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Should I put my old clothes in those bins?

| 04 Nov 2014 | 02:44

Keeping clothes out of landfills is a win-win

The average American throws away 70 pounds of used clothing every year, sending 11.1 million tons of textiles straight to the dump. Little do we realize, there are environmental and economic consequences to all that waste.

Clothes clog landfills and, as they rot amid other garbage, give off methane, a greenhouse gas that far exceeds the impacts of carbon dioxide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every two million tons of used clothing that enters a landfill is the greenhouse gas equivalent of putting another 1.2 million cars on the road. Discarded clothing that ends up in giant incinerators creates smog and release carbon monoxide, methane and small amounts of two widely feared metals, mercury and lead.

Along with being a total waste, throwing out all that clothing is costing us millions of dollars. The overall national textile recycling rate remains low, with only 15.7 percent of the millions of tons generated every year being diverted from wasteful disposal. Using the estimate of $60 per ton for landfill disposal, the 11.1 tons of clothing we throw away costs taxpayers over $600 million every year.

So what can you do? Donating even 10 pounds of clothing and shoes, or one small bag, prevents 35 pounds of carbon dioxide gas from polluting the atmosphere, conserves 7,000 gallons of water, and keeps three pounds of fertilizer and two pounds of pesticides from being spread. That’s because by reusing clothing rather than disposing of it, you reduce the need for growing more cotton or other materials needed to produce the fabric for making new clothes.

Close to 100 percent of the clothing Americans drop in the trash is perfectly recyclable. Our old clothes are in fact a valuable resources that, in this age of environmental and social responsibility, should not be discarded. And clothing that’s too ragged to be worn can still be reprocessed into paving material, carpet padding, home insulation, wiping clothes, baseball and softball filling, jewelry box lining, even paper money.

Rick Henningsen is the operations manager at Planet Aid, a nonprofit specializing in collecting and recycling used clothing and shoes

The drawback of donations

Most of us see donation bins as a way to throw out what we don’t want without actually throwing it out. In fact, we believe we’re doing the world a service by giving our old clothes to those living somewhere in need.

In reality, what we’ve come to believe isn’t that simple. Here’s why:

About 4.7 billion pounds of clothing are donated by Americans each year. Ten percent of it is good enough to be resold in a retail store, but the other 90 percent is shipped to a recycling plant. Employees of the plant are responsible for deciding where the garment ends up next -- either as upholstery stuffing or in the second-hand markets of many African countries.

One hundred pound “mitumba” (Swahili for “bundles”) are then sold to sellers in these countries at a profit for the recycling plant. One bundle costs around the same amount as feeding a family of five for a month in a country such as Cameroon, but the seller is not allowed to open the bundle until the purchase is final. If the recycler in the first plant missed a hole in a shirt or a broken zipper, the seller ends up paying for the mistake. Because the seller needs to make the money back to buy his or her next bale, one bad purchase can result in bankruptcy.

The global trade of second-hand clothing is a multi-billion dollar industry for developed countries. With our clothing waste being sent overseas by the tons, there’s little chance of African countries, as a whole, developing their own textile trade. In the last 10 years, local industries, such as garment-making and tailoring, have collapsed, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers unemployed.

According to Professor Garth Frazer from the University of Toronto, no country has ever achieved a sustainable per capita national income without also achieving a clothing-manufacturing workforce that employs at least 1 percent of the population.

Simply put, as long as we, the consumer, continue to buy and discard at our current rate, there will be a market for our wasted fashion. And we will likely continue to believe that once it’s out of our closet it’s out of our hands.

Shannon Whitehead is a sustainable fashion writer and the founder of Factory45, a made in the USA accelerator program for designers & makers