Textile Trash: Just What Goes in the Bin?

Vinita SrivastavaFTA Blog

By Kelly Drennan

As a sustainable fashion advocate for the past decade, I happen to know my stuff. My world is full of (ever changing) statistics and facts about the social and environmental damage that the fashion industry causes. My network has grown used to my posts: about fashion being the second largest polluting industry after oil, that the average t-shirt travels 35,000 km before landing on your back, or that one cotton t-shirt requires about 10 full bathtubs of water to make.

Textile waste has long been an issue as well, and one that we talk about often here at Fashion Takes Action. But it is only recently that I have come to realize how little the average person knows about what truly happens to our garments when we’re done with them.

Industry and Government are making changes but we need to buy less

Industry is starting to think about this. Government too, with some municipalities looking at landfill bans. And that’s exciting for those of us who want to see sustainability advanced throughout the entire fashion system. But where work really needs to be done (alongside industry & government) is with us, the consumer.

Buying less is of course the golden rule. We don’t need more clothes. According toFashion Revolution, we purchase 400x more clothing/year than we did in 1980. That is a sickening fact. And with the rise of fast fashion, we are becoming more and more addicted to low quality disposable clothing. So okay, let’s say we all make a conscious decision right now to buy less. Great. What then happens to all the clothing we bought before that is currently clogging our closets? Or what are we to do with these new (fewer) garments we are buying when we’re done with them?

Passing on our unwanted clothing to friends, family and to those in need is of course the best thing we can do. But not all of our unwanted clothing is rewearable (think the 10 pairs of socks with holes in the toes, underwear, ripped or stained linens) and the thought of giving these unwearables, to anyone, is unfathomable.

Enter the charitable organizations and clothing donation bins.

I Polled my Facebook Community

I decided to poll my Facebook community around what they donate and where. In just a few hours I had over 50 responses, and 90% of those stated they never donate underwear, socks, bedding etc. They wouldn’t even imagine doing something like that! Some of that 90% go on to say they use them as rags around the house, which is great. But most people chuck those unwearables (and unmentionables) into the garbage can. Because they simply didn’t know any better.

With more than 13 million households in Canada (and 10x that in the US), it is not so surprising that 85% of our used textiles end up in landfill, accounting for 10-15% of total landfill mass.

Put Everything into the Donation Bins

The fact is, EVERYTHING can go into the bins. That’s right. Even your holey-toed socks, underwear and stained linens. Not because there is a market to resell these items, but because there is a market to recyclethem. And while that market might be small, we have the power to make it great. If we start donating EVERYTHING to the bins and to the second hand retailers, it means we will have a whole lot more textile waste on our hands, forcing industry and government to move quickly and come up with some innovative solutions. Solutions that can help boost our economy (or grow the low-carbon economy) by creating jobs and reducing GHGs.

  • Sidenote on GHG’s – 1kg of textile waste generates 4kg of CO2. Average Canadian household generates 56kg of textile waste, 85% of that goes to landfill = 46kg x 13 million households = 600 million kg of CO2. Not to mention methane from decomposing plant based materials which is 25x more harmful to the planet than CO2, or nitrous oxide from synthetic materials which is 310x more potent!

While about 60-70% of what we donate is resold — either in stores like Value Village and Salvation Army who collect them, or shipped to developing countries (who are slowly starting to say “no thanks”) — the other 30-40% is sold to other sectors via shredders. Automotive, carpet, toy, and hopefully soon the building industry, are buying shredded textile waste and using it for insulation, underpadding, stuffing etc. Unfortunately the collectors are not paid nearly as much per pound by these other industries as they are by developing countries (but I’ll save that conundrum for another article).

We Can Do This!

About 5% of what is collected is truly recycled and turned into new fabric, and eventually into new garments. H&M and Levi’s are two brands that are doing this (and they’re even collecting used textiles in their stores) but there are others doing this now, and I am confident that even more will jump on board in the next one to two years. It is this textile recycling that we need to grow – right here in Canada. It is what will create new jobs and support our country’s climate action plan under the Paris Agreement. So please, donate EVERYTHING and force industry and government to solve this massive issue. We have more power than we think.

We can do this!