The Monster in our Closet: Fast Fashion & Textile Waste on the Rise

By Morgan O’Connor, Marketing & High Performance Building Fellow

Warehouse full, floor to ceiling with old clothing

In 1980 the EPA found the U.S. to have generated roughly 5 billion pounds of textile waste in the public waste stream. That amount has since spiked to 32.44 billion pounds in 2014. This is post-consumer textile waste, which includes products such as clothing, footwear, fashion accessories, towels, bedding, and drapery that have already been purchased. 95% of all textiles have the potential to be reused or recycled, but currently they are recycled at a rate of only 15%. This disproportionate rate is thought to be caused by lack of awareness among individuals, as this is only municipal solid waste, meaning what people are throwing away in their public waste stream, not waste generated by businesses, including the fashion industry. So this problem largely lies with us – the individual.

What is Fast Fashion?

“Fast Fashion” is the business model that most retail stores have started to follow. It emphasizes new styles delivered to consumers immediately. Whereas a decade ago there may have been four seasons in a year, now there are upwards of 10. Smaller, more frequent seasons incite more shopping, while also quickening the pace at which clothing goes out of style. Clothing produced in massive quantities can also be sold at lower prices, encouraging consumers to buy more than they need. When we spend less money on clothing, we are also less likely to hold on to it during our next spring cleaning. This means that in an effort to keep up with the Joneses, we are spending more money on clothing that will quickly go out of style and into the landfill.

Why does this Matter?

Textile waste diversion is an important issue because it is growing into a major component of our landfills. Textile and material waste makes up 9.5% of municipal solid waste generated in America every year. Each state has an unequal amount of space left in their landfills, which will leave some states and large cities to ship their trash out of the area, producing more greenhouse gases in the process of transportation than if it were to sit in a dump for a year. For example, if New York City were to outsource all of their landfill needs to West Virginia, transportation of trash would produce 760,000 tons of CO2 each year. The textile industry also contributes to environmental degradation by using water, energy, and other resources to produce textiles. For example, cotton depends on pesticides more than any other crop, using 1/3 of a pound of pesticides per shirt, and nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times as powerful as CO2, is a product of producing synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester. Because of all of the resources that go into the textile industry, it has the second highest potential for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to other recyclables.

So What Can You Do About Textile Waste?

As always remember the waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, landfill. The order matters here! Reduce what you use, before you start to reuse. Reuse what you have before you recycle it, etc.

Reduction Ideas

  • Unsubscribe from clothing store newsletters: E-mail newsletters urge impulsive purchases, which are not necessarily things you want or need.
  • Fix-up before you give up: There are thousands of how-to videos online to learn how to sew or patch up old holes, take in or let out your favorite shirt, or even replace a zipper.
  • Renting isn’t just for prom tuxes: Companies like Rent the Runway rent high fashion clothes for your fancy events. Odds are you would never wear that dress again anyway. They are also trying out a new service to allow subscribers rent clothes on a monthly basis, for those that want to keep up with Fast Fashion, without it ending up in the landfill.
  • Buying new: If you must buy something new, try and buy something made entirely or partly from recycled materials, or make sure that what you’re buying is something you will want for years to come. It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s probably not whatever the passing fad of the day is. Foster you own style, because that’s what you’ll want to wear long term!

Reuse Ideas

  • Shop thrift before shopping new: It may take a little longer to find what you have been looking for, but it will be worth it in the long run when it costs you $2.50 and the environment even less!
  • Host a clothing swap: Invite friends over so everyone can overhaul their wardrobe with new-to-you swag. Afterwards let your friends know that you’ll donate or recycle whatever is left behind.
  • Thoughtfully donate your clothes: Instead of treating your clothes as waste – bagging them up in garbage bags and donating them a parking lot repository on your drive home – take a look at your closet, think about how to make sure that someone keeps wearing your old clothes, which might mean helping people find them. If it’s something that people have a lot of brand loyalty over, those companies might offer collection and re-selling like Patagonia’s Worn Wear or Eileen Fischer’s Green Eileen. Then there are online thrift stores like Thred-Up, which takes used brand name clothes and sells them. They offer the organization and search engine capabilities you’ve always wanted at your local consignment store, but they even pay for donations, so you can make a bit of money! These more targeted forms of donating might help the people who want your clothes find them, but also donating to your local thrift store is still a good option. You can find a local textile recycler near you at Beyond the Bin!

Recycling Ideas

  • Upcycle: If you have an old shirt you love but can no longer wear, think about making it into a decorative pillow cover, or re-upholstering a chair with the fabric!
  • Rag time: Anything can be a rag, and you’ll always need them! Bonus points for eliminating paper towels by using recycled rags!

Recovery Ideas

  • Spread the love: Next time you’re at the mall with your friends, let them know about the severity of textile waste in hopes that they don’t buy four $1 t-shirts, if they only need one, and if they are throwing out their old clothes, see if there is something you need and then donate it for them.

For More Information on Textile Waste Solutions

  • RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts is a recycling assistance program for businesses and institutions. If you need assistance with setting up a composting or recycling program, call our hotline: (888) 254-5525 or email us at info@recyclingworksma.com. You can also visit their online database of recycling facilities to search by material!
  • Mass Department of Environmental Protection – Textile Recovery

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