Story at a glance
Discarded clothing and textiles take up a large portion of landfill space while simultaneously contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions.
The detrimental effects of fast fashion and a linear economy, along with a lack of global regulations all compound clothing production and disposal harms.
Government agencies and independent companies are working to address these challenges and hope to transform consumer mindsets and production standards along the way.
According to one estimate, 66 percent of post-consumer textile waste ends up in landfills, 19 percent is combusted, and just 15 percent is recycled. Moreover, since the 1960s, the country has seen a nearly 10-fold increase in discarded textiles, while data show each individual in the United States discarded an average of 103 pounds of textiles in 2018 alone.
Similar to other climate change ramifications, discarded clothing is more often generated by higher-income individuals, but has the greatest impact on lower socioeconomic communities, as these areas have a higher concentration of landfills.
While prolonging clothing’s life has become more popular thanks in part to the growing popularity of thrifting, the sheer amount of new clothing produced each year — coupled with Americans’ insatiable buying habits — lead to excess production, purchase, and discard of low-quality clothing, perpetuating an unsustainable linear economy.
But shifting to a more circular economy — where a product only ends up in a landfill as a last resort — can not only help reduce waste, but will lead to better environmental outcomes as less natural resources will be depleted, and can help create new business opportunities.
If applied to the textile industry, this transformation would yield substantial improvements, experts argue. Recent estimates from the World Economic Forum found 8 supply chains from raw materials to end product manufacturing account for more than half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, with fashion ranked third behind food and construction.
Once a garment is manufactured, sold, and worn — often for short periods of time due to evolving trends perpetuated by fast fashion — consumers can attempt to re-sell the item, repair it, donate it, or discard it.
But oftentimes consignment stores are selective about which pieces they accept, while donation centers often do not take used undergarments, socks, or bathing suits. Large portions of donated clothes also get sent to the global south and take tolls on local textile industries.
All this begs the question, what can be done to reform the process?
Textile recycling offers one solution. Although clothes made of a single material can be relatively easy and efficient to recycle into new usable fiber, challenges arise when it comes to those composed of synthetic fibers or blends, and the majority of clothing worn in America contains synthetic materials such as lycra, or spandex.
“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to separate out that elasticity and that spandex component, either through mechanical or chemical processing,” explained Amanda Forster, a materials research engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in an interview with Changing America.
“When you’re going [through a] recycle process, your ideal scenario is to have 100% pure content so that you know what you’re getting out in the end has that same input metric,” Forster explained. Other components like zippers, buttons, tags, dyes, and finishes, all pose additional challenges to the process.
In May of 2022, Forster co-wrote a workshop report produced by NIST on facilitating a circular economy for textiles.
According to the report, “60 percent of clothing and 70 percent of household textiles are comprised of synthetic fibers, and this trend is expected to increase into the future as consumers in emerging economies adopt Western lifestyles and attire.”
Along with the inherent difficulties of identifying and separating materials, the report laid out systemic hurdles facing industries and governments alike.
These include disjointed global supply chains, lack of process and terminology standards, and a massive volume of garments produced each day, all of which impede data collection efforts and can have dire implications for human and environmental health.
For example, “specific chemicals used in textile production and applied to garments are often not identified or tracked through the supply chain, and as a result, their potential for toxicity is also lost,” authors wrote.
Because the naked human eye cannot discern a fabric’s content makeup, technologies like near-infrared (NIR)- spectroscopy are being deployed to help speed up identification and sorting processes. Another potential solution involves 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.
In the meantime, several companies have taken on the challenge of addressing textile waste that can’t be consigned or donated, either because the pieces are unusable or because the fabric was never clothing in the first place.
For example, Fabscrap works with designer brands to sustainably discard their pre-consumer scraps by selling the raw fabric, creating new fiber, or downcycling it into lesser value shoddy (fiber pulp) for insulation, carpet padding, or furniture lining.
Another company, Knickey, receives donations of clean undergarments, bathing suits, socks, and tights and works with its partner Texaid to determine the best repurposing option based on the fabric’s makeup.
The company also produces and sells 100 percent organic cotton undergarments and is climate neutral certified. With each box of undergarments donated, individuals will receive a discount for Knickey products.
“We’re not only taking responsibility for the products that we put out into the world, but also the massive amount of textile waste that is endemic to the underwear…category since there’s really no way to dispose of that responsibly,” 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 of the world have left behind.”
Victoria’s Secret did not immediately reply to a request for comment, although the company does publish data on its climate and energy impact.
Once donations are sorted by materiality, those that cannot be upcycled or recycled (synthetic material) are shredded and used as shoddy. This material goes on to stuff punching bags or molded into a soft composite, among other uses.
Meanwhile, cotton or single-material-rich donations can be spun into secondary yarns, O’Connell Davis said. “100% of the recycled goods we receive either go into the shoddy throughput feedstock or they go into the upcycling textile-to-textile recycling.”
Currently, the company doesn’t partner with traditional clothing donation outlets like Goodwill or The Salvation Army to take any unwanted socks or undergarments, but O’Connell Davis would welcome the opportunity. “I think that would be a really great solution because unfortunately, they throw a lot of that stuff out.”
Knickey is also on track to recycle one million garments this year and has plans to better educate consumers about how they can sustainably dispose of undergarments in the future.
Although textile recycling does offer one way forward for cutting down on clothing waste, the process can be labor intensive and opportunities for improvement exist.
One concern raised by the NIST report involves the potential release of harmful chemicals during the process. Previous research has shown certain garments contain toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or “forever chemicals.”
“Recycling is not a panacea for any of these different fields in which we’re trying to figure out what to do with materials at end-of-life,” Forster said, referencing other products like single-use plastics.
“A lot of this starts at the design phase,” she added. Designing products that last longer and are composed of fewer materials could help reduce textile waste. However, even fully natural products made of single materials have environmental impacts, from increased land use to deforestation.
Continuing to use textiles as originally intended by repairing or refreshing garments is one of the best ways forward, as is simply buying and producing less clothes.
At Knickey, “we don’t over produce our garments, we really try to respond to the demand,” said O’Connell Davis. And right now, “there is huge demand for sustainable solutions in the clothing market.”