Many people I know think of recycling in terms of plastics, cans, glass, etc. However, the world has a global problem when it comes to unwanted clothing. According to the EPA, 84 percent of discarded clothing ends up in the landfill. In that last 20 years, Americans have doubled the amount of clothes they trash per year from 7 million tons to over 15 million tons, which equates to about 80 pounds per person annually. Of this amount, only 2.6 million tons were recycled; 3.1 million tons were combusted for energy recovery; and 10.5 million tons were sent to the landfill.
The problem of what to do with unwanted clothing is so large that there is currently no good way to deal with it all. Instead of putting it in your trash, you may think that recycling it is a good idea. There are different ways to do this: you can put it in your Simple Recycle bags and place on the curb in Bay Village and Westlake, or you can bring it to a store with clothing recycling, such as H&M, to discard it.
However, only 0.1 percent of clothing collected for recycling is actually recycled into new textiles. So then you think, “Maybe I’ll donate my unwanted clothing to Goodwill.” This is also a great idea; however, charities such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army only sell between 20-40 percent of clothing being donated. The clothing they are not able to sell is sold to textile recyclers. The United States produces so much clothing that there is not a need for as much unwanted clothing as we have, even among the “needy.”
Textile recyclers then sort the clothing into several categories. About 30 percent is turned into wiping rags for industrial uses, and another 25-30 percent are recycled into fiber for use as stuffing for upholstery, insulation and others. The remaining 45 percent continue as clothing. Japan will purchase vintage or American high-end fashion. The clothing that is not in that category will be exported to developing nations.
The advent of low-cost, low-quality (also known as “fast fashion”) clothing suppliers such as H&M, Forever 21 and Old Navy has increased the problem exponentially. When fashion is available inexpensively, people do not feel the need to wear it more than a few times. Further, the point of fast-fashion is to get styles quickly to consumers, and stock new styles in the store, so the $10 skirt may only be in style for a short time. Compared to 15 years ago, the average person today buys 60 percent more items of clothing every year and keeps them for about half as long, generating a huge amount of waste. The annual environmental impact of a household’s clothing is equivalent to the water needed to fill 1,000 bathtubs and the carbon emissions from driving an average modern car for 6,000 miles. If the average life of clothing was extended by just three months, it would reduce their carbon and water footprints, as well as waste generation, by five to ten percent. The recycling of two million tons of clothing per year equates to taking one million cars from U.S. streets.
What can you do? This is a great question. For the clothing you already own that you do not want, please donate it, put it in a Simple Recycling bag, or bring to a retailer such as H&M. While these are not perfect options, they are much better than putting it directly into the landfill trash.
In the future the best thing to do is to purchase your clothing thoughtfully. Please consider how much use you are going to get out of it before you buy it. If it’s a cheap item that you think you’ll only wear a couple times, do not buy it. Concentrate on stocking your closet with high quality pieces that are stylish but not super trendy. The super trendy items are the ones that are discarded the most. Think of it as an investment as well; buying higher quality clothing will last you much longer and save you money in the long run rather than stocking up on cheap clothing that will be out of style very quickly or not last very long.
And lastly, a super eco-conscious way to purchase clothing is to buy it second-hand from a consignment or thrift store. Each of us can make a difference when we become thoughtful about how we discard clothing and what clothing we purchase next.