Planet Aid clothing bins give Salvation Army a run for its money

Pocono Record/March 16, 2008

Two major players in the donated clothing business, the Salvation Army and Planet Aid, are in fierce competition in the Poconos for your cast offs.

They are both part of a multimillion dollar used-textile industry that turns trash to cash.

Planet Aid owns the mostly yellow (sometimes blue and white checkered) shoe and clothing donation boxes that pepper the Poconos. They also go by the name, U'SAgain.

Planet Aid boxes have diverted a lot of donations away from the local Salvation Army, according to Alan Miller, Salvation Army donation specialist. Although the Salvation Army at times has had to turn donations away due to space limits at its East Stroudsburg facility, now giving is down significantly.

Planet Aid came here in strength after New York's City Council cracked down on clothing donation bins in June of 2007. Bin placement in the city had gotten out of hand, according to Anthony Hogrebe, a council spokesman.

"You could shut down business on Friday and there's a bin in your parking lot Monday. And there wasn't an expedient recourse," said Hogrebe said. The new law was a bit much for some clothing collection companies. They scouted out new locations.

"We have moved about 150 boxes out of New York City into New Jersey, Pennsylvania and upstate New York," said Fred Olsson, general manager for Planet Aid in the United States.

So it wasn't your imagination. They did start to appear like mushrooms after a warm rain.

"Planet Aid boxes have sprung up in the Poconos like crazy in the last year," said Alan Miller of the Salvation Army.

Planet Aid pays rent to place bins in high traffic areas. ("They are a little slow to pay," one bin keeper reported.)

The toll-free phone numbers on many Planet Aid bins in Monroe County go to disconnected cell phones. The same is true for some of the phone numbers on the company's Web site.

Planet Aid bins are emptied once a week when a truck makes the rounds. Clothing from the Poconos is taken to a New Jersey warehouse where it is tied into 1,000-pound bales.

The bales are sold to a used clothing broker. One broker, Garson and Shaw, pays 23 to 30 cents a pound for the clothing, depending on where it was collected. New York and Boston donations bring the highest rate because the areas get better donations.

Garson and Shaw resells the clothes by the container. Each container holds 44 bales, or 44,000 pounds.

A few containers are sold in the United States but most are shipped abroad. Unwashed clothing donations are resold to impoverished people in Central America, Africa, Iraq and Iran and many other countries.

Planet Aid donates some of the proceeds from the sale of the clothes to Humana People to People, a group with the same origins as Planet Aid. The money goes to "development programs" in other countries, including an AIDS awareness and prevention program, food for progress, and school construction in Africa according to Rodney Carter, Planet Aid operation manager in New York City.

The rest of the money goes to the expense of clothing collection.

Planet aid has suffered some public relations problems. A 2002 Boston Globe article said a Planet Aid official acknowledged that only about 6 percent of the money the group raises is spent on charity.

"This is a very competitive business populated by a lot of for-profit companies, fly-by-nights and charities," said Planet Aid spokesman Doug Baily.

He said Planet Aid gives away 30 percent of its gross, or 90 percent of the operation's net profit.

"The idea that this tiny 10-year-old company could hurt the Salvation Army is ridiculous," he said. "The textile recycling business has enough room for everyone."

Some say Planet Aid is part of an international cult, because it is part of Tvind.

If you replace the subsidiary names with the parent company's name, you can see that Planet Aid (Tvind) boxes collect clothing items, which are sold to Garson and Shaw (Tvind), which then sells them to the poor and at least some of the proceeds are given to Child Aid (Tvind) for charity work.

Rick Ross, a cult expert, said that "Tvind has been called a cult because of the totalitarian structure of the group and the personality-driven nature of group."

Ross said Pederson operates with no checks and balances and volunteers become unduly influenced by the organization.

"The big issue is, what is the purpose of the boxes, to help people in need, or help raise money? The group is shrouded in secrecy," Ross said.

Tvind is the hub of many ancillary groups, and has been accused of fraud and tax evasion in Denmark.

Pederson was arrested at his $6 million dollar condominium on Fishers Island in Florida in 2001. He was extradited to Denmark on fraud and tax evasion charges and was acquitted by a Danish court. The public prosecutor appealed the verdict but Petersen and other defendants disappeared shortly after being acquitted.

Planet Aid spokesman Doug Baily said the Salvation Army is more of a cult than Planet Aid.

"They belong to the Universal Church and address each other with military titles, and they call us a cult. It's a lifestyle choice," said Baily.

"I've yet to receive a complaint about the Salvation Army or Goodwill," Ross said. But he is questioned about Tvind and Planet Aid frequently.

The Regional Salvation Army has several stores that accept donations, including East Stroudsburg, Mount Pocono, Tunkhannock, Honesdale and Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.

Clothing donations do not go straight into the store. A truck transports them to the main distribution center in Scranton, where workers sort and tag them. Trucks then deliver tagged clothes back to the stores.

The East Stroudsburg store gets 3,000 new garments every weekday, or 15,000 a week. As clothes arrive, the same amount is cycled out of the store. A garment spends about four weeks on the rack. If it doesn't sell, it is sold as bulk rag stock.

Money raised from the seven stores funds a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for men in Scranton. Men in the program work sorting clothes in exchange for free services. The drug and alcohol program houses as many as 60 men at a time.

The Salvation Army's emergency housing program in East Stroudsburg does not receive money from the local store.

There's a third player in the textiles recycling field in our area. Floyd Santee Jr. owns another batch of bins, found mainly in the West End in the Pocono Record's coverage area.

"I'm one of the honest ones. I tell people I'm making a living at this," Santee said. His red and white bins are marked "for profit."

He has 70 bins in northeast Pennsylvania. Santee's 37-year-old company will also pick up household donations, for free, at your door.

"We always get permission to place our bins and we pay rent for 75 percent of them," Santee said.

Many items, like televisions, are repaired. Santee sells most of his collections to wholesalers. Ninety percent of his merchandise is resold in the United States, mainly to Denver and Arizona.

Other things are sold at Floyd's Used Clothing in Slatedale.

Although he is a for-profit business, Santee practices charitable giving. When he hears of a fire, Santee is there to help with cash and household items. He frequently hears of people in need and gives his collected merchandise away.

"Our country is wasteful. The things people get rid of, you could almost cry. Some of it is brand new," Santee said.

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