Planet Aid drop boxes unlikely to clothe locals

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At least one Planet Aid bin has already appeared in Orleans County.   This one is in Orleans near Village Pizza.  Photo by Tena Starr
At least one Planet Aid bin has already appeared in Orleans County. This one is in Orleans near Village Pizza. Photo by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle November 5, 2014 

by Natalie Hormilla

A convenient way to recycle clothing is making its way into Orleans and Essex counties — but it’s highly unlikely that any of those clothes will end up on the backs of needy people in the Northeast Kingdom, or even in the country.

Planet Aid is a nonprofit that puts out bins where anyone can deposit unwanted clothes, shoes, or bedding, no matter what condition they’re in. It moved into Vermont in 2009 or 2010, said Northern New England Operations Manager Patrick Holland in a telephone interview Friday from his office in Hudson, New Hampshire. But it’s just now moving north of St. Johnsbury.

Drop-off bins will be available in the next few weeks in Derby, Newport, Irasburg, Barton, Orleans, Norton, Canaan, Lyndonville, and Danville, at the recycling centers in Glover and Brighton, and at the Westmore transfer station.

A truck driver for Planet Aid, who lives in Concord, will collect the bins’ contents on a regular basis, and bring them to a warehouse in Plainfield. From there, the clothes are packed into five-foot-high sacks, weighed, sold and shipped through a broker to a grading company. That company sorts through the clothes — “grading” them based on condition — to determine what can be resold in a second hand store and at what price, or what may be resurrected in a next life as a rag, or insulation, or even stuffing for a baseball, Mr. Holland explained.

The market for bulk secondhand clothes is global. The clothes could end up anywhere, depending on who’s buying.

“Our buyers are primarily Eastern Europe,” Mr. Holland said about the clothes that come out of northern New England.

That’s mostly because warehouse space restrictions cause the clothes in this area to be packed into sacks, rather than compressed into bales, which is the more common practice, he said.

“Eastern Europe is the only part of the world that buys cap sacks,” he said. “India would buy a bale of clothing.”

Similar climates may be a factor, too, he suggested.

Planet Aid bins are available in 21 states, Mr. Holland said. According to its website, Planet Aid collects and recycles 100 million pounds of clothes and shoes every year, which keeps them out of landfills.

“We’ve got 200 bins in the state of Vermont,” Mr. Holland said. About 50,000 pounds of clothes are collected per week in Vermont.

That number is relatively small. Planet Aid collects about 200,000 pounds of clothes per week in New Hampshire, where it has many more bins than in Vermont.

Bins are typically emptied one or two times per week, he said. The collection process is expensive.

“But we’re not really in it to make money,” Mr. Holland said. “Our mission is twofold.

“It’s to recycle, and we try to make it easy for people, and convenient. And two, is to fund our programs that we have in third world countries.”

Planet Aid is a fund-raising arm of a much bigger organization, Humana People to People. Humana.org says, “Humana People to People is a network of 32 organizations engaged in international solidarity, cooperation, and development in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.”

It provides child aid and community development, teacher training, and sustainable agricultural training to small-scale farmers, to name just what appears on the homepage.

“Our money goes to them, and they manage the programs,” Mr. Holland said.

Humana People to People has had a bad run of press over the years. Some have claimed that it’s a scam, or that its practices are questionable, at the least.

Humana’s website offers no history of the organization, no phone numbers, and no office addresses. There are plenty of mission statements.

One of Humana’s more popular programs, Mr. Holland said, provides school lunch to children in Mozambique, through a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Planet Aid itself has had some questionable publicity. Charity Watch advises potential donors against Planet Aid, saying that the nonprofit finagles its financial statements to appear as if it spends a higher percentage of its proceeds on humanitarian aid than it really does.

The Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance says its report on Planet Aid should be available by the end of this month. Charity Navigator doesn’t have Planet Aid listed at all among its many rated charities.

Humana People to People is not listed on any of the charity navigation sites.

Full 990 tax return forms from Planet Aid can be obtained through Guide Star for 2010-2012. The forms include the salaries of certain employees and a number of wire transfers to places around the world, including one for over $5-million to sub-Saharan Africa for developmental aid.

Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the financials for Planet Aid’s 2013 fiscal year show a total revenue of about $48.8-million.

“The bulk of that, about $42-million, is from the sales of clothing” and other items from their bins, he said.

What’s unique in the financial information, he said, is that Planet Aid counts a $26-million cost of collecting bin items as both an environmental program expense, and as a fund-raising expense, too.

“The $26-million was their ‘U.S. clothing recycling and habitat protection program,’” he said.

“As I understand it, they are recognizing part of it for one thing and part of it for another,” he said.

Some other organizations also cite the environmental benefits of clothing recycling in their reports to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

“I think the difference here is that they are making a significant reference to it as being one of their main objectives, and again, we’re not making a judgment on what the programs are, but seeking to verify they’re doing what they tell the public they’re doing, in part,” Mr. Weiner said.

He said the nonprofit is transparent.

Financial statements from that same fiscal year, he said, listed $12.7-million spent on international aid activities, and $500,000 on international education.

Mr. Holland has not yet personally seen any of the humanitarian work funded by Planet Aid.

“They try and take between five and 15 managers overseas to actually see these things and these programs in progress,” he said. “My number has not been pulled at this point.”

The practice of selling the clothing that people have dropped off for those less fortunate than themselves is a common one, Mr. Holland said.

“Every company — even Goodwill, Salvation Army — they don’t sell everything. They bale it up and sell it on the market. We all do the same thing, and I only know that because we go to these textile conferences and things like that, and Goodwill is there, Salvation Army is there, and all these major players,” he said.

Planet Aid does benefit the local community to some extent.

For every pound of clothing collected at a transfer station or recycling center, Planet Aid kicks back five cents to the town.

“There’s also a school program, and that pays back five cents as well,” Mr. Holland said.

He produced a list of Vermont organizations to which Planet Aid has donated: the Vermont Food Bank ($1,429), Abenaki Self Help Inc. ($320), and the baseball team Vermont Mountaineers ($1,870) are on the list of organizations along with some others.

The people at the Planet Aid warehouse will also go through the donations — which they don’t normally do — if given a call for locals in need of clothing, Mr. Holland said.

“For example, we donated coats a few weeks ago in Morrisville, at some kind of event. They needed kids’ small coats,” he said. “We gave them 500 or 600 pounds of coats.

“We must have done three or four coat drives last year, and we do it anytime anyone asks.”

The bulk secondhand market can be competitive, but it’s not in Vermont, he said.

“There’s 45 competitors — companies that collect clothing — in Massachusetts, for resale,” he said. “There are a couple in Vermont.”

Mr. Holland agreed that puts Planet Aid in a position to get more of the market share in Vermont.

Planet Aid is willing to remove its bins if the organization finds that they’re hurting an established charity’s market, he said. That situation happened in Poultney after a thrift storeowner took issue with the eight bins Planet Aid put in that town, he said.

“In less than three weeks, we had all our bins pulled out of that town,” Mr. Holland said. “We’re not going to fight with people who are going to use their resources.”

Some are concerned that, if people use Planet Aid’s drop bins, local nonprofits that do help local people, will suffer.

Planet Aid’s bins planned for Lyndonville won’t be placed until they get the okay from HOPE (Helping Other People Everyday), Mr. Holland said via e-mail.

HOPE is a small, private nonprofit with a number of programs, but it runs out of a thrift store, store manager Patricia McGill said.

“Everything we have has been donated to us, and in turn most of it goes back to the community,” she said. The store sells children’s and adult clothing, books, kitchen items, linens, jewelry, accessories, DVDs — “all kinds of stuff.”

People donate to HOPE by bringing items right to the store in Lyndonville.

Sometimes they have to turn people away simply for lack of physical space in the store.

“Every year, we have more and more people donating,” she said.

Items are generally sold at thrift store prices.

“But many people make use of our programs, like children’s vouchers available to anyone who asks for one, a $15 voucher every quarter for every child.”

Damaged clothes that can’t be sold or given away are sometimes sold to a textile company in New Jersey, she said.

“We just get a token amount of money, not really a lot at all,” she said.

Otherwise, those items might end up in a dumpster.

HOPE also has an emergency food pantry people can access twice a week for a bag of food. The organization will also fill a backpack with a weekend’s worth of food for a child. Those backpacks are distributed to children identified through the local schools.

“Teachers identify kids who are at risk nutritionally for the weekend,” she said. “They are totally anonymous to us.”

“We are currently doing about 60 backpacks a week at a cost of $10 to $15 a backpack.”

Clothing vouchers for adults can be obtained through referrals, as with household goods.

“Like if someone gets out of prison or a woman needs to leave a domestic situation immediately,” she said.

“And again, all this is stuff that the community has donated.”

The NEKCA thrift store in Newport doesn’t use drop boxes either.

“We’ve never really had the need for them,” said Merry Hamel, associate director of employment and training programs with NEKCA. She provides supervision and training at the thrift store.

“We use our thrift store as a training site to develop skills for folks,” like using a cash register and processing inventory.

NEKCA also runs a worksite classroom next door, where people can search for jobs or work on a resumé.

“We have some very loyal donors and they love the fact that the stuff they donate here stays in this community. I hear that over and over, that they want it to stay local.”

The NEKCA store has also had to turn away donations for periods of time, for lack of space. They just resumed taking donations on November 3, after about a month off.

Shoppers frequent the store regularly, she said.

“It’s really become a sort of gathering place for folks.”

The well-known annual fall clothing swap in Derby was canceled this year, but only because of a scheduling issue, said Paul Tomasi, director of the Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District (NEKWMD).

NEKWMD used to have four swaps per year in Lyndonville, too.

“But now there’s an organization that collects clothes year-round — HOPE,” he said. “That dramatically impacted the amount of clothes we received for the clothing swap.”

The convenient nature of Planet Aid’s bins affects the ability of others to do clothing swaps, too, he said.

“Many people like the convenience of putting clothes in those boxes whenever,” Mr. Tomasi said. “But it does take away clothes from rummage sales, church drives, whatever it may be, our clothing swap.

“So the bottom line is it does provide better access, but it doesn’t help redistribute the clothes back into the community.”

NEKWMD plans on doing its spring clothing swap in Derby as usual, unless Planet Aid boxes affect their haul by too much.

“If the volume of clothes is such that it isn’t worth doing it, then we won’t do it,” he said.

Typically, NEKWMD gets about nine tons of clothes for each swap.

Mr. Tomasi guesses that very little usable clothing ends up in the landfill, in part because of informal clothing swaps.

Planet Aid tried to establish bins at a number of NEKWMD facilities in the past, Mr. Tomasi said.

“They had some difficulties servicing the boxes, so we kind of backed off.”

That was five or six years ago, he said.

“But it seems like they’re working to provide better service,” he said.

NEKWMD provided a little help to Planet Aid this time around, by giving it a list of the local recycling centers.

Should Planet Aid’s run in the upper Northeast Kingdom not work out, it could mean more clothing swaps in the NEKWMD. Mr. Tomasi said clothing swaps in Island Pond and Glover have been considered.

“But I guess we’ll wait and see where Planet Aid goes,” Mr. Tomasi said.

NEKWMD clothing swaps usually redistribute in the community about two-thirds of what gets dropped off.

“I’ve seen clothing that I’ve personally dropped off come back through the system,” Mr. Tomasi said. “So that’s kind of neat when that happens.”

Back at Planet Aid, Mr. Holland said the nonprofit does what it can to directly help locals through revenue sharing. But he acknowledges that the larger goals are not about the local community.

“There are other companies whose missions are more local, so you can do whatever you want. You can recycle or donate, and choose whatever mission you want,” Mr. Holland said. “Ours just happens to be to benefit the poorest people in the world, not the poorest people in the community.”

contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]

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