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Clothing bin ban: Did GR cave to local charities? | News

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Clothing bin ban: Did GR cave to local charities?

GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- The clothing donation bins you see on street corners and in business parking lots might not be the sexiest topic you can think of, but a Grand Rapids decision to ban them is an example of how governments can choose winners and losers.

Grand Rapids is joining a growing list of communities banning the bins. Across the country, local charities have been pushing for the bans. City leaders say that's not the case here; instead, they say the bins were a trashy nuisance.

Our 13 on Your Side Watchdog Team asked if that was really the case.

After being on the table for 18 months, suddenly this summer Grand Rapids leaders decided the bins should be banned. The city avoided any long drawn out public debate on the issue because they didn't have to pass a new ordinance to ban the boxes. Instead they used part of an existing ordinance that basically prohibits businesses from having any unrelated activity on their property.

All this was necessary, city officials say, because of a groundswell of complaints. WZZM 13 could find only a handful of citizen complaints, but apparently it was enough for the city to ban the bins.

So do these look unsightly, ugly, trashy? That's how the hundreds of donation bins around Grand Rapids in the last couple of years, were described by the city. But our Watchdog Team had a hard time finding one.

Despite that, the city passed the word down. The bins had to go.

"Through a number of complaints, we had several inquires through the city commission. They had heard from their constituents, some just observing it on the street, large piles of garbage or household items that were stacked up against the boxes," says Grand Rapids Planning Director, Suzanne Schulz.

First Ward City Commissioned Walt Gutowski agrees. "Many of them were an eyesore. Had that not been the case, I don't think this would have come up."

But there is little record of complaints of trash around the donation bins.

Commissioner Gutowski admits there was a lack of community outcry because it really wasn't a hot button issue.

"You asked me earlier was your phone ringing off the hook, in this case no and this rarely happens," Gutkowski told WZZM 13. "So I always, no matter the issue, go out in the community and ask what the people think... Basically said to the City Manager, 'We've got to do something, they don't look good, getting complaints and the non profits don't really want them there,'" explained Gutkowski.

So just how big was the problem? Again our Watchdog Team surveyed every quadrant of the city, admittedly after many of the bins were removed, but of the boxes still around we found only one with trash. We came back two days later and the trash and the bins were gone.

So there are sites where we had no problems, but there were sites we actually had to approach the owner-- ask him to ask the company to remove the box because we were out there all the time," explained Schulz.

But that's news to one Detroit organization, IICD, which had over 20 boxes in Grand Rapids. IICD is a non profit that sells and recycles clothes to train and support workers overseas. The donated clothes helps pays for a training center in Dowagiac.

"I got a phone call from one of the city supervisors saying the boxes needed to be removed and we would have 14 days to do so," said Line Henrickson of IICD.

when IICD sent a representative to Grand Rapids, she was unable to talk to any officials but she contends some inside City Hall were sympathetic to the group's side of the story.

"There were people within the thrift store community that had loud voices and had made a big issue out of the big clothing bins. These people had the ear of the planning department," said Henrickson.

The city planning department denies any favoritism, but of the organizations the city officially told to get rid of their bins, none were local. The city says that's because the local organizations had a small number of donation bins compared to the outside groups.

To be fair, Goodwill and St. Vincent DePaul don't have outside bins, the Salvation Army had three, World Mission, 7. Only a representative from St. Vincent DePaul admitted to complaining to the city. The others, while in favor of the ban, say they did not lobby the city for it.

"Locally we have not discussed any of the situations with any of the other agencies in Grand Rapids," said Roger Senn of the Salvation Army. "The way we view these bins, people are just looking for a place to dump their garbage. And to tell you the truth, I'd rather see our three gone than to see so many more coming in. You don't know if it's local charities, you don't even know if it's a charity."

So does this make a difference? Most of our old clothes, 85 percent end up in a landfill.

Two of the non profit recyclers, IICD and Planet Aid collected a combined 394,000 pounds of clothes last year in Grand Rapids alone. So will those donated clothes now go to local charities or to the landfill?

To be clear, local charities like Goodwill also recycle clothes they end up not selling. While many of us prefer to give to local groups, shouldn't we have the choice to donate to whoever we want? For a city that takes pride in its environmental efforts, it seems odd to limit those recycling choices.

In the meantime, the city says it will start fining property owners $100 if the remaining donation bins are not removed.