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Interview with Elaine Birks-Mitchel of The Bra Recyclers

Interview with Elaine Birks-Mitchel of The Bra Recyclers

The Bra Recyclers have been recycling and donating bras since 2008! They have not only make a difference environmentally, but also socially having donated over 4 million  bras to various organization around the globe. 

Listen to this first official episode to learn more-and how you can get involved! 



Mary Allen 0:00

Hey friends, thanks for joining me for my first official episode. I'm Mary Allen, the host of this waste less live more podcast. I didn't take the time to introduce myself during episode zero. So let me just take a second to do that. I own a shop in Evansville, Indiana called Sixth and Zero. A lot of people are confused by that name and not sure what we do and who we are. So just in short Sixth is a nod to our original company, Sixth Street Soapery. That's where we kind of focus on making natural skincare and body products. And always with that focus on ingredients and quality and how those things are sourced and their impact on the planet and the people who harvest and so forth. And so we kind of continued on that journey. And you know, as we learn more, we tried to do better and, and we learned more about the goodness of nature and being kinder to the planet. So we started to expand and carry products to help us all live a little more sustainably. Thus the zero for zero waste. Although as you know, we call it zero ish waste, because it's simply about taking our next step to waste less and live more right. But enough about me, I am so excited to get right into this episode. I really hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed talking with Elaine Burks Mitchell, of The Bra Recyclers. She and her husband are wonderful people who do amazing work, I consider it an honor to have her on to share her story of what they do in the hopes to educate and inspire all of us to take action. Or maybe think about bras in a different light, or to stop to think about them period and what we do with them, and what companies do with them and what a gift they can be to others, and how they can literally change lives. So without further ado, my first official episode and interview with Elaine.

Hi Elaine, I am so thankful that you are taking the time to meet with me and chat about The Bra Recyclers. So thank you for joining me.

Elaine 2:11
Oh, no, thanks for inviting me. I'm so glad we're able to do this because we need to do more of this.

Mary Allen 2:16
Yes, absolutely. And this podcast venture is a little new for me. So you're my first official guest and one of the reasons well, one, it's just such a cool concept. And we love collecting at sixth and zero. And it's one of the biggest things we get the most questions about. So I want definitely wanted to have you on and chat a little bit about it.

Elaine 2:37
Great. Well, thank you. I appreciate being here.

Mary Allen 2:40
Yeah, so I mean, first question, I think is why bras? I think- do you get that question a lot? And I love your shirt. By the way. I wish we had video on this because this shirt says "got bras?".

Elaine 2:53
Thats Right! We know what we're doing. Right?

Mary Allen 2:57
That's right, you're gonna make it known. I love it. I need one of those.

Elaine 3:02
Thank you, and well I do get that question all the time. Why bras? And I'm like, Well, why not? And, you know, I tell people, you know, I think people don't think about how important a bra is to a woman, particularly a woman in transition or girl in transition. I think we take for granted, you know, many of us have so many bras in our drawer. And that's kind of how I got started, I knew I had a lot of bras in my drawer, didn't know what to do with them, tags still on them, I'll admit. And so, you know, we pay so much for our bras. So you know, I knew it was like okay, there's there's got to be a way because a lot of places don't take them. So for me, it was a matter of you know, I was tied to one of the largest shelters here right in the Phoenix area. And we started just chatting about what what are these ladies and girls need coming into these, you know, various programs? Because as you know, many of them come in and you know, they don't have anything.

Mary Allen 3:53

Elaine 3:54
So, and anything, means that could be underwear. And and particularly particularly bras and a lot of people don't think to donate or recycle bras one because a lot of places don't accept them.

Mary Allen 4:04

Elaine 4:05
So I knew, you know, I asked her about that she's absolutely you know, we need them, I gotta keep them locked up. And I'm like, Well, I have minimum a dozen, minimum, sitting at my door at the time. You know, like I got a bunch. And I'm sure a bunch of other ladies do too. So my background, I came out of the corporate IT world and project management and software development. So my first thought was okay, let's put up a website or webpage just to see the reaction that we would get. And I was shocked at the reaction. You know, people are like, I don't know what to do with them. I've been wondering if anyone would take them a lot of places won't take them. So it started there for me just to see if the concept would even go, if women would even respond to that concept of like, okay, if you had a place to send your bras would you do it? And so then for me I you know, I was we're a social enterprise and I think I know you and I have talked about that. And that was a very conscious decision to do that, um, you know, I really didn't want to take on starting that nonprofit at the time, because there's a lot as you know, that goes into that. And again, I am a firm believer that you can be a for profit business and give back just as much as a nonprofit. And I, I know, you're a big believer of that, too. So, I wanted to see how I could build a model where I could give back and just, you know, integrate that whole, doing good, and giving back into any of our mission in our operation. So I started researching recycling and textile recycling, specifically, just to see if there was anyone coming in that space. Oh, look at bras and women's lingerie. Now, of course, there were lots of nonprofits that are looking for, you know, donate your bras, you know, for their program, but I was trying to look at it from a business side of it. Was there really anyone out there? So I joined some associations for textile recycling, because it's a different industry. I wasn't aware of that industry that was very foreign to me. And, you know, it's an industry that people don't know a lot about. It's not that transparent.

Mary Allen 4:05

Elaine 4:12
And so it was, it was interesting, just to learn about how the industry works, I still have a lot to learn, I'll be honest with you, but it was it was great to get involved with some associations and get on the board to, to just learn how to navigate through that industry. So we decided to, you know, start kind of a recycling company. And that's kind of how we're positioned as a clothing recycling company. But we specialize in used bras and women use bras. And our goal is to work with retailers and distributors, and of course, consumers too, but to get them to change their mindset, and their policy of landfill burn and cut. Because guess what? That's what happens to many of the lingerie and particularly bras. They're, they're destroyed. And I think it's so wasteful.

Mary Allen 6:57
the textile industry. as a whole. It that's that's what happens. Absolutely.

Elaine 7:02
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mary Allen 7:04
So when did you start? What year, when was that?

Elaine 7:07
2008 is when we really started so I got the idea, around in early 2009 we really kicked off and we've been - I know I can't believe it's been that long. But you know, I wasn't in the business full time. You know, my husband works with many businesses, his name is Johnny.

Mary Allen 7:23
I love that

Elaine 7:23
And he came out about five, six years ago, one of us had to come out. And and because the business was growing, and someone he handles all of the operations in the warehouse and the shipping side of things. So he is a man who knows a lot about bras.

Mary Allen 7:37
I see them hanging all over your walls as well. So

Elaine 7:41
yes, exactly. Those are some great bras

Mary Allen 7:43
He's surrounded by them.

Elaine 7:45
Yes, we have. We were doing a bra decorating contest for a couple years. And it is so much fun. And I want to I want to do this again, because we get women that send us bras from all over the country. And they have amazing stories that go with them. And many times we get them from ladies in the shelters who will decorate the bras and then they tell their story. Again, it's another way to to educate people, you know, because, you know, domestic violence, human trafficking is not something a lot of people like to talk about

Mary Allen 8:14

Elaine 8:15
And so you know, we can do it in a way that is a little more palatable for people to make it so they get it they can hear and see the messages and this is just one another way to try to do that.

Mary Allen 8:25
Yeah, that's amazing. So 2008 I love the story, how you you saw a problem or a need and thought, what's the solution? How can we figure out how to remedy that or to work to help to try to solve it and and get as many people involved in the process. So I love it. Walk us through that process like so I know, as I got to know you I don't know how I found you initially it was another retailer, maybe something and I saw your logo. And it said the bra recyclers, and I thought well, and I get a lot of questions about textile recycling in particular, but I saw bra recyclers specifically and so I went to your website dug in a bit, fell in love with it. What you do how you do it, why you do it and thought I want to be a drop off location and to partner with what you were doing. I was just so impressed by it. And people have responded so well like and actually I have a box upstairs at the shop. It's at 30 pounds so far so we're waiting to 50 pounds to ship them all at once but we have about 30 pounds of bras and women are so happy to have a place to like you said so many have tags on them so many are brand new. I think I told you my so when I bought a bra online, and that's difficult, you know it's fit fit wise and all that but I fell in love with this company. They don't have any local places and so I got one, well they didn't even want it, it didn't fit properly.

Elaine 9:55

Mary Allen 9:56
and they didn't want it back. They said oh just keep it or give it to somebody and think Wow. So now we do have an option where we can send these bras and it's in, it's just fabulous knowing that they're not going to the landfill.

Elaine 10:09
Right, exactly.

Mary Allen 10:10
But theyre also going to a great cause and a good-

Elaine 10:13
right. Right. And that and that's our goal is to try to delay, you know, that process of them, you know about them going to the landfill. So when we look at that whole lifecycle of a bra, I mean, a lot of times, eventually, things end up there. And that's another issue as we talk about how we can you know, we talked about zero waste, it starts way at the manufacturing process. But, you know, our goal right now is to delay them from being dumped in the landfill. And so we're trying to do our little park aid.

Mary Allen 10:39
And get them used and to people who have a need. Absolutely, yes. And thank you for that. And you're able to fill people a need, in the meantime, so.

Elaine 10:47

Mary Allen 10:48
tell us more about that. So the process, whether what are the various ways of collection? How do you receive the bras? And then once you do have them, what does that look like? Where do they go? And how do you decide that,

Elaine 11:01
Sure. So in the process is comes from a couple different areas, so directly from the consumer, where they began, like, you find this on the website or social media, and then they go on to our website, you'll fill out the bra recycle form, and they mail them into us. So we get that they come that way. We also have have like, like you were saying, You're a drop off location. And thank you for that. For us where we have drop off locations around the country, actually. And you know, what's so amazing is a lot of our drop offs are small business owners like yourself, and women business owners, who just want to figure out how to give back in some way. And they, you know, this is such, it's such a women, you know, focus kind of cause and mission that they just jump to it, and they gravitate to it like we can give back. And we're giving back to women. And so I think that has really inspired a lot of women like yourself to say how can I get engaged? How can I get involved, so you can drop off at a drop off location. And then we have the other kind of outlet where we're working with directly with retailers or distributors, where we're actually getting their overstock and returns like, we're getting like 53 foot truckloads, you know, because you'll there's so many, and I think, you know, this returns is a huge issue for online retailers. And you know, the return policies nowadays, like you can try it, you know, try it and see if you like it, and then send it back.

Mary Allen 12:25

Elaine 12:26
So retailers are getting so much in that we work with them, instead of saying, Hey, okay, let's send that off to the landfill all the returns. We're working with them to set up a recycling program, where we can work with them to get those returns and over on Overstock, because again, many of them can't be used again.

Mary Allen 12:43

Elaine 12:44
so once it comes into us, we have a warehouse here in the Phoenix area. And I have to tell you, I'm so excited about this, we work with an amazing company called epi Hab. And epi hab is an organization that works with individuals who can't work in a normal work environment. So they could have something like epilepsy or some physical or mental challenge. But again, they want to work, they want to be productive, they want something to give back. So they work with us on sorting. So when the bras come in either from the mail or truckload, there's a sorting process. So in textile recycling, there's things called grades, and grades are basically the quality of the clothing. So things are divided out into grades. And so my husband, who was wonderful at training, he trains the staff to sort things into those grades. And from there, we get a couple of different things happen. So we get request in from the nonprofit's that we support. So that's the social impact side of what we do. We have about 120 nonprofits that are signed up with us when they need bras, we will hopefully hopefully we have that what they're looking for. And most time we do, they send in a request to us and we send them to them for free. So we make sure that you know they're already dealing with enough, they're on the ground on the frontlines helping these women, we want to make sure we make it as simple as possible to get them the bras they need for their ladies. So that's always we always want to first and foremost make sure that we use bras coming in to fill fulfill that need because again, that's why we started the company. We wanted to help meet that that issue or that need in the community.

Mary Allen 14:28
yes And I think there was that on your website of how many bras Have you donated? Was that-

Elaine 14:32
Yeah, over 4 million. And I mean, that is sometimes we don't even know how many because some people just there we have ambassadors everywhere just do bra drives and they just give them away in that community. But it's it's over 4 million donated around the world actually. So the other part of what we don't donate we work with some amazing partners, other textile recyclers and clothing exporters who will buy our excess. And when they buy our excess what they're doing is that they're going to be Getting those bras to other women and other developing countries around the world, which is even more amazing, because again, it doesn't it's not just right here in the US, but it's all over the world. Because in many places, it's not that easy to get a bra

Mary Allen 15:14

Elaine 15:15
can't just go down to your target or Baylor's north or wherever, you know, and just buy a bra. So it's tough to get a bra.

Mary Allen 15:23
And that's hard for people to understand that people don't have access to that.

Elaine 15:27
Absolutely. And we, you know, what's been amazing to me over the years is just some of the stories and hearing why a bra is so important. You know, like, just, again, right here in the US when we hear that a bra is a rape deterrent. I mean, how many people think about that, so as a woman on the street, your chances of being abused or raped are really high? Right? So you want to for many women, they want to hide the fact that they're feminine, or a woman. So a bra. So let's say you're a larger chested woman, a bra can help, you know, kind of hide the fact that you have breast, you know, because you don't want to show that you're a woman because you could be you could be attack. I mean, again, we don't think about that do we?. It's not something that we really think about, you know, we work with organizations, of course, we're working when they're trying to get them back into school or work. And of course, you want the right clothing.

Mary Allen 16:28
Yeah, sure.

Elaine 16:28
So, you know, a bra is one of those basic things that again, we I think many of us take for granted

Mary Allen 16:35
absalutely we do, yes,

Elaine 16:37
we take it for granted. And I think over the last couple of years, even more enlightening, for me, was working with an organization that deals with women in Africa, that are trying to educate and re educate the mothers and grandmothers of the various countries about breast ironing, and stopping that practice or look for alternatives to that practice. So breast ironing is a practice that has been going on for generations. So as girls come into puberty, they take this hot object and iron their breasts down, again, hoping that is going to stop them from being married off early, or from being attacked or abused. It is a horrendous practice. And so what they're trying to do is get the girls you know, as the girls begin to, you know, to develop, get them a bra instead of ironing their breast. And so just think about that. Just think about the emotional and physical. Just, oh my god,

Mary Allen 17:38
I can't imagine the trauma, especially at that age. Absolutely. And knowing that something we feel is so simple, something we have such easy access to, can be a solution to that.

Elaine 17:50
And think how that makes you feel about being a woman.

Mary Allen 17:52

Elaine 17:53
It's like, oh, wow, I guess it's not real good to be a woman if I got to get my breasts ironed down

Mary Allen 17:58
Oh, absolutely. And you know, and you think so many of us again, you know, when we grow up, it's kind of like this rite of passage. You pick out a little training bra or a bra. And it's just this experience that you have, that we really do take for granted. Where there's someone else it can, it's really a healing helpful alternative to kind of some barbaric practices,

Elaine 18:23
right? Or just safety think about, you know, we don't think about a bra being something for safety,, security, we just don't think about that. I had a amazing experience with a young lady here, friend of mine's daughter, and if this was her first bra, and I'm like, Okay, we need to just make this a great experience. And you know, and you think about that, and you don't you don't think about like just getting your first bra and how much of it like you were saying how it's just, it's like a grace, that passage into womanhood. And we just tried to make it fun. And we try to make it, you know, easy. And, you know, I brought all these colorful bras and things that she could pick from, but you know, to make it fun for like, Okay, this is this is not a bad thing. You know, this is the next stage of your life. But you know, many girls unfortunately, don't get that experience where, you know, we can work one on one like that and make it fun. And I bring these fun bras and colorful things, and we make it fun for you to do. But it's a shame that that cant be the experience for many girls or women, you know, in terms of their first bra.

Mary Allen 19:31
Absolutely. You know, I know I'm very much into the environmental aspect of things, you know. And so that was where my brain went first. And so I think when I but then when I was able to meet with you and we've had a couple conversations and you've shared about these other avenues of social good and the emotional and physical impact that these bras make that I never thought about and so it's just these layers of of goodness, I feel like with your Business and with what you're doing and then offering so many people around the country to participate with you in this. And so there is all that that social good, but really there is an environmental impact too. And I think what's great, I've heard you say you share the environmental impact with your partners, when they send in so many bra. So what does that look like? What's an average environmental impact? When folks send in?

Elaine 20:24
Great, great question, he, you know, one of the things that will help you, I think we haven't gotten your sustainability scorecard yet, but we'll be doing more for you, too, we always do one at a year. So you know, it's amazed, I think, from the standpoint of environmental impacts, you know, that whole dumping of things in the landfill? Well, we know, that's huge. And that not just for bras and under it for clothing in general things, you know, the whole fast fashion movement, and there's so much dumping of clothing into our landfills, and you know, many of those materials that clothes are made of, they don't break down well, it can take 20 years for, you know, some polyester to break down. So, you know, one of the things that we do when we with our partners or ambassadors is that we'll create as we you know, when your customers or followers send in their bras to us, you know, we scan them in, and we're able to keep that to say how many bras came in. And then we Khurana we create a sustainability scorecard. So you can see the impact that you're having also. And so you know, just as many as few as I'm gonna pull up a little sustainability scorecard here that I have, just for individuals, I have not actually on my website. So like just like a pound of bras, which is about seven to 10. Bras, I mean, just that many that is equivalent to the co2 emissions of like 1.2 gallons of gas or charging up like 1400. Smartphone. So we try to put it in a context that people could understand and people can relate to that. Yeah. So that, you know, I mean, I think when people look at that, and think about that, we're trying to make it so it's, it resonates somehow, or they can relate to it. Because I think you know, what I'm what I'm seeing is that this concept of sustainability and environmental impact is still so foreign. Yeah, I think we just don't know, people don't know enough about it, or they don't think they really can make a difference. So we're trying to figure out how do we do that? How do we get them to understand that, you know, if socially Yes, with women and girls in transition, you know, that we can see we can we get that. But it's that environmental piece that many of us just I think many consumers just don't get yet. Yeah. And we got to do try to do something to help educate them on that.

Mary Allen 22:40
Yes, absolutely. And I think you guys do a great job of doing that with with your website, and with like giving the sustainability cards and then those partners you work with, and they have the opportunity to share that impact with those people who had been dropping and donating at their locations. And so it's just that Apple effect of education. And it takes time, and just constantly just building little layers of awareness as we go. I think everyone's busy. Like, yeah, we just don't think about it. A lot of times we don't, it's convenient and easy. And we're not intentionally trying to be detrimental to the environment in any way. It's just that it just Oh, the broad doesn't fit anymore. Well, Goodwill doesn't take it will throw it away, right away. Absolutely. But I tell you, so many women who have come in with, you know, bag falls or falls to the shop, they, they are so grateful, because they said I've had these in my drawer, you know, and so many when we go up and down and pounds, particularly, you know, we save them. And then that's why a lot of times, our breasts are the first things they either get smaller or bigger when when that change happens. And so you but they said, you know, so I've gotten all these bras that just don't fit anymore, but I couldn't get rid of them. You know, so many people who are conscientious. They, but they're just taking up space. And they you know that I probably never wear this again. But I am so thankful to have an outlet. And and then for them to know, not just the environmental impact or not throwing it to the landfill, but then the social good as well.

Elaine 24:05
Exactly, exactly. And I think, you know, we're seeing what we've seen in some of the studies that have come out. Like there's a great one on from fashion for good. That talks about how the consumers are becoming increasingly more aware of the impact, particularly millennials and Gen Z. And, you know, they're starting to demand that, you know, retailers have some type of sustainability position, and they're willing to change brands. Yes, you know, they don't and I think it has to come from the consumer. It really does. Um, you know, unless we need to have some governmental legislations or, you know, some something that where there's some penalties if you're not, you know, manufacturing in a sustainable way or disposing of things, but the consumer and I think women we have the power, yes, you know, we really do in terms of where we Buy if you're like, okay, so ask them when you go to the store, and hey, what are you doing with your returns? And overstock? You know, many times when you return a bra, they cut them in half? So that they can not be worn and that is a very typical practice.

Mary Allen 25:13

Elaine 25:14
You know, ask them that

Mary Allen 25:15
what a great question, I wouldn't have known to even ask,

Elaine 25:19
ask them that. And they'll some of them might tell you maybe not. But many of them will say, Well, we have to dispose of them, you know, but then that's, again, again, a great time for you to say, hey, you know, the Bra Recyclers,

Mary Allen 25:29
Yes, I was just about to say that and there's a great opportunity. And now hopefully, people will know and can continue to spread. So are you always looking for more outlet? You know, more bras? Like,

Elaine 25:40
oh my god? Absolutely.

Mary Allen 25:42
It's not like you have too many

Elaine 25:43
we get requested. Sometimes we get more requests when we have bra so okay, we're always looking for more. And again, we know that with many retailers, that policy still is landfill burn or cut. So we still we got a long way to go, we got a long way to go to try to get to these, particularly the major retailers on board to start, you know, recycling programs. And again, I think as a consumer, you know, and as women, we have that power to start asking those questions and saying, Hey, we're gonna spend our dollar over here. Because you know, you guys aren't doing anything to help the planet and the people who live on it.

Mary Allen 26:24
Yes. Amen. I love that. Absolutely. And then the more we know, now we now we know to ask,

Elaine 26:30
absolutely. And our young people are, you know, they really are trying to take that charge and do that, which is amazing. Well, we need that.

Mary Allen 26:38
Yes, you're right, I am seeing that shift more and more. And it is encouraging. And it is about individual choices. But also, like you say corporate choices, and well, and as well, and legislation, and, and all of those things so that all those layers, I think, need to be worked on in tandem, you know, but

Elaine 26:56
exactly. And we have to work together. Yes, we have to work together to do this. And so that's why I think it's powerful when you say you're doing, you know, a podcast, because again, it helps get that word out again, and helps just bring people together to start to start having a conversation. Yeah, which is great that just had this conversation. And there's so many, there's some great outlets now where people can get online and talk or post. But I think what's really one of the things that we're doing is that we're looking at the United Nations sustainability development goals, and there's 17 of them. And they're really trying to get businesses and individuals, particularly businesses to make sure they're aligning with some of those goals. Because again, this is a global issue. And, you know, to have the UN really spearheading and saying here, let's lay this out, here's some templates, here's some, here's some ways that you can help bring this into your business and make sure it's integrated in it's been amazing. So it's been a really great exercise for me to go to also. And so we're going to be revamping our website, so we can show how we're aligning with some of the UN sustainability development goals. And it's not hard to do. But it again, it kind of brings you into this community of people who all have the same goal in mind, which is to save our planet and the people on it. Because we can't do it alone. Not one person can not just fix this

Mary Allen 28:23

Elaine 28:24
we have to do this together.

Mary Allen 28:25
Yes. Huh. That's so encouraging. Well, that's why I love like you said, just having a conversation, which is why I so appreciate you having this conversation with me today. And hopefully others will listen and be able to continue to spread that word and, and ask questions and be curious and ask

Elaine 28:44
be curious, absolutely

Mary Allen 28:45
The thing is just not even knowing what to ask. So it's just empowering to hear that from you to say, I like I didn't know is a typical practice to cut the bras. So again, we're all learning. And we we know, we need to ask those questions. So

Elaine 29:00
yeah, no cutting or just throwing them in the dumpster. That is a very typical, and unfortunately, it's a typical practice to do, which is unfortunate, because that doesn't, doesn't have to happen. You know,

Mary Allen 29:12
there's still a lot of good life left in it.

Elaine 29:14
A lot of good life. And there's a lot of people who need those items.

Mary Allen 29:19

Elaine 29:19
it'll impact but I mean, there's it can the social impact is there. So

Mary Allen 29:24
absolutely so many layers to it. So before I let you go, Elaine, is there anything else that you can think of that you would love for our listeners to know that we haven't shared?

Elaine 29:35
I think you know what, thank you first for having me on because I love to be able to share you know, get the word out about bra recycling and the impact it has on the environment and on our community. You know, one thing that is coming up for us and we're very excited about in 2022 is that we're going to expand our outreach and we want to do men's and boys underwear.

Mary Allen 29:55
Oh, I love it. Okay,

Elaine 29:56
we want to support the entire family.

Mary Allen 29:59

Elaine 29:59
and We are so excited about that. So we're going to be setting up an affiliated nonprofit off of our company so that we can support the entire family. And that's something that, you know, people have been asking us about. And I'm like, Okay, this is this is a good time. This is a good time for us to do that. So I'm very excited about that. 

Listen for more with Elaine. 

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