A few years back, Kathleen Kirkwood was overseeing a massive shipment of bras leaving Hong Kong via container ship when she had an environmental epiphany. The fashion maven, best known for her foam bras and spandex shapewear on QVC (and her clip-on foam shoulder pads in the ‘80s) suddenly realized that all her sexy creations amounted to a whole lot of waste at the end of their useful life.

“I thought, we have to start recycling bras,” she recalls. “Let me go back to New York and find a company that does this. I’ll put it on my hang tags so I can be this super-cool designer. But lo and behold, there was nothing going on.”

Even worse, Kirkwood’s research confirmed the problem was even bigger than she’d imagined. Some 500 million bras — made of toxic materials such as polyurethane foam, which off-gases dangerous VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and doesn’t biodegrade for centuries — are tossed into U.S. landfills each year or are incinerated.

Kirkwood, a former Ford model who’s appeared on "Oprah," knew what she had to do. If no one else was recycling bras (actually breaking them down and reusing the materials), she would add green waste management to her list of entrepreneurial exploits and do it herself.

bras collected for recyclingThese colorful bras will be recycled and end up on the red carpet someday. (Photo: Kathleen Kirkwood)
Making green fashionable

Not very glamorous, perhaps, but Kirkwood launched B.R.A., the Bra Recycling Agency, in 2010 and set about partnering with a recycler.

“Garbage is a heavily male field,” she says. “It’s just the boys.” So it took a while to drum up interest and then figure out how to remove the steel underwire in a non-labor-intensive way. Once she worked out the kinks, intimate apparel giant Maidenform collected and donated 1.2 tons of bras for a pilot test (which Kirkwood filmed). Watch the video below.

The bras were successfully shredded and pulverized. The metal was removed via industrial strength magnets and sent to a metal recycler for cash (100 percent of which was donated to the MetroHealth Foundation to fund breast cancer research). And the ground-up soft foam and fabric was repurposed into red carpet cushion padding for celebrity and VIP events.

“As they say in magic, ta da!” Kirkwood says. Bra recycling was finally ready for prime time.

From eureka moment to reality

Call it Kirkwood’s way of giving back. “The fashion industry as a whole is not cutting edge,” she says. “If they don’t jump on some kind of sustainable or green bandwagon, the new kids who are coming up will knock over the Goliaths. This is part of staying relevant — my contribution to an industry that’s been good to me and provided me this great career.”

Not that there haven’t been bumps along the way. Like figuring out how to pay for B.R.A. “People don’t understand that recycling isn’t a charity,” Kirkwood says. “It’s a big business.” In other words, don’t expect repurposing of all your out-of-style or ill-fitting bras to be free.

Women (and the men who love them) can currently participate in Kirkwood’s program in several ways. One is by texting BRA to 79274, or filling out an online form, to receive a mailing label that can be printed and put on an envelope or box for shipping old bras to the recycler. You can also buy a B.R.A. recycling e-kit for $5, which offers a mailing label plus special product discounts and promos from sponsors.

Girl Scouts of Nassau County participate in bra recyclingGirl Scouts of Nassau County help collect bras for recycling. (Photo: Girl Scouts of Nassau County)
Another way to participate is by raising bra recycling awareness — and funds — at your charity event. First, find organizations or individuals to sponsor B.R.A.’s message — or Kirkwood will find them for you. Then for $1,000, she sends a piece of red carpet and cushion for your event made from recycled bras — a yard of cushion requires about 175 pounds of bras — with signage and stickers to promote sponsors. You keep any additional sponsorship funds and donations for your charity. Afterwards, simply roll up the carpet into the included shipping tube and send it back for re-recycling.

Kirkwood is also on a mission to find retailers willing to get involved (i.e., pay for bra recycling). She’s currently in discussions with the largest bra retailer in the U.S. and envisions stores carrying bra recycling bins, offering mail-in envelopes at check-out, and encouraging consumers to text for mail-in labels (in exchange for special store promotions, including discounts on new bras). In addition, Kirkwood offers recycling certification that bra companies can promote (for a fee) on their hang tags.

Greening an entire industry is never easy, but the “queen of shapewear” says it’s all part of her evolving 35-year journey as a pioneer and innovator in the fashion world.

“This all relates back to the beginning and my shoulder pads,” says Kirkwood. “In the end it’s about how much foam we use as a society, how much is going into landfills, and the lack of recycling choices.”