Finding Value in the Trash of Others Fuels Alumnus' Business
June 5, 2014
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2014 UT Dallas Magazine.
"One thing that I would tell current students is to pursue a career path that they are genuinely interested in and that they will love for a long time," said Scott Birnbaum BS'84, president of Reclaimed Textiles Co.
When entrepreneur Scott Birnbaum’s trucks pull up to area charities, they pick up millions of pounds of unwanted shoes, shirts, stuffed animals and blankets. In doing so, his local operation collects a portion of the 4 billion pounds of textiles that are recycled annually in the United States.
By collecting unsold and unwanted salvage items from charities, Birnbaum’s Reclaimed Textiles Co. keeps millions of pounds of trash from going into landfills and contributes to a $700 million recycled textile industry.
At Birnbaum’s Dallas-based manufacturing and distribution center, his trucks deliver belts, purses, wallets, hats, caps, backpacks, toys, sheets, towels and curtains, among other things. Once baled, the items are shipped to sorting centers overseas, to places like Dubai and Malaysia. The best items are then sold through resale outlets in countries that span from Kenya to Chile. Unwearable items come back to Dallas where they’re made into rags used by the oil, janitorial and paint supply industries.
“I am proud of what we do,” said Birnbaum BS'84. “Each month we divert from landfills in excess of 4 million pounds of refuse. Like other companies, we have to make a profit.
"We employ 150 people and operate out of two plants. Beyond that, we support nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and assist in building economic growth in developing countries. Our clothing and shoes are made available at affordable prices to some of the poorest people on the planet.”
Scott Birnbaum’s company has diverted hundreds of millions of pounds of refuse from landfills — 55 million pounds in 2013 alone. Collected T-shirts and linens not suitable for resale are often made into cleaning rags.
Birnbaum brought the company — and his entrepreneurial dream — to life after spending years behind a desk as an accountant crunching numbers, which he found too routine. To get sales experience, Birnbaum tried recruiting. He was miserable, but knew that he lacked the know-how to start his own company without those skills.
Birnbaum later heard about a recycler that produced wiping rags. “I couldn’t think of anything more uninteresting,” he said. But during a plant tour, he changed his mind.
“It was a throwback to the industrial revolution, and I fell in love with it. It was so unautomated and raw,” Birnbaum said.
For the next few years, he learned the business as the company accountant. When new management later called for layoffs, including Birnbaum, he was ready to make a move.
“When it comes to being an entrepreneur, you need a catalyst,” Birnbaum explained. “Everyone talks about wanting their own business and inventing something, but I think it’s about doing something that already works, and doing it better.” So, in 1994, Birnbaum traded his Honda for a line of credit, and Reclaimed Textiles was born.
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Since then, the company has grown and attracted other UT Dallas grads. Matt Kersting MA’91 works in sales, putting to work his master’s degree from the Naveen Jindal School of Management. Employee Shaun Hills BS’84, who manages the company’s online business, has known Birnbaum since their days together at Richardson High School, followed by college at the Jindal School.
Birnbaum said the trash collection business can get interesting with the Internet. Vintage belts, old-school Converse and Air Jordans are among the treasures that the online team easily sells on auction sites. While sorting shoes, the team once found a pair of Nike Waffle Racers — originally introduced in 1974 and named for the revolutionary rubber treads. Even after a $10,000 offer from a collector on eBay, Birnbaum couldn’t part with the collectible kicks. And he says he probably never will.
Birnbaum enjoys the trash and treasure hunts too much to give up any of it. “One thing that I would tell current students is to pursue a career path that they are genuinely interested in and that they will love for a long time,” he said.