Before there was recycling, there was the rag trade.

Adam Minter

The two-story cutting room at Star Wipers fills with a soft, mechanical hum. About 20 middle-aged women and a handful of men stand at workstations encircled by 6-foot-tall plastic bins full of used clothes and sheets. In the middle, Amity Bounds, one of the last professional American rag cutters, grabs a pink hoodie with a sparkly print across the front that reads justice love justice. Like her co-workers, she stands 6 inches from a tea-saucer-size blade that spins at chest level inside a metal guard with three small gaps. With a butcher’s precision, Bounds slips the hoodie into one of the gaps, cuts off the hood, then slices the garment twice so it lies flat. Next she cuts off the zipper and tosses it into a waste bin. Then she cuts off and tosses the sparkly print. (“It’s abrasive and no good for wiping anything.”) The remaining sweatshirt offers little resistance; she slices once, twice, three times, transforming it from a garment to rags.

 “It took me a year to learn all of the products and learn to cut them,” Bounds says as she tosses the sweatshirt fillets into a barrel filled with fresh-cut rags.

“How long have you worked here?” I ask.

“Ten years.”

Few consumers, anywhere, have heard of the wiping-rag industry. But it bails out everyone. Approximately 30% of the textiles recovered for recycling in the U.S. are converted to wiping rags, according to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (Smart), a trade association. And that’s probably an undercount. The 45% of recycled textiles that are reused as apparel eventually wear out, too. When they do, they’re also bound for the wiping-rag companies.

Nobody counts the number of wiping rags manufactured in the U.S. and elsewhere every year. But anyone who knows the industry acknowledges that the numbers are in the many billions—and growing. The oil and gas industry, with its network of pipes and valves, requires hundreds of millions of rags per year to wipe leaks, lubricants, and hands. Hotels, bars, and restaurants need billions of rags to clean glasses, tabletops, and railings. Painters need them for spills and drips. If these businesses can’t reuse clothes and sheets, they’ll opt for disposable paper towels, synthetic wipes, and new cloth rags, complete with all their environmental and financial costs. Decades before environmental organizations and governments encouraged reuse, recycling, and circular economies, the wiping-rag industry had mastered the art.

Todd Wilson, the wiry, 59-year-old vice president of Star Wipers, stands beside me, watching Bounds with rapt attention. “Did you see how many multiple cuts she did?” he asks with excitement. “Every time she runs it through the blade”—he stops to compose himself—“our competition doesn’t do that!” Wilson is one of the industry’s most passionate boosters. And Star Wipers, located in Newark, Ohio, 40 miles east of Columbus, is one of the last American companies that in his estimation does rags “the right way.”

Like most people who don’t make money from cutting rags, I long assumed that “the right way” was how it was done at home. My mother would take old T-shirts and tear them into rags for polishing furniture and wiping down sinks. What transformed this act of household thrift into an industrial process were the factories and machines that created the Industrial Revolution. Maintaining and repairing those machines required rags to apply or wipe up grease and oil.

In industrializing England, the most abundant source was the growing surplus of used, unwanted textiles made by those very machines. An industry emerged to collect them for Britain’s ragmakers, which by the late 19th century were as industrialized as the textile mills, with buying networks as complex as those used to distribute clothing to the growing retail industry. By 1929 the U.S. was the world’s largest rag producer, home to at least 26 industrial-scale ragmaking companies.

Star Wipers has 110,000 square feet of space in Newark, much of it devoted to warehousing the rags it packages and ships around the U.S. to distributors who know—intimately—what kind of user needs what kind of rag. It’s a labor-intensive business, and as with textile manufacturing, much of the industry has migrated to Asia over the past three decades. Those that remain, such as Star Wipers, need good reasons to stay in the U.S. “It’s about quality,” Wilson tells me.

There are companies that distribute more rags than Star Wipers, but most of those are imported. With as many as 26 rag cutters working at one time in Newark and an additional 13 in the company’s North Carolina plant, Star Wipers is likely the largest U.S. rag cutter left.

Wilson and I sit across from each other at a long table in a windowless conference room. Behind me is a door leading to an industrial laundry machine that looks a bit like a giant green metal caterpillar. It handles multiple different loads at once, without mixing them. And not all those loads are used clothes. “The washer exists to make a new T-shirt feel like an old one,” Wilson says. This makes sense when I think about my own laundry. A new cotton tee, generally, doesn’t feel as soft as one I’ve been washing for years. “Think about it,” Wilson says. “That soft T-shirt is going to do a better job of absorbing liquid than one you’ve just pulled out of the pack.”

As a result, buyers typically pay more for rags made from used shirts than ones made from new ones. And when they can’t get used ones, they spend money to launder new ones so they feel used. For example, every three weeks, Star Wipers receives a load of castoffs from apparel makers in Bangladesh that must be run through the washer before cutting.

“That’s upside down to me,” I concede.

“You haven’t spent much time around rags,” Wilson says with a smile.

Rags have been in Wilson’s family since the 1970s. His father, Robert Wilson, a manufacturer of components for card-filing systems, acquired a small rag company that became his dominant holding. In 1998, Todd and a partner formed their own rag company, Star Wipers; it and the assets of Todd’s father’s company were acquired in 2005 by Action Supply Products Inc., based in Coraopolis, Pa. Today, Star Wipers has 160 employees and additional operations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and a rag-sourcing network that extends from Brownsville, Texas, to Kandla, India. In 2017 it sold about 15 million pounds of rags, primarily in the U.S.

Privately held Action Supply doesn’t disclose earnings or revenue for Star Wipers, but there’s no question that business has been good. The Newark facility alone has expanded more than 350% since 2005, with much of its new square footage devoted to warehousing the washing-machine-size compressed bundles of textiles that arrive at the factory and the suitcase-size, shrink-wrapped bundles of cut-up fabric that go out to distributors around the U.S. Some of those shrink-wrapped bundles contain a rainbow of multicolored, cut-up T-shirts, 10 to a pound; some are filled with cut-up white sweatshirts. At retail outlets, a 5-pound box of cut-up tees can go for anywhere from $9 to $25, depending on color (all white is more expensive) and quality.

Wilson attributes the company’s success to two factors. First, he cares. As he says repeatedly during our hourslong visit, “I love rags!” Second, he’s a stickler for quality. “A rag is a tool,” he says. “No different than a screwdriver. Different tools for different applications. You have to make the tool and make it well.” A car wash doesn’t want a scratchy rag that’ll mar a finish; an oil and gas company doesn’t want a polyester rag that could discharge static electricity and set off an explosion; a maid service doesn’t want a colored rag that’s going to bleed dye onto a countertop.

Lately, Wilson finds that ensuring quality is getting harder. He pulls out a copy of the January 1963 issue of the Bulletin of the National Association of Wiping Cloth Manufacturers. Toward the end, a full page is devoted to “Specifications for Purchase of Rags for Conversion into Wiping Cloths.” There are 18 specifications by grade, including ones for “white wipers,” “colored wipers,” “underwear wipers,” “mixed wipers,” and “blue overalls and pants (blue denim),” which it says “shall consist of 100% cotton material up to 12 oz. per sq. yd. Minimum area of pants leg when opened shall be 2 sq. ft. with a minimum width of 12 inches. Shall be free of coveralls and jackets. Shall be free of greasy, oily, painted, cement stock and skeletons.”

The good news is that skeletons no longer threaten to turn up in clothes purchased for wiping rags. The bad news is that the days of recycled 100% cotton rags are pretty much over, and so are the days when manufacturers could adhere to those industry specifications. Clothes and textiles simply aren’t as well-made as they used to be. A shirt that falls apart after a few washes can’t be transformed into a rag suitable for wiping down a freshly washed car or table. Cheap fast fashion doesn’t just hurt thrift shops; it hastens the trip to the landfill or garbage incinerator.

“Go try to buy a 100% cotton shirt today,” Wilson says with exasperation. “Even when it says ‘100% cotton,’ you can’t be sure.” This isn’t idle conspiracy mongering. Manufacturers have begun to incorporate more and more polyester into clothes to meet consumer demand for ever-cheaper clothing, and cotton-polyester blends often contain more polyester than the tag claims. (Mislabeling is a violation of the Textile, Wool, and Fur Acts, but it’s rarely prosecuted.) Star Wipers first noticed the change in the millions of pounds of linens it purchased from laundries serving health-care facilities. Sheets and blankets that used to be cotton-polyester blends were turning up as 100% polyester. That’s a problem. “A hundred-percent-polyester wiping rag is not going to do the same thing as a poly-cotton blend,” Wilson says. “It won’t absorb as well.” That’s the least of it. Polyester can melt in the presence of certain solvents or heat and—worse still—emit static electricity.

At Star Wipers, a sorting and grading operation pulls the all-polyester blankets before they’re cut and packaged. But back in the 1960s, before poly-cotton blends were common and rag specs were adhered to more carefully, they’d have been rejected before they even got inside the factory. Today, just as clothing consumers are willing to accept lower quality in exchange for lower prices, so too are many wiper buyers. Wilson says many buyers have accustomed themselves to poly-cotton blends. But not all of them: “Today if people can’t find what they want in a reclaimed wiper, they’ll look to a new one.” Paper towels are always an option; so are synthetic towels that offer greater absorbency than reclaimed poly-cotton wipers. It’s a quirk of the global economy that the most direct beneficiaries of the rise of fast fashion might be paper towel manufacturers.

Wilson loves rags made from reclaimed textiles. But he can’t simply ignore that declining quality. So Star Wipers has started to manufacture a new, 100% cotton rag from yarn grown and manufactured in North Carolina. “We can follow it from field to here,” he says. The environmental cost of a new rag is steep compared with that of a reclaimed one—growing cotton is highly water-intensive—but customers are willing to pay it.

Star Wipers’ 100% cotton rag is known as the STB—short for “simply the best”—and across the industry, that’s a widely acknowledged statement of fact. “It’s not our biggest seller by any means,” Wilson says. “But if a customer wants that consistency and is willing to pay the premium for it, we make it available.” It’s not good enough; it’s as good as new.

Toward the end of the Friday afternoon shift at Star Wipers, Wilson stops beside a cart piled with cut-up white sweatshirts. “Now here’s what I’m gonna tell you about this product,” he says. “This is a reclaimed white sweatshirt. For us to keep up with demand, we have to buy it offshore. There’s not enough in the States.” The problem, for those who view it that way, is that it’s typically cheaper to cut sweatshirts into rags in India than in Ohio.

None of the cut-up sweatshirt fragments through which Wilson is rummaging were used in India. Rather, they were likely made in South Asia, exported to the U.S., and worn until they were donated to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or some other thrift-based exporter. When they didn’t sell there, they were exported again (to India, most likely), cut up, and exported again—this time to Star Wipers in Newark. Each step of that journey makes perfect business sense, even if the totality of it sounds ridiculous.

In fact, it’s the future.

Middle-class consumers in Asia already outnumber those in North America. For now, Wilson says more than 82% of Star Wipers’ rags are sourced in the U.S. But soon, unwanted secondhand stuff from Asia will exceed what’s generated in more affluent countries. If those clothes don’t sell, they can always be cut into wipers, assuming the quality is sufficient. And those rags, sourced from clothes worn and cut in developing countries, will make their way to the U.S. A secondhand trade that once flowed in one direction—from rich to poor—now goes in every direction.

Wilson understood that dynamic years ago. In 2016 he traveled to India to teach a local rag company how to cut rags to Star Wipers’ exacting standards. It wasn’t hard to find a partner. Wilson just wants to be sure its rags are cut to a standard that he can import as his own.

That goal isn’t easy. Workers in Newark are taught to cut shirts and other garments so they get about 10 wiping rags per pound. “But the industry standard is around five rags per pound,” Wilson says, referring to big, sloppy cuts that make an old T-shirt look like a pair of oversize wings. “And that’ll be the death of us as an industry. People will feel like they’re getting a better deal buying new rags. So you have to find the people cutting the rags the way you want them.” His cut, the Star Wipers cut, looks like what most people think of as a rag. That may seem trivial—maybe even comical—to someone outside the industry. But it’s absolutely critical to anyone who wants to see the life of secondhand clothing extended for as long as possible.

Wilson is unswerving in his optimism about the future of reclaimed wiping rags. That doesn’t stop him, though, from dropping an occasional joke at the expense of the industry. At one point, he says that during a recent convention, a fellow trade association member reported that he had good news and bad news about the business. “The good news,” Wilson recounts, starting to laugh, “is that nobody wants to get into this business.”

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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