Clothing donation bins are conveniently located at gas stations, parking lots and sidewalks throughout the city and suburbs that make it easy for residents to give away unwanted items.
Despite appearances, NBC 5 Investigates has found many are operated, not by charities, but by for-profit companies that are difficult to track.
“Most of those boxes are not clear and conspicuous of where the money is going or who owns them,” said Steve Bernas, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. “We’ve heard from business owners in the past that, all of a sudden, this box was dumped overnight. You see them everywhere.”
Donation bins are everywhere this time of the year, and while most people assume their donations are going to charity, that's not always the case. In fact, the majority of donation bins are for-profit.
In Chicago, the city requires permits for donation bins but our investigation found scores of unpermitted bins that litter the streets.
To date, city officials said they have issued 281 permits, but NBC 5 Investigates has found scores of unpermitted bins that litter the streets.
For example, there are only five bins that are properly permitted along North Avenue. According to city records, they are all located on the west side. But there are several unpermitted bins in just a few block radius of North Avenue in Lincoln Park.
One bin advertises that it is operated by secondchanceclothing.org and lists the website ‘secondchanceclothing.org.’ But a search shows the site can’t be reached.
Another bin that states it is run by Good Deed Recycling lists a phone number that we tracked to a toll-free number of a motel in Southern California.
NBC 5 Investigates visited the business addresses registered with the Secretary of State’s Office and left messages at numbers listed for both Second Chance Clothing and Good Deed Recycling but have not heard back.
The proliferation of clothing bins leaves charities like The Salvation Army and Goodwill competing for much-needed donations.
“The competition is fierce,” said Major John Aren with The Salvation Army. “It’s not just the drop boxes, of course – eBay, Facebook Marketplace and all sorts of things. We’re all under pressure.”
“(Donations) are the lifeblood of our organization. Without donations, we don’t have stores,” said Dan Michael, Vice President of Stores and Donation Centers with Goodwill Illinois and Wisconsin. “It’s difficult because our job is to try to inform the community the difference between what that box is for and what we do here.”
The Big Business of Textile Recycling
Many of the bins are operated by legitimate for-profit companies who collect clothing donations and sell them for cents on the pound overseas.
According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, the average adult throws away 81 pounds of clothing each year and 85 percent of textile waste ends up in landfills.
Companies like The GreenCity Project, which operates the green bins around Chicago, and U’SAgain, which is headquartered in Chicago, say their mission is to reduce textile waste by re-selling donations to the less fortunate around the world. The GreenCity Project and U’SAgain operate bins that are properly permitted in the city of Chicago.
“We are providing a convenient way for people to dispose of clothes in a way that’s beneficial to the environment and beneficial to people,” said Mattias Wallander, CEO of U’SAgain.
Wallander said most of what’s collected in Chicago ends up in Central America.
The GreenCity Project said individuals who donate to their bins help support the local economy.
“We empower our bin’s site owner with a monthly contribution, which can be donated to a non-profit organization of their choice. Some of our bins work to fund specific organizations while other bins collectively fund organizations,” said Jorge Peng, President of The GreenCity Project.
For U’SAgain’s Wallander, he believes “fly-by-night” bin companies give the entire textile recycling industry a bad reputation.
“It’s disheartening when there are companies, if they are real companies, that drop collection bins without seeking permission from the property owner,” Wallander.
First Amendment Fight
Messy or not, clothing donation bins are protected by the First Amendment, and many municipalities across the country have learned that the hard way.
Southwest suburban Crest Hill drafted an ordinance banning all donation boxes, stating they were “proliferating throughout the city” and that many were not “maintained and have become unsightly areas and overflowing depositories for discarded items or refuse.”
However, in 2016, U’SAgain, which operated one bin in Crest Hill, took the city to court, alleging the ordinance was unconstitutional.
“A donation bin is a silent solicitor. In other words, the reason why it’s out there is to solicit donations for a particular cause,” said Noel Sterett, an attorney for Dalton and Tomich. “The courts recognize that that’s a form of protected speech.”
Crest Hill repealed its ordinance and replaced it with another, which allows for and regulates the placement of unattended clothing donation bins. The city also agreed to pay $24,000 in legal fees, court records show. Currently, there are no donation bins in the city of Crest Hill.
Courts have sided with bin operators in several similar lawsuits nationwide.
Sterett said municipalities can and should regulate bin operators rather than implementing an outright ban.
The city of Chicago recently ramped up its enforcement efforts. A spokesman for the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection said since 2018, officials have issued 207 citations for no permits and referred 180 bins to the Department of Streets and Sanitation for removal. Prior to the enforcement project, only 65 collection bins had permits.
To obtain a permit, bin operators must follow guidelines, including paying a $100 permit fee every two years, posting the name and telephone number of a local contact person on the bins and maintaining an updated website, which lists the addresses of each collection bin maintained by the operator.
To report a bin in your neighborhood, BACP said call 311.