This article will be published in the Teton Valley News on October 1, 2015. It is republished with permission.
I recently was invited to a clothes swap, which served as an impetus for me to sort through my closet and cull the clothes that I no longer wear or like. I quickly filled a large garbage bag of clothes, and with a growing toddler who outgrows clothes every few months, I began thinking about, you guessed it—trash and recycling. Where do most of our used clothes go after they’ve fulfilled their “useful” life?
The US EPA estimates that over 14 million tons of textiles are sent to US landfills every year. This immense statistic equates to about 70 pounds per person per year and 5.7% of the municipal solid waste stream. Unfortunately, in today’s world of “fast fashion,” where clothing companies churn out large volumes of trendy apparel at lighting speeds, more textiles are produced than can be used. In order to keep prices low and clothing racks constantly filled with the latest fashion trends, many of these garments are made in countries where workers’ wages are low and high volumes are produced. When cheaply made items fall apart, they are typically sent to the dump since thrift stores can no longer sell them and it is often cheaper to replace than to repair them . Clothing and other textiles are some of the most chemically dependent industries on earth, and according to estimates made by The World Bank, the textile industry contributes almost 20% of global industrial water pollution from the treatment and dyeing of textiles.
Shifting your shopping and waste disposal habits is the most effective way to reduce textile waste. You can buy clothes in classic styles that are made of durable, quality materials that will last for years. You can also pass on clothing to someone who can use it, donate it, or host a clothes swap or garage sale. Once your clothes are worn out and disposed of, natural fabrics like cotton, wool, or bamboo decompose much faster than synthetic clothing, and can even be composted if given the right conditions. Synthetic materials, like polyester and acrylic, are made out of petroleum products (i.e., plastic) that may slowly break down but don’t ever fully decompose. When slowly broken down in the landfill, the synthetic fibers emit harmful greenhouse pollutants. Even natural fibers sent to the landfill decompose very slowly due to the anaerobic (no oxygen) environment, but they will eventually decompose and in a much cleaner and quicker manner than synthetic materials.
A better option for torn and stained clothes is to reuse or recycle them. Nationally, textile recycling helps keep 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste out of the landfills each year. You can bring them to Teton County, WY Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling in Jackson, where they are collected and sent to Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Salt Lake City. There, any usable materials are redistributed to local thrift stores and the remainder are made into rags. Worn out Patagonia clothing can also be dropped off locally for recycling at Yostmark and NOLS of Teton Valley.
One can also purchase used clothing from a local consignment or thrift store like See N’Save. Buying used clothing not only helps you save money, but also helps to keep clothing out of the landfill, especially if you’re buying for someone who is likely to change sizes before clothes are worn out. The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that only about 10-20% of donated textiles in the US are sold at the store where they are donated. Locally, we do better—Milissa West at See N’Save told TVCR staff that they sell about 60% of their donated clothing, but clothes that are too stained or ripped to sell are thrown away, which is about 15% of what is donated. This equals an average of one dumpster per week or about 20 large trash bags. Unsold clothing (about 25% of donations) is hauled to Deseret Industries in Idaho Falls. Items that don’t sell in Idaho Falls are trucked to the Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City, where the textiles are baled and sold to clothing buyers who do a more detailed sort. The clothes are eventually sold cheaply in street markets in developing countries in Africa and Asia. Some social justice advocates argue that this practice damages local economies since these low prices undercut local retailers and the entire textile and garment business in Africa.
So, what other alternatives do we have? For small repairs, like buttons or small holes, consider mending your clothes. You can also consider UPCYCLING or re-fashioning your clothing before donating or recycling them! Upcycling is the process of repurposing an item into something better than the original. It also reuses materials that may otherwise end up in the landfill in a creative and innovative way. There are hundreds of upcycling ideas online, especially on Pinterest. TVCR also has a Pinterest page at: https://www.pinterest.com/tetonrecycling/.
On Saturday, October 24th, TVCR will celebrate upcycled fashion, as well as repurposed furniture and functional home décor at our annual Trash Bash fundraiser, “TrashO’ween” at the Driggs City Center and Senior Center. Teton Valley’s trashionistas will model upcycled outfits made out of waste, and local DIY enthusiasts will sell upcycled furniture and homewares. Check out here for details.
Jen Werlin is the Executive Director of Teton Valley Community Recycling. For more information about waste reduction, reuse, and recycling, and/or to become involved with our community-wide efforts to reduce litter and landfill waste, please visit tetonrecycling.org.