After you dutifully Kondo your closet each season, you do the right thing and haul those joyless discards to a donation bin. Bravo to you for taking the time to drop off that bag, because some 12 million tonnes of clothing — 95 per cent of which could be reused or recycled — goes to landfill in North America each year. But have you ever wondered what happens to your old poncho once the bin is full? Well, it’s complicated.

First comes the sorting process. Only about half of what is collected is deemed saleable for the local market, and half of that again will sell, says Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of Canadian non-profit Fashion Takes Action, which is currently undertaking a study with charities in Toronto on this very topic. Donation is still the best solution, says Drennan, as once the unsellable stuff has been weeded out, only 5 per cent of donations end up in landfills.

After about four weeks on the shelves, the leftovers are sold to “re-purposers.” Value Village, for instance, sends clothing that can’t be sold locally to East Africa, and promotes its partnership with small businesses there, selling at market stalls and providing jobs (and Nikes) to locals. Pakistan and Malaysia are also major destinations for bulk used clothing from around the world. It’s important to note that there has been some resistance to this practice in the recipient countries — in 2015, six East African countries unsuccessfully tried to ban the practice in order to support local fashion production. Pressure from the U.S. shut that down, though import duties were imposed.

There are “middleman” companies that make it their business to keep clothes out of landfill, including Bank and Vogue in Ottawa. Steve Bethell and Helene Carter-Bethell are opened their business in the 1990s to offer “solutions to our crisis of stuff.” They partner with independent collectors here in Canada and ship some 90 million pounds of used clothes around the world each year, selling much of it in Europe, including to huge U.K. vintage fashion site beyondretro.com.

Business is booming: within 10 years, the thrift industry will be worth $64 billion in the U. S. — as compared to the fast fashion industry at $44 billion — according to a 2019 report from San Francisco-based thredUp, the world’s largest online resale store.

Encouraging the vintage business is good for our future, says Drennan. FTA will launch a public awareness campaign across Ontario this September aimed at increasing donations and helping consumers understand what to donate, where and why. It’s partnering with a group of charities, collectors, clothing brands, retailers, academics, NGOs and policy-makers named the Ontario Textile Diversion Collaborative, which is currently funded by a provincial grant and aims to find ways to keep textile waste out of landfills.

The group is also lobbying to reverse the federal duty drawback, which means Canadian retailers get a tax credit if they send unsold imported clothes to landfill (yes, you read that right), and for the right to use recycled textile waste in the building and furniture industry as filler or insulation.

“The horrible negative impact of fashion is finally being taken seriously,” says Drennan. The enormous scale of the problem is gob-smacking — one garbage truck worth of clothing is burned or dumped into the landfills of the world every second, according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation. Then there is carbon dioxide: 1.2 billion tonnes per year is generated from landfill decomposition and the energy used to produce clothing, per The New Scientist. There are chemicals from dyes, flame retardants and pesticides (cotton alone absorbs $26 billion worth of bug killer annually). Plus the millions of microfibres that our synthetic clothes shed every time we wash them. It all adds up to make fashion one of the largest polluters in the world.

To work out exactly how much textile waste is actually going to landfill in Ontario right now, the OTDC is currently collecting data from local municipalities. Their audit will go deep, breaking down household, clothing and footwear waste, and the split between synthetic fabrics, which will exist virtually forever, and natural materials, which break down in landfill but emit greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane.

“Significant amounts of cotton, rayon and cellulosic blends are found in the textile waste stream,” says Marilyn McNeil-Morin, director of George Brown’s Fashion Exchange. Collecting enough of these fibres to be reused at the industrial level will require automated sorting by fibre type. This step will also be researched at George Brown using a shortwave infrared spectral scanner. Industrial shredding is a third research project, looking into how to mechanically break down whole materials to more easily dissolvable particles.

These techniques do already exist elsewhere in the world, but we haven’t been sharing knowledge very well. “While some success with these technologies has been achieved, the results are proprietary and consequently not shared,” McNeil-Morin puts it. She adds that Joe Fresh has “expressed a desire to share research results to benefit collective action toward a closed loop textile economy.”

This kind of openness will indeed be a big step toward cleaning up the mess the fast fashion industry has contributed to. But we all have to get more deeply involved, and that starts with mindful consumption and ends with the thoughtful disposal of the clothes that no longer bring us joy.