The Plan for Better Clothes Recycling
9 August 2021
Recycling may seem simple when it comes to plastic, paper or metal, but recycling clothes, particularly fossil-based fibers, is extremely difficult – but we have a plan. This article will outline how we can better manage our clothes at the end of their lives.
In 2015, 73% of the 48 million tons of clothing produced ended up in landfills. Of the 73%, 30% was incinerated, releasing large amounts of hazardous substances into the air, and the other 70% still sits rotting in those landfills and will for hundreds of years, releasing methane into the atmosphere and leaching toxic chemicals into soil and groundwater. Statistics are troubling, but there is hope. Although only about 15% of consumer-used clothing is recycled, nearly all textiles are recyclable in one way or another – providing a pathway to progressive clothing recycling systems if plans are put in place.
“Reduce. Reuse. Recycle” is a common mantra learned as a child; however, rarely associated with clothing. Despite being just as important as other materials like paper and plastic, recycling clothing is still relatively unknown. By recycling clothes, we can:
- decrease area requirements of landfills accommodating piles of slow decomposing materials,
- avoid the over-use of new, virgin fibers,
- reduce energy and water consumption by getting more use out of materials already produced,
- mitigate pollution, soil and water leaching and hazardous toxin release, and
- lessen the demand for dye.
What is the problem with current clothing recycling?
Less than 1% of clothing is recycled to make new clothes, with most recycled garments are made from recycled plastic bottles. Aside from an apparent lack of awareness, other difficulties hinder the widespread adoption of clothing recycling. The most glaring barrier is that the ease of recycling clothing depends on its ingredients. The most prevalently used fibers in the fashion industry are non-biodegradable and are often blended – two factors that make clothes recycling more difficult.
Additionally, viable fiber-to-fiber recycling options and cost-effective collection and sorting systems for clothing are limited due to a lack of investment, conflicting fashion business models and low-quality garments that are not made to last.
How to recycle better?
Recycling clothes is just one outlet for the conscious consumer to let go of clothes, and it isn’t exclusive to recycling bins. By definition, recycling is the process of collecting, recovering, sorting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. Therefore, turning well-loved clothes into new products instead of being thrown away is recycling for yourself or someone else. Consider giving garments in wearable condition to others who may need or want them by seeking out community organizations, thrift stores and charities that accept donations. You may use old clothes in an upcycling or DIY project, putting its fabric and materials to good use. Take the initiative to discover personal and creative ways to recycle your clothes.
On a global scale, fiber and clothing recycling requirements are far from fully functional and standardized. To enact change and institute viable measures to reduce fashion waste, consumers and brands need to work in tandem to implement programs and policies that will mitigate waste from the fashion industry. Recycling is demanding more sustainable materials before manufacturing, never settling for low-quality garments that do not last, offering product warranties and repairs, setting climate targets, enabling more transparency, and more.