St Vincent de Paul

The largest clothing recycling centre in regional NSW helps fund St Vincent de Paul’s social works programs.

Story: Robin Osborne Photos: Jacklyn Wagner

Every day around 10 tonnes of discarded clothing and piles of sundry household items are placed in, or less happily beside, Vinnies collections bins throughout the North Coast and other parts of NSW.

First dibs on this mountain of material goes to the Vinnies shop volunteers who sort through the donations and set aside clean, undamaged items for sale in one of the 27 shops between Tweed Heads in the north and Laurieton in the south.

“After some sprucing up these first-quality items go on sale in local Vinnies shops,” according to Angelo Grande, the Society’s Recycling & Waste Management Facilitator for the past 16 years.

“Thanks to the bargain prices they go quickly out the door.”

A small quantity of goods, soiled or damaged, must be sent to landfill, with the remainder being transported to the Vinnies recycling centre in the Lismore suburb of Goonellabah.

The centre, occupying 1600 square metres, is named after Matthew Talbot, the 19th century Dublin ascetic who is an inspiration for ex-alcoholics worldwide. It is the largest such facility in regional NSW, handling one-fifth of the state’s total clothing donations.

Toys, household goods and other recyclable wares are sent to the Vinnies Buy Back Shop, next to the recovery centre at Murwillumbah tip. Some items – from luggage to car seat restraints - are sent overseas, mainly to Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbour.

PNG, along with several east African countries, is also a destination for the tonnes of reusable clothing that the centre reprocesses.

Angelo Grande’s team of twenty, many on JobStart or other supervised programs, start with sorting wearable clothes from clean but tattered items that, shorn of buttons and zippers, will be blade-shredded and sold in 5kg or 10kg packs known as ‘Vinnies Bag O Rags’. These are a mainstay for painters, mechanics, car detailers and DIY home improvers.

The bulk of the usable clothing is folded and bundled together for compacting into 210 kg bales using a converted wool press, one of the facility’s cannily adapted pieces of equipment.

These huge packs are moved by forklift to waiting trucks that will take them to shipping containers on the docks and on to outdoor markets in PNG and Africa where the recycled donations will be sold to local people at affordable prices.

“This is a recycling effort that starts with individual Australians and moves to an industrial scale,” said the North Coast President of St Vincent de Paul Society Yvonne Wynen.

“Each year we are rescuing nearly half a million tonnes of clothing that would otherwise go to landfill. The precious funds we earn are used to help local people doing it tough.

“This includes support with accommodation, food and pharmacy bills, the needs of children, drop-in facilities for homeless people… all made possible through recycling goods that society discards. It’s a win on every level,” Ms Wynen said.

  Frances Lollback cutting unwearable clothing into saleable rags for industry and homemakers.
Bev Garraway and Maria Delaney sorting some of the 10 tonnes of clothing that arrives at the centre each day.

Robin Osborne is St Vincent de Paul’s regional communications manager, Jacklyn Wagner is former chief photographer at The Northern Star, Lismore.