GILBERT – Inside a storage facility like any other, a husband and wife are working on a mission unlike any other.
The walls of the storage unit are lined from front to back with cardboard boxes that are filled with bras and other women’s underwear. The towers of boxes create two makeshift and cramped aisles.
Elaine Birks-Mitchell and her husband, Johnny Mitchell Jr., are getting ready to send out their latest shipment on a cloudy day in March, with a strong breeze sweeping through to cool the couple.
Recycling bras into a new life for women
“It’s a textile we don’t want you to throw them away. We want you to definitely recycle them,” said Birks-Mitchell.
The Mitchells make up the backbone of The Bra Recyclers. The business specializes in selling or donating repurposed undergarments. Their inventory consists of bras: all shapes, sizes, styles and colors.
The Bra Recyclers operates by buying large quantities of undergarments and textiles from thrift stores and other groups. The company donates its surplus undergarments to nonprofit organizations that need them.
The surplus garments are sent to organizations all over the country that, “are dealing with people that are in some sort of transition state,” said Birks-Mitchell. Foster children, battered women, women trying to recover from being homeless and other organizations receive the donations.
Locally, Helen’s Hope Chest, an organization that primarily helps foster children, the Clothes Cabinet that helps families that are homeless and Moma’s House, an organization helping survivors of domestic violence are among the groups that work with the Mitchells to provide bras and other undergarments, according to its website.
“As a woman, it’s a big self-esteem booster. When you don’t have one you realize how much it means to you when you do have one,” Birks-Mitchell said.
How one organization helps another
Until recently the husband and wife team did it all: picking up donations from people, thrift stores and even a Girl Scout troop. Then they sorted, repacked and shipped. Now, the couple needs more people to sort the donated garments.
Epi-hab Phoenix, Inc. a nonprofit for people with epilepsy and others challenges that make it difficult to work elsewhere, has taken on the task.
The Epi-hab facility stretches about 30,000 square feet. Several long tables have are placed across the main room, with each table as a step in the sorting assembly line.
The process starts with the Mitchells picking up boxes of donations from their P.O. box or their local business partners that collect bras for them, such as Flo’s on 7th and Dillard’s. The boxes are scanned in order to notify donors that their package was received. Next, the Mitchells hand the donations off to Epi-hab to sort the bras.
Sorting can stretch the length of the tables, with volunteers looking at different styles of bras on poster board as a sorting guide into three categories: new, gently used, and thrift.
New bras include bras that are donated with the price tag attached to it. Gently used includes garments that do not have a price tag and is still in good condition. Thrift includes bras that are older and getting worn out but still function.
Johnny Mitchell picks up boxes of the sorted bras from Epi-hab, drops off new garments to sort, and returns with the boxes to the Mitchells’ storage unit to be sent to organizations in need.
History of help
The Bra Recyclers have worked since 2009 to provide women with undergarments they cannot afford. The Mitchells hope something as basic as a bra will help ease the struggles the women are facing in their lives.
“I think a lot of people don’t think about something as simple a bra and what an impact it will have on a person’s life,” Birks-Mitchell said.
The Bra Recyclers accept anything they are sent by donors but if it’s unusable it’s sent to small businesses across the country that use bras for other unconventional purposes.
“There is a lady on the East Coast that takes used bras and takes the wire out and she sells the wire,” said Birks-Mitchell. Other groups recycle the fabric for carpets and textiles.
How to donate
Most people don’t realize that bras can be donated and recycled. Women buy bras they think they need, but most of time they sit in a drawer untouched, Birks-Mitchell said.
Donors can pack their unwanted garments and drop them off at a designated donation facility listed on the website. The donation center will then ship the garments to The Bra Recyclers.
People can also mail bras to The Bra Recyclers, 3317 S. Higley Rd, Ste 114-441 Gilbert, AZ 85297.
All donors must print, complete, and include The Bra Recyclers form with their donated garments. The form asks for contact information and if the donor wants to be notified when the package is received by The Bra Recyclers.
Donation centers and The Bra Recyclers form can be found on their website.