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Riches From Rags
Before there was recycling, there was the rag trade.

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 encir-cled 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 offthe hood, then slices the garment twice so it lies flat. Next she cuts offthe zipper and tosses it into a waste bin. Then she cuts offand 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.

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November 18, 2019

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