Why is clothing waste a problem?
Clothing waste has a direct environmental impact as it decomposes, but, more broadly the trend of increasing consumption of clothing also has other insidious effects related to clothing manufacturing. "Fast fashion" has made buying–and disposing of–new clothing affordable for most Americans, which has led to annual clothing sales of $250 billion a year in the U.S. alone.
Environmental Impact – Americans throw away roughly 80 pounds of clothing a year on average. When natural fibers, like cotton, linen and silk, or plant-based cellulose, like rayon, Tencel and modal, are buried in a landfill, they produce the greenhouse gas methane as they degrade. Most garments are typically bleached, dyed, printed on, and bathed in chemicals in their production process. Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air. Synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, have the same environmental drawbacks, and because they are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.
Municipal Cost – An urban area with a population of 50,000 annually pays for the handling and disposal of 3,000 tons of textiles. It costs municipalities, on average, $49 per ton to dispose of clothing and textiles. Therefore, for a city producing 3,000 tons of textiles per year, it would cost roughly $147,000 in disposal fees.
Social Justice – The fashion industry has a poor record when it comes to labor rights. Some Chinese workers make as little as 12–18 cents per hour and 1,100 workers in Bangladesh were killed in 2013 when an 8-story garment factory collapsed due to shoddy construction and poor safety rules. Despite that tragedy, only 17 of 72 apparel companies have signed a transparency pledge to make public their facility locations. Stateside, as our landfills fill up, new ones have to be created and many of these end up getting placed in low-income communities and communities of color where they spread foul odors, rodents and vermin, and pollution, like air-borne mercury, toxic ash, and landfill gas.
Waste of Resources – 95% of used clothing and textile material can be recycled, so sending it to landfill wastes a huge amount of potentially productive resources. The manufacturing of new clothing is also hugely wasteful, for example, to produce one new t-shirt requires 2,400 gallons of water.
What can used clothing be recycled into?
Most used clothing, if not resellable, can be shredded down and turned into things like new clothing, carpet fiber, carpet underlay, insulation, stuffing in cushions, soundproofing material, and more, depending on the garment's fiber content.
One big exception is spandex, which the shredding and pulling machines cannot cut or pull apart, making it nearly impossible to recycle for its fiber content.