Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) estimates that 85% of the clothing Americans buy usually ends up in landfills. People donate most of the rest to charities.
You might think that when you donate clothes to, say, your local Salvation Army, it will sell them in their store and thus they will stay local. It doesn’t necessarily work that way.
First of all, lets take a good look at the clothes we buy. Most of us, especially in hard times, want to stretch our money as far as possible. When we buy clothes, we look at the price tag and think little of it.
The cheapest clothes on the market are manufactured in third world countries, Bangladesh, for example. I like to make a distinction between inexpensive and cheap. Expensive or not refers to price. Cheap or not refers to quality. Unfortunately cheap clothing (among other products) is not necessarily inexpensive.
Remember the clothing factory in Bangladesh that collapsed earlier this year? It was in a shoddily constructed, substandard building. Besides an unsafe building, factory owners provided bad working conditions and paid workers as little as possible. That’s why Bangladesh is the world’s second-leading clothing exporter.
Bangladesh factories make clothing for most of the largest brands and retailers in the world. They must make top-of-the-line products, but the least expensive clothing is made not only by exploited workers, but from cheap materials. The manufacturing process emphasizes speed over quality.
So people buy cheap clothing and wear it for a while. Let’s imagine that they are not the sort of people who just simply throw all their discards in the trash. They donate it to a thrift shop. What then?
Thrift shops typically mark all items of a particular type at the same price. In other words, good quality clothing and cheap clothing will cost the same. No discerning customer will buy the cheap clothing.
Fortunately, the stores don’t landfill what they can’t sell. For unsalable clothing, there are textile recyclers.
Textile recyclers actually buy and sell nearly half of the clothing Americans donate to thrift stores. It goes all over the world.
And in whatever country it ends up, no one wants to buy the cheap stuff there, either.
Recycling, of course, implies making something new out of discards, as distinct from reselling them as is to someone else.
What about sheets, towels, and other fabric items that have disintegrated to the point where they’re no longer usable at all?
They’re still recyclable.
Used fabric can obviously serve as rags. Among other uses, rags have long been a necessary ingredient in high-quality paper.
Less obviously, even the most tattered textiles can be taken apart into their individual fibers. Quite a number of new products can come from these fibers:
- pillow stuffing
- carpet padding
- sound proofing
- and more
And let’s not forget quilts, a time-honored way of repurposing worn-out clothes, and other textile arts and crafts.
Americans have gotten used to putting bottles, cans, and paper out to the curb for municipal recycling services. But we can’t put fabric there. What alternatives exist for fabric recycling, besides a thrift shop’s leftovers?
Much like most of us can recycle plastic bags at grocery stores, San Franciscans can take fabrics to stores and schools.
If you don’t live anywhere that provides any organized attempt to collect fabric for recycling, you can still mail it to Donate Stuff.
But unfortunately, available options are nowhere near good enough. Even for easily recyclable products, Americans have become too complacent about the convenience of tossing stuff into the trash to participate fully.
Meanwhile, people still emigrate to the United States from all over the world to enjoy the advantages our country offers. Immigrants have gone on to become some of our most innovative citizens for generations now.
But why should we wait for some future immigrant to think of ideas to boost our recycling rates so we don’t have to ship so much trash back to wherever he or she will come from?
Report on Deadly Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Finds Widespread Blame / Jim Yardley (New York Times).
The Global Afterlife of Your Donated Clothes / Jackie Northam (NPR)
Rag Sorters + Textile Recycling: How to Recycle Your Unwanted Fabric
Textile recycling triangle. Some rights reserved by miltedflower.
Quilt from reclaimed fabric. Some rights reserved by denise carbonell.
Goodwill drop-off bin. Wikimedia Commons