The EPA estimated that in 2012 alone, more than 80 percent of unwanted clothing was disposed of in landfills or incinerated, rather than recycled, repurposed, or donated to charitable organizations. Throwing away clothes is not only detrimental to the environment; it’s also a waste of money. The average US municipality pays more than $45 per ton of waste transported to landfills.
Not only are Americans throwing away their old clothing at an alarming rate, the decomposition of natural fibers like silk and cotton, and semi-synthetic fibers such as modal and rayon, generates large amounts of greenhouse gasses. Even natural fabrics cannot usually be composted due to the manufacturing process, and if these textiles are incinerated, the chemicals used during production may be released into the atmosphere or leach into groundwater. Synthetic fabrics are no better because they degrade more slowly, or never fully biodegrade at all.
Many people think that clothing cannot be recycled, but that’s not the case. Read on to learn more about how clothing is produced and what happens to it when you donate or recycle it.
The Problem with Fast Fashion
While some retail clothing stores work to incorporate recycled clothing into their product offerings, they also contribute to the problem because of so-called “fast fashion.” Large clothing retailers produce millions of garments yearly at low cost. Because they’re so cheap, people can afford to buy items often, wear them a few times, cast them aside, and repeat. On average, an item of clothing from the typical fast fashion brand lasts just five weeks in a woman’s wardrobe, according to the documentary The True Cost. These cheap garments are made to be treated like plastic bags—used a few times for convenience, then discarded in favor of something new. In addition, in some cases, manufacturers produce garments faster than they can be sold, leaving a large amount of clothes to be discarded or recycled before anyone even wears them.
When people attempt to recycle or repurpose fast fashion, they may run into roadblocks. Many will take their unwanted clothes to consignment or secondhand stores that pay for donations so the clothes can then be resold at a discount. Unfortunately, many of these shops refuse clothes for a variety of reasons, including poor fabric condition, stains, or because the garment is out of season or no longer trendy. In some cases, the stores will refuse donations simply due to the sheer volume of items they receive on a regular basis.
While charities are more likely to accept old clothes, these organizations usually aren’t simply setting the items back on the shelf for someone to buy. Charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army cannot sell all the clothing donations they receive. Items not sold in stores are baled up and sent to textile recyclers, who sort through the garments and divide them by material and quality. The clothes might be cut into rags for auto shops, or chopped up and sold to manufacturers to use as insulation and padding. The rest is packaged and shipped overseas, mainly to South America, Eastern Europe, and Africa.
Challenges in Recycling Textiles
As it currently stands, many clothing fibers aren’t able to be recycled into wearable clothing. Pure cotton textiles can be taken apart and rewoven into new textiles, but if that cotton is dyed or blended with other materials (as most cotton is), this process does not work. Clothing made of treated cotton yields a shorter, lower-quality fiber when it is broken down for recycling—a fiber that must be woven with new materials to produce a fabric that doesn’t rip or tear at the first signs of stress. This is why you’ll often see garments labeled “recycled,” but the percentage of reused fibers they contain is rarely more than 20 percent. If it were made with a greater percentage of recycled fibers, the garment would likely be too delicate to wear.
Another major issue with recycling textiles is that to make a new garment, the old clothes must be heavily processed in order to clean and separate reusable material from waste. According to the director of the University of Arizona’s School of Family and Consumer Sciences, recycling textiles is a painfully slow process that still relies heavily on human intervention. Machines are not able to completely recycle clothes from start to finish, despite advances in technology.
Consumers may find themselves in a dilemma when it comes to doing the best thing for the planet when getting rid of clothes they no longer want or need. Currently, donating unwanted items to charitable organizations and thrift stores is better than throwing them straight in the trash, as it increases the likelihood that these items will be reused somehow.
However, an even better solution is to reduce the amount of clothing you buy in the first place. The next time you’re considering buying a new shirt, ask yourself: Do I really need this? Do I have something similar in my closet already? Will I still want to wear it in five years? Being more conscious of what you buy can go a long way toward stemming the tide of clothing waste.