Photo: Antonia Böhlke

Recycling and Upcycling have become big buzz words in the fast fashion industry, as of late. With campaigns launched by some of the fast fashion retailers, such as H&M (Close the loop campaign), which allows consumers a place to toss their unwanted clothing. And it seems that fashion recycling is good for business. But what happens with the clothing?

Every year Americans recycle or donate an estimated 15% of their unwanted clothing. The remainder, coming to about 10.5 million tons go straight to landfills. This raises two questions: What happens to the clothing that is recycled? And what is the environmental impact of all those textiles that end up in landfills? Read further to get the answer.

Photo: Antonia Böhlke

1. Recycling: Resell / Donate

Roughly 10% of the clothing donated ends up back on the racks for re-sale. This low figure is a combination of usability and the simple fact that charity shops were established well before consumerism as we know it today. Donation shops just can’t keep up with the volume nor do they have a need for that much. The clothing that isn’t put on the racks is either sold to companies that will convert them into new purposes such as cleaning clothes, or it is sold to overseas companies which will then flood the local economy with second hand goods, or lastly it is simply tossed.

2. Recycling: Material Recovery

The possibility of fashion textile recovery would be the greatest, but it is not always possible. Clothing fibers have become incredibly complicated and make it as complicated to deconstruct to produce new materials making fashion recycling difficult. While there are some companies that focus on this deconstruction-construction of textiles there aren’t enough and the technology hasn’t allowed us to find a complete method to break down all recycled fibers.

3. Trash

Clothing that can neither be re-sold nor transformed has traditionally been sent to second-hand markets often in developing countries. But, often times this tanks the local economy leaving established textile manufacturers unable to keep up with the low cost and high volume of second-hand fast fashion. A few African countries have started to ban these imports leaving us stuck with our own waste and it is adding up quickly. In the end, when fashion recycling fails textiles end up in the trash.

Photo: Antonia Böhlke

What Is The Environmental Impact Of All Those Textiles That End Up In Landfills?

As noted above roughly 10.5 million tons of textiles in the United States end up in the landfill annually. Today’s clothing is made in large part from synthetic fibers which have a monumental impact on the environment from start to finish. Once in a landfill these fibers either don’t or are incredibly slow to break down. This in turn requires more land for our waste. Natural fibers will break down but present another challenge. Woolen fibers release methane in their decomposition giving way to rising greenhouse gases and global warming. The Ethical Fashion Forum puts it this way, “if everyone in the UK bought one reclaimed woollen garment each year, it would save an average of 371 million gallons of water (the average UK reservoir holds about 300 million gallons) and 480 tonnes of chemical dyestuffs. (Evergreen)”

To further complicate matters, today’s clothing is treated with some pretty nasty chemicals and dyes. From getting the exact textile color to making it fire retardant our clothing is saturated and once in a landfill this process wreaks havoc on our environment. A little bit of rain can cause a build-up of toxic water at the base of landfills which has been reported at more than 200% more toxic than sewage. In our closed loop system that water infiltrates the ground water making nearby water sources unusable.

flea market
Photo: Antonia Böhlke

What We Can Do:

Reduce: Fashion recycling is the way of the future but choose well, buy less. Charity shops and landfills are being saturated with textiles because of consumer habits. The less we buy, the less ends up at either of these places.

Reuse: A second option is a clothing swap among friends. Something you may not want any more because of fit or style may be perfect for a friend of yours or you sell them on a flea market. And it is the more sustainable option to shop second-hand clothing at a flea market or vintage shop (We will prepare a guide with the coolest flea markets and vintage shops in the world for you.)

Recycle: Fashion recycling is still the best option. As technologies improve and more fashion retailers are incorporating upcycled fibers into their clothing the amount of textile waste will continue to decline. In turn this requires less virgin natural resources with the manufacturing of new textiles.