?
Adam Winfield: The most pivotal moment of my career was when I got my first ‘yes’ from a partner. When I first started this company, I had a vision that no one else had done before, but the first handful of mayors and recycling coordinators that I spoke to said that they didn’t think my program was an endeavor worth pursuing.
After some time, I found my first partner in southeast Michigan. We set up a pilot program in two small communities during the worst winter in southeast Michigan’s recorded history with the mindset that if our program could work during our worst case scenario, it could work on a national level.
The pilot program ended up being a success, and the program continues to run in those two communities today. Even though we were faced with a tough challenge right off the bat, we overcame that challenge, and I walked away confident that our program could indeed work on a much larger scale at the national level.
Waste360: What advice would you give to someone looking to launch their own waste and recycling company?
Adam Winfield: When you’re starting something new, don’t accept the first ‘no’ that you get; keep pushing until you find a way to get that first ‘yes.’ Once you get that ‘yes’ and you have the opportunity to really begin your company, validate and revalidate the model you are pursuing to ensure that it works efficiently and effectively. To this day, I still validate and revalidate what we are doing to ensure that our services are running as efficiently as possible.
I think it’s important to note that a lot of people will tell you ‘no’ in the beginning, but once you gain that first partner or customer and start to grow your business then you will start to see success.