Good intention or public nuisance? Cities brace for a resurgence of clothing donation bins
When they first started popping up around town, the colorful metal collection bins for donated shoes and clothing didn’t cause much of a stir in Stanton.
And then they multiplied.
“Within a year, they were all over the city, specifically on Beach Boulevard,” said City Manager James Box, whose Orange County municipality is among many in Southern California that have seen a proliferation of the receptacles in recent years.
With the bins have come blight and other problems, local officials say, not to mention a rash of complaints about overflowing drop boxes that often attract jettisoned mattresses, broken furniture and piles of garbage. Dozens of cities, including Stanton, have passed laws in the last couple of years to ban them.
“It did make a difference,” Box said. “Prior to that ordinance going into effect, there were 38 boxes visible from Beach Boulevard. They are not there now.”
But they could be back, and soon.
In an April decision with far-reaching ramifications, federal appellate judges in a Michigan lawsuit deemed the bins a form of constitutionally protected speech. The ruling already has spurred cities there and in California to start replacing their bans with laws that will permit the ubiquitous boxes but regulate them.
Some are owned by charities and some by commercial recyclers seeking to turn rags into riches. Many have been placed with property owners’ permission, but others have shown up seemingly out of nowhere, plunked down under cover of darkness at shopping centers and on public sidewalks, even in disabled-parking spaces.
“They were randomly placed anywhere and everywhere,” said Pat Anderson, head of the Chamber of Commerce in La Cañada Flintridge. “Like mushrooms, they’d just pop up in the middle of the night.”
Businesses and nonprofits that own the bins say they keep untold tons of discarded shoes and clothing out of landfills and, in some cases, proceeds from the sale of donated goods go toward humanitarian efforts around the globe.
Opponents counter that any good works that stem from the boxes are outweighed by the nuisance factor.
Some cities, including La Cañada Flintridge, have sought to regulate the boxes through the enforcement of zoning laws. Although not banned outright, they are not permitted by the city’s codes, even with the property owners’ permission.
Officials there have been tracking down and asking bin owners to remove them. Some have complied, some have promised to and some have had their boxes carted off to the dump by irate property owners.
For Stanton and other cities that banned the boxes, the decision in the Michigan case is a bitter legal pill, served up by Planet Aid, a controversial Massachusetts nonprofit with 20,000 donation bins across the country, including about 1,500 in Southern California.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit Planet Aid filed last year against the city of St. Johns, Mich., contending its ban on boxes violated the charity’s 1st- and 14th-Amendment rights to free speech and equal protection. Among other things, Planet Aid alleged discrimination because its two boxes were removed while organizations with buildings, including Goodwill, continued accepting donations.
The city denied it was targeting Planet Aid bins.
“It targets all collection bins, regardless of their underlying purpose,” lawyers for St. Johns said in court papers. “The city is regulating a use, not speech. The issue of ‘charitable donations’ is a red herring and not relevant in this case.”
A federal district court sided with Planet Aid and ordered a temporary halt on enforcing the ban.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, applying the most rigorous form of judicial review, “strict scrutiny,” which presumes a law to be invalid. To overcome that ruling, the city would have to prove the law’s constitutionality and demonstrate “a compelling governmental interest” in keeping it.
Michael Bogren, St. Johns’ attorney, said strict scrutiny is almost always fatal when applied to challenged laws. He said he thinks the appellate judges “got it wrong,” but that it would be all but impossible for the city to prevail.
“Once the 6th Circuit ruled, there was really no point in us continuing our litigation,” he said. “At that point, we had no choice but to reach an agreement with Planet Aid.”
Within days of the Michigan ruling, Planet Aid lawyers sued Stanton, as well as Corona in Riverside County and Alhambra in Los Angeles County, and then used the appellate decision to force all three cities to the table to negotiate new laws. Its lawyers are working with the cities’ attorneys on the language.
“We are looking forward to seeing these cities’ proposed regulations,” Planet Aid Chief Executive Ester Neltrup said in a statement. “Planet Aid supports proper regulation because we are in this for the long term. We want to encourage more recycling of clothing in a way that works for the communities we serve. But banning all donation boxes was the wrong thing to do.”
Much is at stake for the organization, which says it gets property owners’ permission before placing its bright yellow boxes, and that it maintains them well and responds quickly to complaints.
In Alhambra alone, court records state, Planet Aid had collected 589,000 pounds of clothing as of September 2013, when the ban took effect. In all, according to its website, Planet Aid recycles about 102 million pounds of used clothing, shoes and textiles each year, selling it all and using the proceeds to support its causes.
In 2013, Planet Aid reaped $42 million from the sale of donated goods, according to its most recent IRS tax-exemption filings. It reported spending more than $12 million on humanitarian and development projects, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The organization calculates that, after subtracting expenses for collecting and processing donations, it spends 85% of its revenue on charity.
The organization meets the Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability.
But for years it has come under fire from the philanthropy watchdog Charity Watch, which contends that Planet Aid’s recycling costs — $25 million in 2013 — should be counted as fundraising expenses. When calculated that way, Planet Aid spends only about 29% on charity, the watchdog group said.
Planet Aid officials dispute Charity Watch’s analysis.
Founded in 1997, Planet Aid has been linked by numerous media outlets in the United States and abroad to a Danish fugitive, Mogens Amdi Petersen, 76, who is wanted in Denmark on tax-evasion and embezzlement charges.
Danish prosecutors accused him more than a decade ago of embezzling millions of dollars from the Tvind organization, also known as the Tvind Teachers Group, established in the early 1970s as an alternative school system for troubled youths in Denmark. Petersen, whose detractors accuse him of fronting a secular cult, was eventually acquitted, but fled the country when prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict.
Multiple news outlets have published reports linking Tvind to Planet Aid, which denies significant ties.
“There is no organizational or financial connection between Planet Aid and Tvind,” it said in a statement.
Although the Michigan ruling is not binding in other judicial districts, lawyers involved in the lawsuits said it effectively set precedent because federal courts in California and elsewhere would likely defer to it. With no real legal recourse, they said, they have little choice but to let the bins back in.
John Higginbotham, Corona’s assistant city attorney, called the ruling “a poorly reasoned decision,” but predicted that Planet Aid will try to parlay it to roll back other bans.
“Before that decision there wasn’t really any authority closely on point when it comes to these donation bins,” he said. “Now they’ve got a case that’s directly on point and they can go around the country and use it to try to effectuate change.”
Daniel Dalton, Planet Aid’s attorney, said the nonprofit is seeking only fair treatment and reasonable regulation. The California lawsuits are on hold while he and the cities’ attorneys work out details of new ordinances, which probably will set limits such as how much separation there must be between bins.
No new litigation is in the works against other cities with bans, Dalton said. But he’s not ruling it out.
“We want to get these resolved before we take the next step,” he said. “We don’t want to file lawsuits. We want to work with communities to come up with agreeable ordinances.”
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