How advocates are tackling the massive textile waste challenge – The Hill

history at a glance


  • Discarded clothing and textiles take up a large portion of landfill space while contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

  • The adverse effects of fast fashion and a linear economy, along with a lack of global regulation, are hurting the entire manufacture and disposal of assembled clothing.

  • Government agencies and independent companies are working to address these challenges, hoping to change consumer mindsets and production standards along the way.

Discarded garments are fast Fill up American landfills and the exacerbation of climate change through increased greenhouse gas emissions emissions.

Corresponding an estimate, 66 percent of post-consumer textile waste ends up in landfills, 19 percent is incinerated and only 15 percent is recycled. Additionally, the country has seen a nearly 10-fold increase in discarded textiles since the 1960s, while data shows that every individual in the United States has thrown one away Average of 103 pounds of textiles in 2018 alone.

Similar to other climate change impacts, discarded clothing is more likely to be generated by those with higher incomes, but has the greatest impact on lower social communities as these areas have a higher concentration of landfills.

While extending the life of clothing has become increasingly popular thanks in part to the growing popularity of frugality, the sheer volume of new clothing being produced each year – coupled with Americans’ voracious spending habits – is leading to overproduction, buying and discarding of inferior clothing, thereby perpetuating an unsustainable linear economy.

But shift to one more circular Economizing – where a product only ends up in landfill as a last resort – can not only help reduce waste, but will lead to better environmental outcomes as fewer natural resources are depleted, and can help create new business opportunities.

Applied to the textile industry, experts argue that this transformation would bring significant improvements. Recent estimates from the World Economic Forum 8 Supply chains from raw materials to finished product manufacture are responsible for more than half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, with fashion third behind food and construction.

Once a garment is made, sold and worn – often for only a short time due to evolving trends that are continued by fast fashion — Consumers can attempt to resell, repair, donate, or discard the item.

But often consignment stores are picky about which parts they accept, while donation centers often won’t accept used underwear, socks, or swimsuits. Large amounts of donated clothing are also sent to the global south and burden the local textile industry.

All of this raises the question of what can be done to reform the process?

Textile recycling offers a solution. Although clothing made from a single material can be recycled into new usable fibers relatively easily and efficiently, challenges arise when it comes to clothing made from synthetic fibers or blends bulk of clothing Clothing worn in America contains synthetic materials such as lycra or spandex.

“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to separate that elasticity and that spandex component, whether through mechanical or chemical processing,” explained Amanda Forster, materials research engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in an interview with Changing America.

“If you go [through a] In the recycling process, your ideal scenario is 100% clean content so you know what you end up with has the same input metrics,” explained Forster. Other components such as zippers, buttons, tags, dyes and finishes all add additional challenges to the process.


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In May 2022, Forster co-wrote a workshop report Produced by NIST to facilitate a circular economy for textiles.

According to the report, “60 percent of clothing and 70 percent of household textiles are made of synthetic fibers, and this trend is expected to increase in the future as consumers in emerging markets adopt Western lifestyles and clothing.”

In addition to the inherent difficulties in identifying and separating materials, the report laid out systemic hurdles faced by industries and governments alike.

These include disjointed global supply chains, a lack of process and terminology standards, and the sheer volume of clothing produced every day, all of which hamper data collection efforts and can have serious impacts on human and environmental health.

For example, “certain chemicals used in textile production and applied to garments are often not identified or tracked through the supply chain, and as a result, their toxicity potential is also lost,” the authors write.

Because the unaided human eye cannot see the contents of a substance, technologies such as near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy are used to speed up the identification and sorting processes. Another potential solution is the digital identification and tracking of products as they move through the supply chain.

“Such a system would ideally combine NIR and robotics; The former to both identify fiber types and provide percentages of polymer/material compositions, and the latter to separate the textiles based on desired categories (e.g. fiber composition, color, etc.),” the report reads.

Meanwhile, several companies have taken on the challenge of eliminating textile waste that cannot be given away or donated, either because the pieces are unusable or because the fabric was never clothing.

For example, factory scrap works with designer brands to dispose of their pre-consumer waste in a sustainable way by selling the raw material, making new fibers or recycling it into low-grade scrap (dissolving pulp) for insulation, carpet padding or furniture coverings.

another company, knickersreceives donations of clean underwear, swimsuits, socks and tights and works with his partner Texaid to determine the best reuse option based on the composition of the fabric.

The company also produces and sells underwear made from 100 percent organic cotton and is certified climate-neutral. With every box of underwear donated, individuals receive a discount on Knickey products.

“We take responsibility not only for the products we bring to market, but also for the massive amount of textile waste that is endemic to the lingerie category as there really is no way to responsibly dispose of it,” said Knickey CEO and co-founder Cayla O’Connell Davis in an interview with Changing America.

“We’re cleaning up the mess that the Victoria’s secrets left behind to the world.”

Victoria’s Secret did not immediately respond to a request for comment, despite the company releasing data on its climate and energy A hit.

Once donations are sorted by materiality, those that cannot be upcycled or recycled (synthetic material) are shredded and used as inferior. This material is used, among other things, to fill punching bags or to form a soft composite.

Meanwhile, cotton or single-material-rich donations can be spun into secondary yarns, O’Connell Davis said. “100% of the recycled goods we receive go into either the bad throughput raw material or upcycled textile-to-textile recycling.”

Currently, the company doesn’t work with traditional clothing donations like Goodwill or The Salvation Army to accept unwanted socks or underwear, but O’Connell Davis would welcome the opportunity. “I think that would be a really great solution because unfortunately they throw away a lot of the stuff.”

Knickey is also on track to recycle one million garments this year and plans to better educate consumers on how to dispose of underwear sustainably in the future.

Although textile recycling offers an opportunity to reduce clothing waste, the process can be labor intensive and there is room for improvement.

A concern raised in the NIST report is the potential release of harmful chemicals during the process. previous research has revealed that certain garments contain toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or “forever chemicals”.

“Recycling isn’t a panacea for any of these different areas where we’re trying to figure out what to do with materials at the end of their lifecycle,” Forster said, pointing to other products like single-use plastics.

“A lot of this starts in the design phase,” she added. Designing products that last longer and are made from fewer materials could help reduce textile waste. But even purely natural products made from just one material have environmental impacts, from increased land use to deforestation.

Keeping using textiles the way they were originally intended by repairing or refreshing clothing items is one of the best ways forward, as is simply buying and producing less clothing.

At Knickey, “we don’t overproduce our garments, we really try to respond to demand,” said O’Connell Davis. And right now, “there is a huge demand for sustainable solutions in the apparel market.”

Published on 08/05/2022

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