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A pile of wasted clothes towers in a generic forest
31 Aug
A pile of wasted clothes towers in a generic forest

Every Second, a Truckload of Clothes Is Destroyed—How Did We Get Here?

In her new book The Sustainable Wardrobe, journalist Sophie Benson goes beyond the greenwashing and takes a pragmatic look at the relationship we have with our clothes, both individually and as a society. One of the biggest misconceptions? That the clothes you donate are saved from the landfills. Here Benson tells the true story of what really happens with the clothes we stop caring for. 

What happens to your cast-offs?

Let’s peel the plaster off quickly: every single second, the equivalent of a rubbish-truckload of clothes is burned or buried in landfill. That’s an unimaginable amount of clothing going to waste, clothing that is the product of human skill and precious natural resources. Some of each truckload will come from manufacturers and brands in the form of offcuts, waste, and a portion of items that are never sold. However, a lot of it comes from consumers too, either directly or indirectly.

In 2018, Americans threw away 17m tons of textiles, representing 5.8% of municipal solid waste. The main source of these textiles was discarded clothing. By comparison, just 1.7m tons of textiles were thrown out in 1960. Americans aren’t the only culprits of course. The average European is said to throw around 11kgs (24lbs) of clothes, shoes, and fabric goods out annually, while as a nation, Singapore throws out one tonne of textile waste every five minutes.

If you’re horrified at the idea of throwing stuff away and diligent about what you do with clothes you no longer wear—donating them to your local charity shop for instance—you may be thinking that yours couldn’t possibly be part of that mountain of waste.

Fashion consumption ramped up at such a rapid pace that there was simply no time to put proper, robust systems in place.

But, in fact, it’s very likely that they are, despite your best efforts. I’m certain that many of my old clothes now languish in landfills across the globe.

Some of them are there because a younger me simply threw stuff in the bin as I didn’t know any better, but some of the pieces I’ve carefully washed, sorted, and donated are likely there right alongside them.

That’s because fashion consumption ramped up at such a rapid pace that there was simply no time to put proper, robust systems in place that could cope with us all constantly clearing out to make space for the billions upon billions of new clothes that are manufactured each year.

Charity shops can’t handle the volume of waste

Let’s imagine you’ve just had a wardrobe clear-out and it’s all bagged up for charity, either for a local shop or a donation bin. You’d assume that it would all end up on the rails of a shop, but as much as 90% of charity donations are exported. Part of the reason for this is that charity shops often can’t handle the amount of clothes we want to donate. The re-opening period after COVID-19 lockdowns laid this bare.

People who were stuck at home with time on their hands, people in need of a distraction from reality and just about everyone else it seems, decluttered their homes, which were also doubling up as schools, workplaces, and social spaces. The clothes that had once brought people joy were now making them feel hemmed in, so the second charity shops opened again, people wanted to get rid of those bags and boxes piled up by the front door. But because everyone had the same idea, charity shops had no choice but to turn people away.

Even without the extraordinary circumstances created by a pandemic, collectively we just have too much stuff that we’re desperate to get rid of. So, charity shops sell the many tonnes of clothes they can’t put on the rails to rag merchants.

Donated clothes get dumped on Africa

Once clothes are in the hands of rag merchants, they’re generally sorted by quality. Some is landfilled or incinerated (another bit of that truckload), some is downcycled into things like mattress filling and insulation, the rest wrapped in plastic and exported.

Rag merchants send clothes all around the world, but the Global South is an area of particular focus, with more than 70% of clothing donated globally going to Africa alone. Charity campaigns, appeals, and cultural misrepresentations have created a narrative that all countries in the Global South are “needy” and therefore should be happy to receive what others no longer want.

This way of thinking has led to 15m items a week landing at Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana. And of those 15m items, 40% ends up in landfill almost immediately because it’s of poor quality, damaged or unsuitable for the Ghanaian climate and local style preferences.

In the very early days of exportation, some of the clothes were wanted because of their ties to British style, a shadow of superiority cast by many years of colonial rule. But donations soon ramped up to unsustainable levels and dropped significantly in both quality and price, undercutting and destroying local textile economies and leaving locals drowning in plastic- wrapped bales of clothes.

There is no such thing as ‘away’

As Annie Leonard of Greenpeace once famously said, “There is no such thing as ‘away’. So, when we throw it away, it must go somewhere.” Kantamanto market, Accra, is just one example of that somewhere. Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia are also somewhere, as are Haiti and Chile.

The countries that are treated as our collective “away” have become so used to being inundated with cast-offs from the Global North that they’ve created a language around it. Obroni wawu, the Ghanaian phrase, perhaps sums it up best: loosely translated, it means “dead white man’s clothes”.

While once it would have been reasonable to have absolutely no idea what happened after you handed over your donation bag, now the word is very much out. Thanks to the work of organisations like The Or Foundation, a non-profit which operates in Kantamanto market, the everyday consumer is now able to see the impact clothing exports are having. Stories of injuries or deaths related to porters carrying bales on their heads weighing over 55 kgs (121 lbs) can now be heard, and photos of piles of unsellable clothing littering the shores of Ghanaian beaches are widely shared. (But that’s not to say all of the clothes become waste. The Or Foundation explains that the Kantamanto community successfully recirculates a “minimum of 25m garments every month”. That’s a level of circularity and sustainability fashion brands from the Global North dream of).

Obroni wawu, the Ghanaian phrase, perhaps sums it up best: loosely translated, it means 'dead white man’s clothes'.

Many dedicated fashion followers recoiled when they opened Twitter and saw photos of the Atacama Desert in Chile hidden beneath mountains of clothes. A short distance from a local port, it’s become a desert landfill for more than half of the 60,000 tonnes of clothing imported each year. Even if you don’t really do social media and haven’t seen the photos or heard the stories, you’ve very likely watched a travel documentary and seen the odd person in a remote area wearing an old-season football shirt or a sweatshirt that you saw on your local high street a few years back. I used to think it was just trends spreading globally: it’s actually fashion waste spreading globally instead.

<1% of textile waste is recycled into new clothes

You may very well be feeling that you never want to donate another piece of clothing again, so perhaps you’ll give recycling a try instead. Given how much brands talk about recycling the clothes we return, or making clothes from recycled materials, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that fashion has recycling covered. But currently, it’s estimated that less than 1% of textile waste is recycled into new fibres for clothing.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, once again, we just made too many clothes too quickly for technology to provide enough solutions and, secondly, clothes can be tricky to recycle because they are made up of so many different components.

A quick check of a few labels in your wardrobe will show that most of our clothes are made of blends. Very often it’s cotton mixed with polyester, but it can be a mix of a host of materials. One designer camisole I saw recently advertised was made up of acetate, viscose, cotton, polyester, and polyamide. Add threads, zips, buttons, eyelets, drawstrings, and all the other many finishes and you’ve got a whole lot of materials in one garment.

You might notice that fashion and activewear brands tend to favour recycling bottles over recycling old polyester clothes.

Now, think of your household waste for a second. It must be carefully sorted into different material categories so it reaches the right waste stream. Separating paper from plastics, tins from cardboard has become a part of life for most, but it’s simply impossible for us to separate the cotton threads from the polyester threads from the viscose. So, off our clothes go to recycling in one big, amalgamated blend.

Very much like donated clothing, most clothing dropped into recycling bins or handed into shops running recycling schemes is downcycled into rags, padding, and insulation. But there is that tiny less than 1% that is recycled into fibres for new clothes, showing it is possible on some level. Natural fibres like cotton, wool, and linen would generally be mechanically recycled; shredded by machines and respun into new yarn. However, the process shortens the fibres, making them weaker, and they must usually be blended with virgin fibres to ensure they’re durable enough to be wearable.

Synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon can be recycled mechanically or chemically, whereby they’re melted before being re-spun into new fibre. So, yes, technically your old rain jacket could be recycled, but you might notice that fashion and activewear brands tend to favour recycling bottles over recycling old polyester clothes. Why? Because they’re not “contaminated” with all those finishes and fixings mentioned earlier, making the process quicker, easier, and more cost effective.

Innovations provide some cautious hope

Though the current clothing recycling system is barely making a dent, there are people out there working hard on innovations to improve it.

Selected companies are developing exciting new technologies to push recycling forwards, which are being trialled by global brands. Cotton waste can be dissolved into pulp and turned into brand new fabrics; garments can become recycled thread with the help of robotics; polyester and cotton can be separated and turned back into raw materials; end-of-life textiles can undergo “molecular regeneration” to become new materials and garments can be made with threads that dissolve in heat, making it faster and easier to disassemble and recycle them.

If they can operate on a global scale, these new technologies could certainly help keep clothes out of landfill, especially those that are beyond repair.

But each has its own environmental drawback, whether it’s the use of chemicals, water, or the need for heat, so the ultimate solution is keeping garments, or at least the fabric they’re made from, in use for as long as possible without the need to recycle them into new fibres.

Clothing is a precious resource

It may not seem like it due to the manner in which it’s discarded, but clothing is a precious resource. It takes from the earth in the form of crops, water, nutrients, or oil, and many skilled hands are involved in cultivating, manufacturing, spinning, and sewing it. Because it was more expensive and less readily available, clothing and fabric used to be treasured more highly. What could no longer be repaired was repurposed into new garments or made into children’s clothes, and when they could no longer be repaired, the fabric was used as dusters or rags. Clothing used to have a long and varied life, as it should, and now a growing number of creatives are reigniting that reality.

From high-end designers to hobbymakers, people are cutting used garments up, then splicing and tessellating them back together into one-of-a-kind garments. Patchwork coats, dresses with clashing panels, and jumpers that are half scarf, half vintage blanket are breathing new life into old clothes and livening up wardrobes. Two holey pairs of trousers can become a jacket, a drawer full of odd socks can be made into a corset; there are no rules, only endless ideas.

The ultimate solution is keeping garments, or at least the fabric they’re made from, in use for as long as possible without the need to recycle them into new fibres

In countries overloaded with cast-offs from the Global North, many designers specialise in reimagining worn-out t-shirts, hoodies, shirts, and sweaters, turning them into wearable garments and selling them to international audiences. One brand, Buzigahill, describes it as “redesigning second hand clothes and redistributing them to the Global North”. These brands most certainly set the tone for the others following suit, some using textiles from Kantamanto market, some using unsold stock from department store warehouses and others using everything from worn-out jeans to old nightgowns.

For now, landfill remains the default destination for our cast-offs, even those intended to end up elsewhere, but if we can scale positive solutions in a meaningful way, which truly interrupts the buy–wear–discard pipeline at the same time as decreasing consumption, then we can start to have an impact.

Editor's note

This is an edited extract from The Sustainable Wardrobe written by Sophie Benson and published by White Lion Publishing.

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