When you think about recycling the common items that come to mind are paper, glass, metal and cardboard. But did you know that textile (clothing) waste is an increasing part of the waste Canadians generate every year?
The average Canadian gets rid of 81 lbs. of textiles every year and that number has been increasing over the past decade as we buy more, cheaper clothing. Look in your closet and you'll likely find that 1/3 of the clothing you own you don't even wear on a daily basis!
Why is textile waste increasing?
- Fast fashion – we buy more clothing and wear it for a shorter amount of time. Brands such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 have thrived by selling items at rock bottom prices which is encouraging overconsumption.
- Cheaper clothing – because it costs less, we don’t repair clothing as we used to, remember darning your socks? No? Probably because it’s long been cheaper and easier to just buy new socks when your old socks become holy (er…holier…umm full of holes?)
- The rise of online shopping – one unintended consequence related to the ease of online shopping is we buy a lot of clothing that gets returned – those returned items often end up in the waste bin because it’s not economical to sort and resell.
What about clothing donation bins that dot many streets in cities and towns across Canada? Isn’t that clothing recycled?
While donating your textiles is a better solution than throwing your clothing directly into the garbage can you may be surprised what happens to those items you donate to clear out closet space. It’s a complicated system but there is a logic behind the sorting, grading, and baling.
Courtesy of Resource Recycling Systems, Inc.
Higher value, quality items are sorted and resold in North America – large operators like Value Village and Goodwill Industries dominate the thrift clothing market in North America – you may be surprised to learn that these are big businesses, not charity-run stores like many assume.
Lower value clothing is compressed into large bales and shipped to textile processors all over the world. Some of the biggest markets for this type of material are Sub-Saharan Africa and Pakistan. But even they are suffering from the effects of fast fashion with many buyers complaining that the quality of the textiles they are receiving is so low they can’t resell a large percentage.
Large, open textile markets are common in many countries where clothing is sorted and sold as part of the global used textile trade.
Textiles that aren’t resold due to quality issues are turned into rags, horse bedding, boat covers, carpet underlay and other “downcycled” uses of recycled fabric. Surprisingly there a quite a few restrictions on what "used textile fibre" can actually be used in which limits the recycling market if an item is deemed not resale worthy.
It’s hard to actually “recycle” modern textiles – we combine many different types of materials into a single garment (think a shirt with plastic buttons, elastic cuffs and a zipper – it’s a lot of different materials in one item). So, shredding your old yoga pants and turning them into new yoga pants isn’t that easy and as a result, only a very small number of textiles are truly “recycled” back into new textile products. BBC has an awesome overview of the hard to recycle challenge here. Many innovative companies are doing great work in this area but it’s likely at least a decade before we can easily and economically turn textile waste back into textiles at scale.
How to reduce your textile footprint?
- Repair and reuse – companies such as Patagonia and North Face are making the repair and reuse of their garments easier and more commonplace.
- Use technology to trade – don’t want that old shirt? Use your phone to take a picture and find a new owner for your 1999 ZZ Top T-shirt – new apps and marketplaces like ThredUp are making this easier to do for everyone.
- Seek out specialized recycling companies that can get the highest value from your textiles – Debrand, Anian, and EcoAlf.
Stop buying so much! Do you need an entire closet of clothing that you rarely wear? Think about the number of textiles you purchase and try to buy fewer, higher quality items that you can wear longer and repair when they need a little love. Buy that one super nice dress instead of 5 cheap online sale dresses and live a more sustainable, luxury lifestyle!