Used jeans go green: U.C. student turns your pants into housing

With even the local Goodwill getting picky regarding standards for the quality and style of merchandise for sale, it’s tough not to wonder what happens to the millions of articles of clothing donated to charity that aren’t quite up to par. Sadly, the bulk these items ends up in landfills for one reason or another.

Of course, everyone knows that nothing lasts forever — especially clothing. But with trends moving faster than the time it takes to wear out a pair of jeans, disposable fashion has become a fad in and of itself, adding exponentially to the amount of textiles being heaped at the dump.

In 2009, intrigued by a notice in National Geographic Magazine for a contest aimed at helping the environment, nine-year-old Erek Hansen decided to do his part to keep some of this textile waste from taking place. The grade-schooler participated in the competition by collecting as many unwanted pairs of jeans as he could wrangle and sending them in to Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green recycling program.

Hansen worked hard organizing and promoting his project. He held denim drives in his school and local community and his efforts paid off. He was invited to Washington, D.C. to visit the headquarters of National Geographic. His face graced the publication’s pages as the largest single donor to the cause. Hansen had collected 1,700 articles of denim to be recycled into insulation for low-income housing. But that was just the beginning.

Hansen has continued to take part in the program every year since. Now a freshman in Chemical Engineering at University of Cincinnati, the Toledo native has brought his talents for organizing the yearly denim drive with him. This April, he celebrated 10 years of participation in Go Green Ohio with a collection event held at U.C. centered around Earth Day.

Hansen partnered with U.C.’s Engineers Without Borders to help out with promoting the event and recruiting volunteers. But even with that support and his years of experience doing the drive, the response wasn’t quite what he was used to. Setting up shop in a new city was somewhat challenging due to a lack of local awareness for the project. Still, he is optimistic that his first denim drive in Cincinnati will get the ball rolling for next spring’s event.

“Overall, throughout the semester we got about 620 pairs of jeans, which is actually a pretty good turnout for the first year,” says Hansen. “But it was kind of difficult, we had tabling events where we’d just sit at these tables for a few hours and hand out flyers and talk to people about it. The biggest problem is just getting the word out to everybody.”

“There’s a lot of students that go to U.C. and that live in the Cincinnati area, so the more people that know about it the more receptive people will be to donating their denim,” continues Hansen. “Word of mouth is a great way to do this, because if your roommate’s parents know someone that wants to hold a denim drive, then that’s a lot of jeans that just come in.”

As far as monetary donations are concerned, Hansen says they aren’t necessary; he just wants peoples’ jeans.

“The only real fundraising we do is to pay for shipping. Luckily for the collegiate program, Cotton ships everything so I didn’t have to ship anything this year,” he says.

And if there is any doubt that those donated jeans are going to a good cause, Hansen explains that the method of transformation and ultimate use is quite practical.

“All the jeans go through this process and get demetalized, and they’re turned into this Ultratouch Blue Jeans insulation. The insulation goes to Habitat for Humanity and they use it in the houses that they build for people that are affected by natural disasters,” he says.

He adds that the recycled denim insulation is of superior quality to traditional insulation and is safer and easier to work with. “It’s way safer. You can touch it!” says Hansen.

As he celebrates ten years of helping the environment and humankind, Hansen is grateful not only for these more obvious benefits, but for the positive influence this work has had on him as an individual.

“Personally, it’s been so awesome for me to work on this,” he says. “Not only do I get to meet new people, I also get to keep all of these jeans out of the landfill and make a positive difference in the world. But it’s also helped me grow as a person in that I’ve been running this organization for 10 years, so it definitely gives me experience doing all sorts of stuff.”

Learn more about donating your unwanted denim by visiting

Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.

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