Let’s Talk Trash: Textile Waste

Textile Waste - World Threads Traveler - Cait Bagby / Sustainable Fashion

Let’s Talk Trash: Textile Waste

Textile Waste - World Threads Traveler - Cait Bagby / Sustainable Fashion

It’s spring time which means it’s time for the much loved (or much hated) spring cleaning. Time to sort through the items you no longer use and get rid of them. But, what really happens to all our discarded textiles? Is textile waste really a problem? Or, are all your unwanted goods going to a good place? Is there such a thing as clothing heaven? Time to talk trash and textile waste.

There are a couple of different types of textile waste. Waste created from surplus fabric production, textile waste from unsold clothing, and then of course, the clothing in your closet that you no longer need or find useful. Chances are you don’t own a textile manufacturing plant or a clothing store. Chances are you’re just an everyday consumer, like me, who every once in a while sorts through their closet determining what to keep and what to toss. And, because textile waste is such an enormous, often complex, topic let’s just focus on what happens once items leave your closet.

In households around the US, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, an estimated 80lbs of clothing and other textiles are thrown away, per person annually. Do your old jeans have a stain on them? Your old sweater a tear? Your underwear that you would never, ever donate – you probably ended up tossing them in the nearest bin with the thought no one else could ever wear this and/or I’ll never make any money trying to sell them. And you wouldn’t be wrong with these thoughts. But, textile waste accounts for 5% of all landfill waste. Approximately 70lbs of those 80lbs you’re probably going to discard this year will end up in the landfill. To put that into numbers that is 21 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste PER YEAR and that number isn’t showing any signs of shrinking. In fact, between 1999 and 2009 the volume of post-consumer textile waste grew by 40%.  A recent article in the LA Times by Elizabeth Cline demonstrated that even as some fast fashion retailers are closing their doors this is not indicative of a low price – high turnover – fashion slow down. In fact, it signals the exact opposite, with consumers turning to online, bottom price, “warp-speed” fashion. Our clothing spending isn’t slowing down which means all those facts and figures just mentioned will only continue to rise at a disastrous rate.

The problems with textile waste ending up in landfills are many and money is only the tip of the iceberg. Forty-five dollars is the estimated cost per ton your local municipality pays to have this waste sent to the landfill. In NYC that worked out to be roughly $20.6 million annually in 2016. That is your tax money being spent on just transporting and discarding unused clothing. I don’t know about you but I can imagine a couple other good uses for $20.6 million. Money aside what happens to those textiles once they reach landfills across the globe is becoming an issue of great concern.

Many of us falsely believe that if we buy an all-cotton shirt and throw it in the trash it’s not a big deal. After all isn’t cotton a natural fiber and sure to break down? Not exactly. Before a garment ever reaches your closet it goes through several processes that involve bleaching, dying, being printed on, and if it is anti-wrinkle or stain resistant went through a couple chemical baths. These chemicals leach from the textiles onto your skin the same way they will eventually leach into the ground, water and in the case that the textiles are incinerated – into the air. Synthetics, on the other hand, have the same environmental drawbacks while also being made from a petroleum based plastic which will take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Maybe you don’t put any of your textile waste in the bin. Maybe instead you send it all to charity, even those pieces you think nobody can wear. On average only 20 percent of clothing donated to charity is ever sold at their stores. The remaining 80 percent is sold off. Clothing that the charity shops cannot sell in their retail stores is then sold onto textile merchants, “who sort, grade, and export the surplus garments…” Textile merchants come in two forms – those who breakdown the fibers to be reused as cleaning rags, car upholstery, building insulation, carpet padding, or other miscellaneous uses. The second are those who then sell the clothing overseas. A quick google search on “second hand clothing sold overseas” renders numerous results telling of all the positives our clothing is doing when it is sent to other countries. But is this really the case for all our textile waste?

Before sent overseas the clothing is sorted. If there was anything the charity shops missed of relative high value it is sent to local vintage stores. The second nicest items are sent onwards to Japan, third to South America, and African countries get what’s left.  In 2014 alone, “a handful of East African countries imported more than $300 million worth of second hand clothing from the United States and other wealthy countries.” In turn this devastates the local clothing economy preventing local designers, manufactures, farmers, weavers, and stores from thriving. You know the saying – give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime? Our textile waste is providing a daily meal while denying the “world’s poorest ‘ways to climb out of poverty’“ While many of these countries have banded together to try and block the vast number of textile waste imports it is unlikely to succeed due to international pressures and potential political repercussions. (Highly recommend you check out Clothing Poverty by Andrew Brooks which goes into depth about the second-hand clothing market.)

Textile Waste – You Still Don’t Want it in Your Closet

I don’t blame you. It’s only natural to look through your closet and no longer find items that fit your current body, lifestyle, fashion choices – I get it! But armed with this information, facts, and figures what to do? Obviously my first piece of advice is going to be slow down your shopping habits. Evaluate where your clothing is coming from, how it is made, and what is your plan for its end of life. But, that’s not going to help you in the exact moment when you have piles or bags of clothing ready to be disposed of. To properly dispose of your textile waste there are a couple of different options.

1.     Use what you have: You don’t have to wear it but can it be reused? Can you use it as a cleaning cloth? Can you swap with friends? Can you sell it online to someone who has been looking for that skirt that got pulled off the shelf 12 months ago?

2.     Donate: Donate good quality items that you might not find elsewhere. Many charity shops won’t even entertain the idea of selling a top or bottom from H&M, Forever 21, or Zara because the quality is poor. If they won’t sell it, don’t donate it. Don’t know? Give them a call.

3.     Closed Loop Systems: Look for closed loop systems and companies that will take back their clothing. Companies like North Face, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and H&M all offer programs to send your old clothing in to be recycled and reused. But, be weary of green washing as big chain promoted closed loop systems are somewhat new and can be a breeding grounds for greenwashing.

4.     Go Local: Many states, cities, and towns now offer collection points for post-consumer textile waste. And even though it may be local no one is going to know if that’s your old pair of undies – although I highly recommend you wash before giving.

Even a small reduction in textile waste would bring about major positive environmental impact. The EPA estimates that by simply “diverting all those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.”

I don’t know about you but some of the things I love most about spring is the fresh air, the smell of budding flowers, and the promise of warmer weather. It would be a shame to see it all disappear because our spring cleaning is actually doing more harm than good.

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