How can we tackle the issue with textile waste by repurposing and recycling used fabrics?
The Growing Issue...
The issue with textile waste can be traced back to a multitude of reasons building on top of one another, and without proper solutions to minimize and prevent further pollution, this problem will only continue to grow and further destroy our planet.
One of the main culprits of textile waste is the fast fashion industry that runs on a linear economy model. In our current linear economy, products are not designed to last or be regenerated at their end-of-life. This means that once a product has reached their end in consumer use, these clothes are trashed and cannot be reused or upcycled into new materials and products. Most of the time, these clothes end up in landfills and incinerators, taking up valuable space while releasing toxic chemicals and harmful gasses into our natural environment.
As we have discussed often on our blog, the fast fashion industry produces massive amounts of low quality garments in a short period of time and encourages consumers to shop often, follow the latest fashion trends, and view clothing as disposable. According to Common Objective, “across nearly every apparel category, consumers keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago. Some estimates suggest that consumers treat the lowest-priced garments as nearly disposable, discarding them after just seven or eight wears.”
The same article states that “the average consumer now buys 60% more items of clothing than in 2000, but each garment is kept for half as long as consumers discard items more quickly. These buying habits contribute to the 39 million tonnes of post-consumer textile waste that is generated (at a minimum) worldwide each year – primarily in the form of garments.” Of this huge number, roughly only 10% gets recycled while the rest goes to landfills, incinerators, and second-hand clothing shops. In terms of the bigger picture, this means that 57% of discarded clothing is sent to landfills.
“For every 5 garments produced, the equivalent of 3 end up in a landfill or incinerated each year. Germany outperforms most countries by collecting almost three-quarters of all used clothing, reusing half and recycling one-quarter. Elsewhere, collection rates are far lower: 15 percent in the United States, 12 percent in Japan, and 10 percent in China.” – McKinsey Sustainability
Circularity & Recycling...
Shifting to a circular economy is a must. A circularity model is based on the concept that no resources and materials go to waste as all products are designed with their end-of-life in mind. This way, even as a product reaches the end of its consumer use, the materials can be repurposed and made into other products, leaving no waste behind and it doesn’t require extracting virgin materials from the planet to make new products.
Furthermore, communities and governments across the globe need to implement proper recycling services and work towards developing recycling technologies so that the textiles that are being thrown away can be reused for other purposes.
So few garments are being recycled because the process of recycling is time consuming and labor intensive. Most fabrics used for clothing consist of more than one single material – usually a blend of two or more kinds of fibers – along with other components such as zippers, elastics, buttons, and so on. This makes recycling challenging because all these parts need to be separated before they can be reused. Once separated, textiles then need to be sorted and further processed, shredded, (granulated then melted for synthetic fibers), and re-spun before they can be weaved into new fabrics. Those that are to be used for stuffing need to then be compressed.
The truth of the matter is that, as emphasized in the McKinsey article, “when it comes to disposing of clothing, current technologies cannot reliably turn unwanted apparel into fibers that could be used to make new goods. Recycling methods such as shredding or chemical digestion work poorly.”
“The fact remains, however, that innovation in the way clothes are made has not kept pace with the acceleration of how they are designed and marketed. Fast fashion is now a large, sophisticated business fed by a fragmented and relatively low-tech production system.” – McKinsey Sustainability
Benefits of Textile Recycling...
So, what are some ways textiles can be recycled, and what benefits do they bring to our planet? If you are still wondering why textile recycling and minimizing textile waste is so important especially for our planet, here are a some of the benefits:
- Decreased landfill space – most textiles contain chemicals that can easily leak into waterways and released into the air as greenhouse gasses; synthetic fibers take hundreds of years to decompose.
- Avoid extracting and using virgin materials
- Reduced use of energy and water
- Lessened air and water pollution – chemicals, dyes, etc.
Recycled Textiles can be turned into…
- Water resistant and minimally-flammable building materials
- Home insulation made from denim
- Car seat stuffing and insulation
- Wiping cloths and rags
- Carpet padding
- Stuffing for pillows, sleeping bags, animal beds, mattresses
- Jewelry box lining
The throwaway culture of fast fashion only accelerates and exacerbates our issue with textile waste piling up in landfills and ending up in incinerators. Without effective recycling technologies and processes, the rate at which fabrics are getting recycled is nowhere compared to how quickly clothes are being thrown out.
As much as we need solutions to these unwanted clothes that become textile waste, we need to tackle the root of the problem, which is fast fashion, the linear economy model, lack of recycling services and technology, and our consumer behavior.
The health of our planet is at risk and we are all part of the problem. However, we are also part of the solution and we must join our efforts to make this work. What we can do as individuals is to buy less by choosing clothes that are made to last and designed to be repurposed, find ways to give a new life to our old clothes before immediately throwing them away, support sustainable and circular fashion brands, spread the word, and many more.
From an industry standpoint, brands and manufacturers must begin shifting to a circular economy model where products and services are able to close the loop and prevent resources and materials from being wasted. Through circular design, we can ensure that the products we use and the clothes we wear will have the opportunity to be turned into something new rather than trash that pollutes our planet. It requires the voices and actions of many to truly achieve great change, and this is the first step towards a more sustainable planet and way of living.
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