From Shoulder Pads to Recycled Bras

Fashion entrepreneur heading town’s litter committee reflects on ‘labor of love’
Kathleen Kirkwood, chairwoman of East Hampton Town’s Recycling and Litter Committee, spoke about sustainable fashion at the Nasdaq MarketSite in Manhattan last month. Alison Savitch

It was late in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day when the East Hampton Town Recycling and Litter Committee met at Town Hall. Just three days earlier, Kathleen Kirkwood, a committee member since 2012 and its chairwoman since 2016, was one of 38 entrepreneurs to address a group at the Nasdaq MarketSite, in Manhattan’s Times Square. She spoke about sustainable fashion. 

But on this day, the energetic Ms. Kirkwood was leading the committee, with Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, its liaison to the town board, attending, through an agenda that saw discussion and planning on topics including a pilot program denoting carry-in-carry-out policies at beaches and other public places; the town’s adopt-a-road program; legislation and a public service announcement to ban plastic straws; roadside trash elimination, and the town’s recent votes to prohibit polystyrene and the intentional release of balloons. 

Rona Klopman, the committee’s secretary, proposed a ban on smoking on the town’s beaches at the meeting (cigarette butts, the most commonly littered item in the United States, are full of toxins as well as a form of plastic called cellulose acetate). Eleven days later that suggestion was brought to the East Hampton Town Trustees, who discussed parameters of such a ban, agreeing to support legislation that would decrease that form of litter. 

For Ms. Kirkwood, who lives in Montauk and Manhattan, recycling comes naturally. As a successful fashion entrepreneur, it has been a part of her business for the better part of a decade. Her career, in fact, demonstrates a talent for reinvention. 

“At 19, I became a model,” the Valley Stream native said. Shortly after signing with the Ford agency, however, “I got hit by a car.” 

She suffered no permanent damage, but her contract was canceled. “I was wearing beautiful clothing,” she remembered. “Even though I lost my job, so to speak, I still wanted to wear that clothing, so I figured out a way to hack the system.” 

It was the 1980s — the era of the padded shoulder — and in 1982, Ms. Kirkwood invented the clip-on shoulder pad by removing them from clothing and affixing them to bra straps with Velcro. Quickly, friends asked for them, and the following year, Bloomingdale’s ordered the first of her Pints of Pads, which came in a container that resem bled a pint of ice cream. Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom followed, and the invention soon went international.

“Oprah called me,” Ms. Kirkwood said, and after appearing on Ms. Winfrey’s program as well as on CNBC and CNN, in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and in Forbes and Fortune magazines, the QVC home shopping network offered a venue for her products. “Because of the volume of pads I was making, I was able to make more things, like bras and shapewear,” Ms. Kirkwood said. “I brought all of that to QVC.” 

On an overseas trip, “I witnessed a shipment of bras to Victoria’s Secret from the Chinese factory.” It took 16 hours, she said, for a month’s supply to be loaded into a caravan of tractor-trailers. “They let me know that they ship about 14 million bras a month.” 

The experience spurred an epiphany: bras, comprising polyurethane foam, polyesters, nylons, and metal, should not end up decomposing for centuries in a landfill, or emitting toxic gases when incinerated. Rather, bras, some 500 million of which are sold in the United States annually, should be recycled. “It was my ‘Aha’ moment,” she said. 

In 2010, she founded the Bra Recycling Agency, or B.R.A., which enables people to send old bras to a recycling plant, where they are shredded and pulverized and then processed into carpet padding. Early on, “Maidenform and some other brands donated a couple of tons of bras, and I shipped them to my first plant,” in Cumberland City, Tenn., Ms. Kirkwood said. “I spent about a week there, grinding, chopping, doing all sorts of things. They put magnets over the top of the grind so that the metal from the underwire came up.”

“They put them through sifters, and the plastic ring and slide come out,” she said. This is also recycled, and the remainder is turned into carpet padding. “Turning bras into commercial carpet padding has been a labor of Mother-Earth love,” she said. 

Ms. Kirkwood has created three business models to support B.R.A.’s work. Retailers can purchase customized recycling bins or mail-in envelopes encouraging women to recycle and buy new. Brands and manufacturers can also license a B.R.A. certification, allowing them use of the logo to publicize their environmentally friendly participation on product labels, hangtags, social media, and advertising and marketing materials. 

Most recently, advertising directly to consumers has become the primary effort to grow and support B.R.A. Women who text “BRA” to 79274 receive a free, downloadable mailing label to print, affix to a box or envelope, and mail to B.R.A.’s recycling center. Sponsors’ advertising on texts and labeling is allocated to the effort, which includes processing, sanitizing, and transportation, among other expenses. As volume has grown, Ms. Kirkwood has appropriated revenue from recycling of bras’ steel underwire to breast cancer research. “Don’t burn your bra, recycle it,” is the slogan. 

The litter and recycling committee will meet again on March 22 at 11 a.m. in the meeting room at Town Hall. The public is invited to attend. “Our committee always has ambitious goals,” Ms. Kirkwood said, “and welcomes new members to join or participate when they can so we have boots on the ground to motivate the players and leaders in the community to revise, repurpose, rethink, and, if all goes well, rejoice.”