Your ripped jeans are currency; your tattered T-shirt is someone's paycheck.
The question is: whose?
Once the exclusive enclave of non-profit organizations, clothing collection bins are increasingly employed by commercial recycling companies and others.
Yet, it might be tough to tell who is who.
Many new bins espouse the virtues of recycling, often featuring a large recycling logo. Only in small print does a donor find language that indicates the collection isn't for the poor—it's for profit.
"Boom they're everywhere," said Chris Ward of Goodwill Industries Suncoast. "Everywhere literally, every corner."
In an unscientific survey covering mere slivers of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando counties, FOX 13 nonetheless counted approximately 100 of these bins. In several parking lots, bins of varied origin were placed directly next to those for non-profit organizations.
In one extraordinary case, Ward said two white commercial bins were placed directly in front of a Goodwill store in Spring Hill without Goodwill's consent.
"I don't know anything about them," Ward said. "And neither do most of the people who are donating to them."
The most common new bin is royal blue with white lettering. It reads "Clothes and Shoes Donation Center." A placard on the front includes a logo that reads "Reused Clothes and Shoes." In large type it boasts "Together We Can Make A Difference."
The small businesses whose parking lots house the new "donation center" bins told Fox 13 they are supposed to be paid either a flat fee for a percentage of proceeds.
"These people call me and they make me a promise that they were going to pay me monthly," said Jullian Llombard, owner of Mi Ranchito restaurant in Tampa.
Llombard said he knew virtually nothing about the company that placed the bin on his property, except that its representatives emptied the box into a rental truck on weekends.
"They usually come on Sunday, when nobody is here," he said.
We repeatedly called the phone number on the bins, but never received a response.
The website for Reuse Clothes and Shoes initially said it is proud to "take part" in a charity called Lend A Hand Across America. But neither Reuse Clothes and Shoes nor Lend A Hand Across America is registered as a charity in Florida.
After we started asking questions (without receiving answers), the website changed. The reference to Lend A Hand Across America was deleted. It now claims to support the community, without citing specifics.
IRS records indicate a small non-profit called Lend A Hand Across America operates out of the Chicago-area home of its president, Lumni Toska. Florida corporate records list Lumni Toska as a manager of Florida Bin management, LLC., in Pompano Beach.
But Florida Bin Management is not registered as a non-profit organization, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
ONE QUESTION; NO ANSWERS
Florida Bin management, LLC., operates from the rear of an industrial park. Our cameras spotted the bins, and rental trucks.
When an employee approached us, we asked whether the items placed in its "Donation Center" were for profit or for charity. He swatted our camera, ordered us to leave, and called the Broward County Sheriff's Office.
FOX 13 has made repeated inquiries with Reuse Clothes and Shoes as well as Florida Bin Management over the past three months. Neither outfit has responded to our phone calls.
"They say it's for charity, but I believe it's for profit," Llombard said.
Used clothing is a surprisingly valuable commodity. Often, it is compacted into two-ton bales and shipped overseas. That's what Goodwill does when used clothing doesn't sell in its thrift stores.
According to International Trade Commission figures, the United States exported more than 1.6 billion pounds of used clothing in 2012, worth $636,610,909, and up from $607,990,950 in 2011.
That works out to approximately $.37 per pound as of this writing. The commission estimates both exports and prices will rise in 2013.
MORE BINS, FEWER JOBS
Perhaps that increase in salvage clothing prices has driven the sudden explosion in bins and "donation centers." Whatever the motivation is, Goodwill says donations have dropped off.
"When someone donates to a for-profit box, they're taking jobs, employment services away from people who need them," Ward said. "People like Trudy."
At Goodwill, Trudy Beaver laughs and smiles brightly. She has a developmental disability, and the generosity of strangers -- those who donate used clothes -- provides her with a job tagging clothing for thrift shops.
"It's a good job," she said. "I love it here."
But Trudy suddenly has reason to worry. We asked Trudy about the prospect of profiteers siphoning donations away from Goodwill.
Her smile instantly sagged.
"They're taking from Goodwill, and the people that work here," she said. "That's wrong."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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