Nearly a year and a half ago, my research about clothing recycling options led to an invitation for a personal tour of the San Francisco-based processing facility of Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin counties.

Each regional Goodwill chapter is at liberty to establish its own programs and initiatives, and locally, these focus on the following triple bottom line: job training and skills development, revenue generation, and recycling.

Goodwill Industries San Francisco’s commitment to a sustainable environment has led to the creation of an environmental business which includes creative reuse, retail sales, and bulk materials sales that combined, keep tons of material out of the landfill. Among this is an annual 260 tons of salvage textiles.

Here’s a photo essay (of course my camera was in tow!) that reveals what can happen to clothing and textiles:

loading dock at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco

Donated items arrive at Goodwill’s central processing facility in San Francisco for sorting, inspection, and distribution. The work is done by participants in Goodwill’s diverse job training programs. Part of the mission is to create “solutions to poverty through workforce creation” and to “build sustainable livelihoods.” As I witnessed during the tour, this training occurs at all phases throughout the facility.

boxes of clothes for recycling

Boxes of unsorted clothing stacked on pallets await processing.

sorting clothing donations at Goodwill Industries in San Francisco

The first step in the actual triage process: workers sort through each and every piece of donated clothing. Sellable items are separated from the stained, damaged, and torn clothing. The former will work their way through the local retail chain, and the latter will be directed to the baler (several images below).

teaching board of textile samples

A board with fabric swatches is on hand to educate workers how to distinguish the different types of fabric by feel.

racks of clothes sorted for distribution to San Francisco's Goodwill retail stores

Clothing destined for Goodwill retail outlets is sorted by type and then by Bay Area retail outlet venue. Clothing is designated as vintage, designer, jeans, sweater, jerseys, costumes…you name it. Inventory management is one of the transferable skills workers learn during this part of the process.

"vintage" sign

Detail of a rack of vintage clothing.

piles of rejected clothing at Goodwill

When unsold clothing is returned from the retail outlets, it is made available for rock bottom prices in the Goodwill As-Is Store, located at the main processing facility. I was told this is a goldmine for keen treasure-seekers. This is the final retail stop before unwanted clothing heads to the baler.

a baler with a bale of clothing to be sold for scrap

The baler with a fresh bale of clothing. Operation of the baler requires special training, and it is one of the skills workers can bring to other industries where balers are used. (The forklifts and trucks also require specialized training of these vital transferable skills.)

bales of clothing are ready for the scrap/rag trade

As part of Goodwill’s solid waste reduction, these bales of unsellable textiles are sold in bulk to companies that in turn sell to the rag trade. These vendors might remove buttons and other reusable parts prior to ragmaking and further recycling.


a bale of clothing are ready for the scrap/rag trade

These bales were awe-inspiring. The textiles are so tightly compressed and bundled into a solid colorful mass.

goodwill not landfill on Goodwill truck

The tagline that dons their fleet of trucks (run on a 20% biodiesel blend!) and their current advertising campaign is “Goodwill not landfill.” It’s great to know, too, that this Goodwill Industries chapter is working on becoming part of the Bay Area Green Business Program.

Please keep in mind, this is just a tour of what happens to the clothing at this facility! There are also mounds of shoes, handbags, jewelry, electronics, household items, plastics, books, and more that are processed and sold and redistributed.

Some personal post-tour thoughts…

The creativity, innovation, systems, and overall atmosphere that exist in this facility filled me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a tinge of despair. While I’m so thankful that this important mechanism for job creation and recycling exists in the heart of our community, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the sheer mass of disposed objects we, collectively, consume as a culture and easily pass along. In this instance, though, our consumptive nature has led to the establishment of vital social, economic, and environmental solutions.

Now imagine if we were more mindful of our retail diets…