A small army of workers from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Guthrie Theater and Arc’s Value Village used cranes and lifts on a recent day to clothe Paul Bunyan. The 20-foot-tall model of the lumberjack, complete with his ax, debuts Thursday at the State Fair to show Minnesotans how apparel can be recycled so it doesn’t end up in landfills. The exhibit is the latest for the MPCA, which is known for its creative recycling displays. Last year, it built a “bagnado” out of discarded plastic grocery bags. In 2014, it made a wad of tossed paper that was so big it made the Guinness World Records. In 2013, it built entire rooms out of pop cans. The idea is to highlight a different “problem area” every year in which Minnesotans can do a better job of recycling. This year, Bunyan is a teaching tower on how to dispose of clothes and textiles in a way that’s better for the environment. “Minnesotans throw away 12 grocery carts full of clothing and textiles every minute,” said MPCA spokeswoman Pam McCurdy. In all, “136,000 tons are thrown away each year and go into landfills.”
But old clothes, towels and sheets can be reused and converted into new ingredients for manufacturers, adding $43.5 million to Minnesota’s economy each year in the form of jobs, inventory and transportation spending, said Wayne Gjerde, MPCA’s recycling market development manager. That’s an economic value of $119,000 a day,” he said. “So please don’t throw away jobs by throwing away your textiles. We only recycle 15 percent of all our textiles and we would like to get that much higher and recirculated back into the economy.” To drive that message home, MPCA educator Jeanne Giernet and Alicia Wold, costume designer and director of the Guthrie Theater’s costume rentals unit, were recently up at dawn and up in the rafters dressing Paul Bunyan at the Eco Experience building near Snelling Avenue. “Paul’s a fun and good way to get people thinking about this stuff,” McCurdy said while smoothing out a wrinkle on Paul Bunyan’s newly donned jeans that are 15 feet long. To outfit Bunyan, Wold and volunteers spent 60 hours stitching together 40 discarded flannel shirts, nine pairs of pajamas and one robe to make his extra large plaid shirt. His pants were made from 43 pairs of old jeans. His red cap came from used T-shirts, while his black suspenders are really several pairs of stitched together tights. Sliced tree branches turned into buttons. His eyebrows were made from fur coats. The exhibit not only features Paul Bunyan, but also displays from thrift stores such as Goodwill, Arc’s Value Village, Savers and Salvation Army. Besides selling donated sheets, clothing and other items, some secondhand shops also bundle torn, soiled and unusable donations and give them to textile recyclers who strip them into cotton, wool or synthetic fibers or patches so they can be made into other products.
Old things into new
Bonded Logic Inc., for example, turns old jeans into housing insulation that is sold in Menards. Nike makes stretchy pants from recycled polyester and makes running tracks from ground-up sneaker bottoms. In Minnesota, Bro-Tex Inc. in St. Paul, Miller Waste Mills in Winona and other manufacturers convert clothes, sheets, tablecloths and carpet into new industrial rags, oil filters, carpets or booms that can sop up factory spills. Autumn Boos, marketing director for Bro-Tex, said the processing of old clothes and carpets has created 16 permanent jobs at the company’s North Hampden Avenue location, where donations from the public are accepted. Bro-Tex’s full operation includes 90 workers and a separate business that makes wipes and paper towels from new and recycled materials. In all, Bro-Tex keeps 1 million pounds of debris from landfills each year, said Boos, who applauded the MPCA’s display. “It’s wonderful that the exhibit will help bring [attention] to the need to use recycled materials and to recycle, reuse and reduce waste,” Boos said. “We need to be smarter with our resources. They are really valuable.” Beginning Thursday, the fair’s Eco Exhibit will have sturdy benches (made of baled jeans) where fair goers can sit, take a load off their feet and admire other environmentally focused displays. There’s a Re-Fashionista booth, a “Fix or Mend it” booth and volunteers who will demonstrate how to get extra life from outfits, products or appliances. The “Think Before You Buy” booth encourages buying quality, durable goods that can last years. Avoid cheap, trendy things that only last one season, McCurdy said. To illustrate the idea, she asked for help from Duluth Pack. Last week, officials from the Duluth-based outdoor gear firm zipped a crane to the top of the Eco building and outfitted Paul Bunyan with one of its Paul Bunyan Canvas Packs — a high-quality backpack known to last years. “They have backpacks that are literally 100 years old,” McCurdy said. “Buy Minnesota. Buy quality. It really works.”