Last month we talked about fabric: how some are grown, harvested, and woven all so that we can put on our clothes everyday and go about our business.
Today we’re going to talk about the other end of the spectrum: what happens when we decide to discard our clothing? With everyone Kon Mari-ing their closets right now we figured that this would be a particularly good time to discuss what happens when clothing is recycled, donated, or thrown in the garbage. So let’s break that down a little.
Textile recycling has become more popular in recent years as many brands offer to take your old clothes and recycle them for you. The issue is, that after you put these clothes in the recycling bin they sometimes are recycled into housing insulation etc. and they are sometimes sold to overseas markets... we’ll get to why that’s not great in a moment. Anyway let’s say that they are being recycled, sometimes the company doing the recycling is turning around that recycled product and making a profit off of it, which may or may not bother some people; I personally think I’m okay with it. But it is slightly shady that that’s not mentioned up front, more transparency in this recycling industry would be great. Again, as long as these clothes are being re-used in some way...I’m mostly okay with it.
Have you ever been into a thrift store where the wracks weren’t stuffed completely full? Yeah me neither. The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago. In the US the average person buys 5x more clothing than we did 30 years ago and we donate about 40% more as well, so it is not surprising that the volume of donated clothing is over saturating the market. For the most part, donation centers have more clothing then they can realistically resell. About 20% of clothing donated is resold locally, the rest goes to: recycling factories (ok not terrible), overseas markets (complicated), or landfills (very bad).
- Selling clothes, often in 1000 pound packs, to developing textile markets overseas sounds harmless enough but it isn’t harmless. The US, and the UK, once had booming textile industries, that is until companies realized that they could undercut that thriving market by importing cheaper clothing from somewhere else. And this is what is happening with our used clothing in many ‘developing’ countries. Our used clothing is packed into 1000 pound (!) packs and shipped off to developing countries where it is bought and sold without any parties even knowing what is inside. It is then (sometimes) re-sewn and resold at marketplaces by thrifty entrepreneurs. In many ‘developing’ countries the disappearance of the textile industry is directly related to the western world’s growing consumption for fast fashion, which we are disposing of in greater and greater quantities. For example, Ghana’s clothing and textile employment fell by 80% between 1975 and 2000 and Nigeria’s textile workforce has all but disappeared in recent years. The fact that fast fashion in the western world is affecting economies all over the world is troubling. Still, the clothing is not being thrown in a landfill or the ocean so...OK.
- A landfill is defined as ‘a place to dispose of refuse and other waste material by burying it and covering it over with soil. You may be saying to yourself that your shirt is made of cotton and would easily decompose in a landfill, so what’s the big deal? But this is a common misconception. Very little actually decomposes in a landfill. Decomposition requires oxygen and microbes, but landfills are so tightly packed with so little oxygen and there is no room for microbes to decompose your perfectly compostable cotton t-shirt. Landfills are not compost heaps. Textiles, and many other things, that end up in landfills are often very well preserved because of the lack of oxygen under all of the layers of rubble. Not pretty. Mostly we should try to throw away as little as possible. Recycling and composting... you know the drill.
Throwing Away Textiles
Dont! Okay okay I know that there are definitely bits of textile in your life that are so gross that you think they should be tossed in the bin. But if it is a natural fiber it can be composted and if it’s not a natural fiber it can be recycled. So ultimately just don’t throw it in the trash. Even composting or recycling is a little wasteful, someone made that fabric! Recycling or donating are decent options and I can’t think of anything that doesn’t fall into one of those categories. But really we need to start reusing our textiles.
So now that you’ve Kon-Mari-ed your closet and I’ve made you feel sufficiently bad about donating clothing, what are you going to do with all of your garments that don't “spark joy”? I’ve got some ideas! I even pulled some items out of my donation pile (nobody’s perfect) to do a few more of these.