People are buying more clothes than ever before but not keeping them as long. Too much of it winds up in landfills. Thrift stores receive more donations than they can sell. Textile recycling remains little known. We need to recycle clothing much more than we do to get control of the glut.
Textiles have a bad carbon footprint. They contribute to the larger problem of plastic waste. After all, much of it is made of polyester and nylon. Plastics. And every time those fabrics go through a wash cycle, they shed microplastics. Our wastewater treatment plants can’t filter out microplastics, so they all end up in the oceans.
What’s more, the fashion industry accounts for about 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
The sheer volume of clothing the fashion industry churns out creates its own environmental problems. We have yet to devise effective and creative ways to deal with textile waste.
Worldwide, people buy more and more clothing—60% more than just 15 years ago. At current rates the 56 million tons of clothing bought each year will increase to 93 million tons in less than 10 years and 160 million tons in less than 30 years. And people discard 92 million tons of clothing every year. By 2030, that figure is expected to rise to 134 million tons.
According to some estimates, Americans on average each throw out 81 pounds of clothing every year. And unfortunately, that amount includes clothing that has never been worn. About 85% of it winds up in landfills or incinerators. We fail to see value in old clothing.
Meanwhile, textile recycling lags far behind other recycling. The world recycles 66% of its paper, 29% of its plastic, 27% of its glass, and less than 14% of its clothing and shoes. And less than 1% of used clothing gets turned into new clothing.
The problem of fast fashion waste
Fast fashion is a business model that makes trendy clothing at high volume and low cost. What’s trendy today will be passé tomorrow. It doesn’t matter to customers that the clothing is not made with high-quality materials or workmanship. It’s cheap and expendable.
It also comes with a high environmental cost. The fashion industry alone emits as much greenhouse gas as all of the European Union. It uses a tremendous amount of water, and the process of dyeing fabric sends polluted water back into rivers and streams.
Making clothing also requires a lot of energy and, ultimately, a lot of fossil fuels. And that’s quite apart from the petroleum needed to make polyester.
The time it takes from design to retail shelves is known as lead time. H&M operates on a lead time of eight weeks. That’s slow compared to Zara’s lead time of two weeks. Haste makes waste–both pre-consumer and post-consumer textile waste.
What’s more, much of the manufacturing actually takes place in third-world countries. People, mainly young women, have working conditions. The US Department of Labor has determined that some factories use forced and child labor.
Fast fashion customers appreciate the low prices for trendy clothing but don’t value the clothing itself. What does it matter if some of it falls apart after a few washings? A new trend has come along since then. Time to get rid of the old and buy more of the new.
The effects of the clothing glut
Most consumers toss unwanted clothing in the trash. But people donate so much that thrift stores can’t sell it all. Thus the great need for textile recycling.
Thrift shops normally put out like items at the same price. All shirts, for example, or all handbags, or all shorts cost the same. Discerning buyers will notice that a low-quality skirt costs the same as the high-quality skirt next to it. So the good stuff moves out quickly. The cheap stuff takes up space until it’s clear no one will buy it.
What happens to clothing American and European thrift stores can’t resell? Most of it ends up in Africa.
It’s a boon for African shoppers. It’s not at all unusual to see people in African slums wearing luxury clothing or carrying handbags from such high-end retailers as Armani, Gucci, or Prada. Africans, too, know how to choose the best of available used clothing.
But it’s a hindrance to African nations trying to develop their own domestic textile industry. They want become producers and not just consumers of finished products but face a surprising barrier.
The US passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000 to assist economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. It enables eligible countries to export more than 5,000 products to the US duty free. Unfortunately, the act requires them to import used clothing in exchange.
Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda have moved to ban used shoes and clothing from their markets. American traders objected. They have nowhere else to send surplus clothing, and the ban could put 40,000 American jobs at risk. The US government threatened to remove these countries from AGOA. This impasse has lasted since 2017.
And what happens to clothing so cheap Africans won’t buy it? They lack the infrastructure to deal with so much textile waste.
Recycling clothing has a better social impact than dumping it on African countries that don’t want it.
Textile recycling to the rescue?
Collecting recyclable fabric
We speak of “reduce, reuse, recycle” as the 3 Rs of sustainability. When we donate used clothing and someone else buys and wears it, that counts as reuse. So what is recycling clothing?
I volunteer at a thrift store that supports a ministry for women recovering from addictions, sexual abuse, etc. Like any other thrift store, it can’t resell anything stained, ripped, threadbare, or mildewed. It sends lots of unsalable materials to Goodwill.
Goodwill, along with some other well-known national thrift shops, sends unsalable clothing, linens, towels, etc. to textile recyclers. Its personnel must sort unusable materials from what it can sell. We have no reliable machine sorting of fabrics yet. It requires a skilled workforce to do it by hand—a slow and tedious process.
Too many people find actually taking stuff to a thrift shop too inconvenient. So some companies collect clothing through public donation bins, which may be located in parking lots or in stores.
Some companies, such as such as Green Tree Recycling and USAgain, make a business of textile recycling. They are among the sponsors of the bins in parking lots.
Some clothing companies offer take-back programs. That is, customers bring unwanted clothing to stores and the stores resell it, upcycle it, or recycle it. Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and The North Face take back their high-end clothing.
Fast fashion companies have take-back programs, too, but fast fashion is a big part of the problem of too much used clothing for too few people who want it. Fast fashion take-back programs for recycling clothing smack of greenwashing.
If you have material you know a thrift store probably can’t sell and you have access to a place that exists to collect recyclables, it’s best to take it there. As always, Earth911 will help you locate places.
The process of textile recycling
Collecting used clothing is easy. No one has yet solved the problem of putting it all to good use.
The first step in dealing with unsaleable used clothing from any source is to sort it by color and material. Depending on the intended use of the recovered fabric, it may be necessary to remove the dyes.
Most natural fabrics become cleaning rags, stuffing for furniture, or insulation. It is possible to shred them mechanically, clean the fibers, and re-spin them into yarn to make new fabric, but very little actually becomes new clothing.
Recycling polyester fabric is more straightforward. It melts like any other plastic, so it is subjected to high heat and put through an extruder.
Blends of polyester and natural fibers presents the most difficult problems in recycling clothing. Mostly, some kind of solvent destroys the natural fiber, leaving only the polyester. Researchers in Hong Kong have developed a way to separate cotton from polyester using fungi instead of chemicals.
If anyone has found a way to extract usable natural fibers from such blends, I haven’t found it.
Some prerequisites for better textile recycling
Before large-scale recycling of clothing can become a reality, the clothing industry will have to overhaul its procedures. It needs to design ease of recycling into the design of fabrics and finished garments.
Consumers will also have to change their ways. We will have to start taking the first of the 3 Rs seriously: reduce. Buy less. Take care of it. Keep it longer. Be mindful not to create textile waste.
Fast fashion has been an environmental catastrophe. It floods the market with cheap clothes that no one wants to buy used. And why? Because consumers have demanded cheap convenience to keep up with changing fashions. What will it take to persuade people to buy good quality and wear it for a long time again?
Perhaps the best way to shop for clothes sustainably is to buy from thrift stores. Green Matters has some other suggestions.
Some people, by the way, are good at crafting. Quilting has been a way to reuse worn-out clothing for generations. Creative crafters are finding other uses. But there will probably never be enough crafters to remove the need for finding ways of recycling clothing.
Africa wiggles out of used clothes AGOA deal / Further Africa. May 4, 2021
Fast fashion: its detrimental effect on the environment / Rashmila Maiti, Earth.org. January 29, 2020
How does textile recycling work? / Audrey Stanton, The Good Trade. [September 2020]
How to find textile recycling near you / Andrew Krosofsky, Green Matters. February 3, 2021
Why clothes are so hard to recycle / Abigail Beall, BBC Future. July 12, 2020