The story at a glance
- Discarded clothing and textiles take up a large amount of landfill space while simultaneously contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions.
- The damaging effects of fast fashion and a linear economy, along with a lack of global regulation, are worsening the production and disposal of clothing.
- Government agencies and independent businesses are working to meet these challenges and hope to transform consumer mindsets and production standards along the way.
According an estimation, 66% of post-consumer textile waste ends up in landfills, 19% is burned and only 15% is recycled. Additionally, since the 1960s, the country has seen a nearly 10-fold increase in discarded textiles, while data shows that every individual in the United States has thrown away a medium than 103 pounds of textiles in 2018 alone.
Similar to other ramifications of climate change, discarded clothing is more often generated by higher income people, but has the greatest impact on lower socioeconomic communities, as these areas have a higher concentration of landfills.
While extending the life of clothing has become more popular thanks in part to the growing popularity of thrift, the sheer amount of new clothing produced each year – coupled with the insatiable shopping habits of Americans – is leading to a excessive production, purchase and rejection of poor quality garments. , perpetuating an unsustainable linear economy.
But move on to a plus circular saving – where a product only ends up in a landfill as a last resort – can not only help reduce waste, but will lead to better environmental outcomes as fewer natural resources will be depleted and can help create new business opportunities .
Applied to the textile industry, this transformation would bring substantial improvements, say the experts. Recent estimates of the World Economic Forum found that 8 supply chains from raw materials to finished product manufacturing account for more than half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, with fashion ranking third behind food and construction.
Once a garment is made, sold and worn – often for short periods of time due to changing trends perpetuated by fast mode — consumers may attempt to resell the item, repair it, give it away or throw it away.
But often, consignment stores are selective about the coins they accept, while donation centers often won’t accept used underwear, socks, or swimwear. Large portions of donated clothing are also sent to the global south and weigh on local textile industries.
All of this begs the question, what can be done to reform the process?
Textile recycling offers a solution. While it can be relatively easy and efficient to recycle garments made from a single material into new, usable fibers, challenges arise when it comes to those made from synthetic fibers or blends, and the majority of clothes worn in America contains synthetic materials such as lycra or spandex.
“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to separate that elasticity and that spandex component, whether by mechanical or chemical processing,” Amanda Forster, materials research engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) explained in an interview. with Changing America.
“When you go [through a] recycling process, your ideal scenario is to have 100% pure content so you know what you get at the end has the same input metric,” Forster explained. Other components such as zippers, buttons, labels, dyes and finishes all pose additional challenges to the process.
In May 2022, Forster co-wrote a workshop report produced by NIST on facilitating a circular economy for textiles.
According to the report, “60% of clothing and 70% of home textiles are made of synthetic fibers, and this trend is expected to increase in the future as consumers in emerging economies adopt Western lifestyles and clothing. “.
In addition to the inherent difficulties in identifying and separating materials, the report exposes the systemic barriers faced by industries and governments.
These include disjointed global supply chains, a lack of process and terminology standards, and a massive volume of garments produced every day, which hamper all data collection efforts and may have implications disastrous for human and environmental health.
For example, “the specific chemicals used in textile production and applied to garments are often not identified or tracked throughout the supply chain, and therefore their potential for toxicity is also lost,” the authors wrote. authors.
Because the naked human eye cannot discern the composition of a tissue’s contents, technologies such as near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy are being deployed to help speed up the identification and sorting processes. Another potential solution involves digitally identifying and tracking products as they move through the supply chain.
“Such a system would ideally combine NIR and robotics; the first to identify fiber types and provide percentages of polymer/material compositions, and the second to separate textiles according to desired categories (e.g. fiber composition, color, etc.),” the report states.
Meanwhile, several companies have risen to the challenge of dealing with textile waste that cannot be returned or donated, either because the parts are unusable or because the fabric was never a garment.
For instance, fabscrap works with designer brands to sustainably dispose of their pre-consumer waste by selling the raw fabric, creating new fibers or turning them into lower quality products (fiber pulp) for insulation, padding carpet or furniture lining.
The company also produces and sells 100% organic cotton underwear and is climate neutral certified. With every donated box of underwear, individuals will receive a discount on Knickey products.
“We not only take responsibility for the products we put out into the world, but also for the massive amount of textile waste endemic to the underwear category…because there really is no getting away from it. dispose of responsibly,” the Knickey CEO said. and co-founder Cayla O’Connell Davis in an interview with Changing America.
“We clean up the mess that the Victoria’s Secrets of the world have left behind.
Victoria’s Secret did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although the company publishes data on its climate and energy impact.
After the donations are sorted by materiality, those that cannot be recycled or recycled (synthetic material) are shredded and used as poor quality. This material is used to pad punching bags or be molded into a soft composite, among other uses.
Meanwhile, cotton-rich or single-material dons can be turned into secondary yarns, O’Connell Davis said. “100% of the recycled products we receive either go into low-quality raw materials or textile-to-textile recycling.”
Currently, the company does not partner with traditional clothing outlets like Goodwill or The Salvation Army to take unwanted socks or underwear, but O’Connell Davis would welcome the opportunity. “I think that would be a very good solution because unfortunately they throw away a lot of these things.”
Knickey is also on track to recycle one million pieces of clothing this year and plans to better educate consumers on how they can sustainably dispose of underwear in the future.
Although textile recycling offers a way forward to reduce clothing waste, the process can be labor-intensive and opportunities for improvement exist.
One concern raised by the NIST report is the potential release of harmful chemicals during the process. Previous to research showed that some garments contain toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or “permanent chemicals”.
“Recycling is not a panacea for any of these different areas where we’re trying to figure out what to do with end-of-life materials,” Forster said, referring to other products like single-use plastics.
“A lot of this starts at the design phase,” she added. Designing products that last longer and are made of fewer materials could help reduce textile waste. However, even all-natural products made from unique materials have environmental impacts, ranging from increased land use to deforestation.
Continuing to use textiles as originally intended by repairing or refreshing clothes is one of the best ways forward, as is simply buying and producing less clothes.
At Knickey, “we don’t overproduce our clothes, we really try to keep up with demand,” O’Connell Davis said. And right now, “there is a huge demand for sustainable solutions in the apparel market.”
Posted on August 05, 2022