Or what happens to our stuff when we fall out of love with it?
Flour, sugar, salt, and animal feed shipped in barrels until disposable feed sacks made from strong, inexpensive cotton were introduced in the 1800s. Once empty, feed sacks were repurposed to make everything from quilts and dresses to cleaning rags. By the 1930s, eager for repeat customers, feed companies were building brand recognition by printing sacks in fashionable, brightly coloured patterns.
Fast forward to today when people in the west regularly buy inexpensive clothing in giant “hauls” to wear once simply for the ‘Gram. They are quickly discarded: sometimes swapped or sold but mostly tossed in the garbage, never to be thought of again. We’ve gone from avoiding waste at all costs to not recognizing what waste costs us. But waste on a planetary scale is a huge burden on everyone. Here are 8 reasons why you should care about textile waste:
1. You aren’t a huge fan of plastic. We know, plastic is everywhere. But if you haul your reusable water bottle everywhere, love bulk shopping in mason jars and shun plastic straws but still throw your unwanted clothing in the trash, you’re missing the big picture. Textile waste ends up in landfill more than any other kind of waste. The takeaway? Polyester and other synthetic fabrics are plastic. Also, 95% of our textile waste regardless of fabric can be resold, repurposed, upcycled or recycled, yes, even your lonely socks and holey undies!
2. You’re concerned about public tax dollars. Textile waste costs an incredible $375 million dollars in disposal fees every year, a cost downloaded mainly onto municipalities. That’s only the landfilling or incineration costs, which are calculated by the ton. There are also the contamination costs when unwanted textiles are improperly placed in the blue (recycling) bin or the green (organics) bin. Do your city a favour and divert your textile waste to charity shops or thrift stores. If it’s clean, dry, and free of mold, engine oil or paint, it can be repurposed. Pro tip: place old, ripped clothing in a separate bag marked “rags” or “scraps”!
3. You worry about greenhouse gases. Decomposing textiles in landfills release methane and carbon dioxide. While methane has a shorter lifespan than CO2, methane is far better at trapping radiation. And it’s not just landfills. Making clothing creates emissions too. Making a single pair of jeans generates the same CO2 as driving a car 115 km. Patch those holes!
4. You want to conserve natural resources. Fashion is one of the world’s most resource intensive industries, with especially heavy water use. Textile production uses almost 21 trillion gallons of fresh water every year. In fact, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make a single tee-shirt, about the same amount you’ll drink over the next three years! Every year we release half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres into our rivers, lakes and oceans washing our clothes, especially synthetics, equal to 50 billion plastic bottles. When you only wash clothes when they’re truly dirty, they pollute less and last longer.
5. You’re concerned about your community. Sharing is caring and most of us only wear about 25% of our closets. Swaps are a great way to re-home unwanted items right in your own community. For example, Withrow Market’s most recent clothing swap in July 2022 collected 614 lbs of clothing and re-homed 466 lbs, with just 148 lbs leftover to be donated to local charity and thrift stores. Diverting our unwanted clothing and textiles from landfill is only the first step; rehoming it within the community is the least climate intensive solution.
6. You love thrift shopping and the hunt for second-hand. Do you love vintage clothes or shopping for antiques? Thrifting (for anything) has been popular for a long time. Whether your goal is to stretch a budget or to find something unique, thrift shopping can be exciting and creative. Things used to be manufactured to last but fast fashion is ruining the thrill of thrifting. Instead of being reused for generations, fast fashion promotes clothing made so cheaply itÕs expected to fall apart after just a few washes.
7. You’re worried about the economy. There’s not much economic sense in spending money to make something only for someone to throw it away weeks later, but that’s exactly what we do. Sunlight, water, chemicals, fertilizer, cotton, and fossil fuels go into making or growing the raw materials in our clothing. Machine and human labour are used to manufacture textiles with additional labour to make clothing from the textiles. Plus, the fossil fuels it takes to ship those textiles and manufactured clothing around the world. Yet every year, about $100 billion worth of textiles end up in landfill, with only 15% diverted to the second-hand market or made into something else (insulation, stuffing, wipers, rags).
8. You love the idea of a circular economy. Nature is a regenerative system where waste feeds the start of another cycle. Our economy functions on a linear model: take, make, dispose. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates a $500 billion benefit to transforming the way we make, wear, and dispose of our clothing. Ideally, in a circular fashion economy, clothing, textiles, and fibres would rarely become waste, but instead but reused, repurposed and transformed into new items over and over again.
Worried about your own personal textile footprint? Buy less and follow the 7Rs: Reduce, reuse, repair, resell (or swap!), repurpose, rent, and recycle. Recycling is cool but its last on this list for a reason. Ensuring our unwanted clothing, shoes, towels, and linens get a second chance of being loved again is the best possible outcome.