The Truth About Textile Waste

  • by Vivienne Austin

There’s been a lot of concerning news regarding textile waste over the past few months. From Indonesia’s horrible landfill fire to the textile waste caused by online shopping returns and Ghana’s landfill being visible from space, waste management is one of the main issues that cause the fashion industry to be one of the most polluting industries out there.

The industry produces an astounding 100 billion garments yearly, with a staggering 92 billion ending up in landfills. While many believe that donating clothes is the solution, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports only 15% of donated clothing is reused or recycled. The remaining 85% ends up in landfills, often on the other side of the world.

Why is it so hard to recycle textiles?



Despite being a popular consumer item, clothing recycling rates in the United States alone are significantly lower than those of paper, glass, and plastic PET bottles. While recycled polyester is being used by major fashion brands for sustainability purposes, the majority of it is actually sourced from plastic bottles rather than old clothing. The complexity of clothing materials, which feature blends of natural yarns, man-made filaments, plastics, and metals, presents a major obstacle to efficient recycling. A cotton t-shirt, for instance, contains polyester labels and sewing threads, while jeans are typically made from cotton yarn mixed with elastane, with zippers, buttons, polyester sewing thread, and various dyes.


This complexity makes it difficult to separate the different materials to recycle them effectively. Sorting textiles into different fibres and material types by hand is labour-intensive, slow, and requires a skilled workforce. Although European researchers have developed techniques that use hyperspectral cameras to identify different fabric types, the growing use of modern fabric blends in clothing makes it hard to do this mechanically. Once sorted, the dyes applied to the fabrics must be removed to reuse the yarns.


Hence why recycling clothes into new clothing, known as “material to material” recycling, is currently uncommon. In fact, as of 2015, less than 1% of used clothing was recycled in this way. While some second-hand clothes are sold online, most people simply donate their old clothes to charity shops, a process which is increasingly being used to pass the textile waste problem to others. At Oxfam's Wastesaver clothes sorting and recycling plant, 80 tonnes of old clothes pass through every week. Most of the clothes will never be worn again, with 35% being sold to Oxfam's partners in Senegal and 1-3% being resold in Oxfam shops. The majority is sent for recycling, but about six tonnes of garments are of such poor quality that they are torn up for industrial cleaning clothes and stuffing for mattresses or car seats.


Although fibre recycling technologies exist, they are only used on a small scale up until now. Companies like Renewcell have chemical recycling technology, which creates virgin-quality fibres that can in theory be recycled on a loop, but progress towards achieving commercial scale has been slow.


What happens to the discarded textiles?



Clothing from countries such as the UK, US, and China is donated and sold to exporters and importers, who then sell them to vendors in Ghana, Senegal and Indonesia. Kantamanto in Accra, Ghana, is considered one of the world's most significant second hand clothing markets, with thousands of stalls stocked with items from prominent brands such as Levi Strauss, H&M, and Primark, among others.


However, as fast fashion continues to grow, the amount of clothing available in the market has surged, while the quality has decreased. Unfortunately, about 40% of the clothing in Kantamanto ends up as waste, according to the Or Foundation. Waste management services collect some of it, but the rest is burned or dumped in informal landfills. The largest unsanctioned dump for clothing waste is Old Fadama, which was once a thriving community but now resembles an apocalyptic location. The textile waste flows into the Odaw river, Korle Lagoon, and the sea, causing significant environmental damage. From the toxicity of lead to phthalates, which cause issues with people's reproductive systems, the chemicals used to produce fast fashion pieces are extremely dangerous, not only for humans but also for the environment.


Just like Old Fadama, there are plenty of other informal landfills out there that are causing exactly the same issues to humans and the environment. The root of the problem lies in the overproduction of clothing. The average American buys at least one item of clothing per week, and reducing this number can help reduce the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills. As the fast fashion industry continues to encourage us to purchase more and more, we should all adopt a slower fashion cycle, from selling old clothing on platforms such as Vinted, Untagged Fashion and Depop, to finding ways to repurpose old clothing and create a more environmentally-friendly fashion industry.


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