Torn t-shirt? Threadbare towels? Stained sweater? What do you do with these items? The Green Team investigated diversion options for textiles and the results were discouraging. These items are generally not recyclable and end up in landfill regardless of where you have donated them. The other “R’s” take priority with textiles namely “Reduce” and “Reuse”.
Many of us have donated wearable clothing to charity shops and shelters. Blankets, sheets and towels are welcomed at animal shelters. But what about the soiled, stained and misshapen clothing? Some municipalities and miscellaneous donation boxes allow you to drop off textiles. Where they go might surprise you.
According to a CBC Marketplace investigation, most textiles diverted end up in second-hand clothes markets in Africa, Central & South America. In 2016, Canada exported more than $160 million worth of used textiles globally, with $22 million of it going to Kenya. Items too damaged to be worn end up in landfill overseas or burned. So, in addition to the negative carbon impact of the fossil fuels required to transport these items across the ocean and continents, burning negatively impacts air quality. It would be better to bury them in our own backyard.
Why not recycle? Recycling clothes into other textiles, particularly new clothes, is costly and difficult with less than one per cent of clothing being recycled to make new clothing. Many clothes are made of blended fibres and don't break down easily, especially synthetics which are essentially plastic. Recycling cotton and wool diminishes the quality of the material. What can be recycled is used for carpet padding, painters' cloths or insulation, but the majority of clothes discarded are sent to landfill or burned.
More recently, Fashion Takes Action, a Canadian non-profit fashion industry organization looking to advance sustainability in the entire fashion system through education, awareness, research and collaboration, commissioned a 2021 feasibility study of textile recycling in Canada. The study (download report here) produced 22 recommendations (see page 125) which focused on creating processes and systems for textile diversion, recycling and circularity.
Investments need to be made in infrastructure, research and development, and education to stem the tide of textiles in landfill. Share these recommendations with your municipal, provincial and federal representatives to make sure this issue is on their radar!