Recycling of textiles and clothing is a potentially beneficial activity from an environmental, social and economic point of view, unlike landfill or energy use. As cities are increasingly diverting other high-volume waste streams, such as organics, recycling old clothes has been seen as the next frontier for cities looking to reduce solid waste.
The main benefit of textile recycling activities is the opportunity to reuse clothing. By reusing clothes and textiles, we can avoid pollution and the energy-intensive production of new clothes. Additionally, clothing that cannot be reused can be repurposed into products like rags or recycled into fabric or other material for reprocessing. However, as Greenpeace warned in a 2016 press release, “technological challenges mean that the complete recycling of clothing into new fibers is still far from commercially viable.” Even the recovery and sale of used clothing has been a controversial issue, especially for export to developing countries.
Here are some interesting facts about textile and clothing recycling:
1. More than 15 million tons of used textile waste is generated each year in the United States, and the amount has doubled in the last 20 years. In 2014, according to the US EPA, more than 16 million tons of textile waste were generated. Of this amount, 2.62 million tons were recycled, 3.14 million tons were burned for energy recovery, and 10.46 million tons were sent to landfill. An average American throws away approximately 80 pounds of used clothing per person. On average nationally, it costs cities $45 per ton to dispose of old clothes.
Synthetic clothing can take hundreds of years to decompose.
2. Only about 0.1% of the recycled fiber collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber.
3. Consumers are considered to be the main culprits for throwing away their used clothing, as only 15 percent of consumer-worn clothing is recycled, while manufacturers recycle more than 75 percent of previously worn clothing .
4. According to Greenpeace, global clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014. The average person buys 60% more clothes each year and keeps them for about half as much as 15 years ago, creating a lot of waste .
5. The average life time of a fabric is approximately 3 years.
6. Almost 100 percent of textiles and clothing are recyclable.
7. The annual environmental impact of a household’s laundry is equivalent to the water needed to fill 1,000 bathtubs and the carbon emissions of driving an average modern car 6,000 miles.
8. If the average life of clothing were extended by just three months, you would reduce your carbon and water footprints, as well as your waste generation, by 5 to 10 percent. Recycling two million tons of clothing per year is equivalent to taking one million cars off the road in the US.
9. More than 70 percent of the world’s population wears second-hand clothes. About 50 percent of the collected shoes and clothing are used as second-hand products. Meanwhile, 20 percent is used to produce cleaning and polishing cloths for various industrial purposes and 26 percent is recycled for applications such as fiber for insulation products, upholstery, fiberboard, and mattresses.
10. The US textile recycling industry removes approximately 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textiles each year from the waste stream and the industry supports more than 17,000 jobs. Among this workforce, 10,000 are semi-skilled employees employed in the primary processing of used textiles and the remaining 7,000 employees are employed in the final processing stage. There are more than 500 garment recycling companies in the United States, and most of these companies are owned by small, family-owned businesses, each employing 35 to 50 workers.
11. According to the Textile Recycling Council , nearly half of used clothing is given to charity by the general public. Charities distribute and sell these garments for free or at low prices. And 61 percent of reusable and recyclable textiles are exported to other countries.
All of these facts indicate that the textile recycling industry in the United States has great potential to expand, given that 85 percent of used textiles still go to national landfills. The next steps involve further initiatives to promote recycling, as well as the harmonization of collection efforts.