Making room in your closet? Getting ready for a new season? Kids outgrowing everything? Wonderful! You have a huge opportunity to put a little money in your pocket, help people in need in our community, and also do what’s right for the environment. Nothing could be more sustainable!
Why it Matters
According to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the average American throws away approximately 68 pounds of clothing and other textiles per year, but only purchases or receives ten pounds of recycled clothing annually. As a nation, our recycle rate for textiles is only about 15%, far below the rate for other recyclables. Clothing is usually about five percent of a municipal waste stream. If we extrapolate these averages to Fort Lauderdale’s population, we could be adding over 5,700 tons to our waste stream each year, and that is waste that usually hits the landfill.
Fortunately, our neighbors have demonstrated a great willingness towards clothing recycling through charitable donation. That's great news! We need to keep that up and do more, because the effects of clothing waste begin way before we decide to clean out the closets.
It starts in the field or in the lab where the raw materials that go into textiles are produced. Conventionally grown cotton is the most pesticide dependent crop in the world, which can affect groundwater, a native insect population’s ability to pollinate, and also nearby wildlife. Polyester is petroleum based, and is produced in an energy-intensive process that emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and acid gases. Nylon emits nitrous oxide, which has a carbon footprint 310 times greater than carbon dioxide. Rayon is derived from wood pulp of water-hungry eucalyptus trees, often planted after clearing native old growth forests. Permanent press textiles are sometimes treated with formaldehyde. The manufacture of these raw materials into clothing is a resource intensive process utilizing relatively large amounts of energy and water. After that, transport of clothing through the supply chain from manufacturer to wholesaler or distributor, and then to retailer and end user, utilizes even more energy, primarily in the form of fuel. Maintaining our clothes is energy and water intensive too. According to Earth911, 80% of the energy our clothes consume is used when we wash them, and nearly 17% of the water run through homes goes to operate washing machines. Finally, disposal of unwanted clothing that enters our waste stream adds to the tonnage we pay for at the landfill.
Does this mean that we should never purchase new clothing? No! Go ahead and enjoy that new outfit you worked hard to purchase. Just be be mindful of where it goes after it’s no longer useful to you. A life cycle assessment completed by the Salvation Army Trading Company Limited with the University College Northampton and Environmental Resources Management, showed startling savings. Re-using and recycling clothing results in a 97.4% net energy savings. Re-using clothing churns a local economy, and by utilizing charitable organizations for donation it does wider good. Finally, donating clothing to organizations which report tonnage they collect counts towards our achievement of the goal to recycle 75% of waste by 2020.
What Happens to Donated Clothing?
A charitable organization will sort clothing into different grades, including usable items, cotton scrap, cotton blend scrap and synthetics. Usable clothing can end up in one of three places, all of which help people in need and prevent the items from entering our waste stream. Usable clothing may be:
- Cleaned, repaired, packaged and provided directly to people in need here in the City of Fort Lauderdale or in our region. In cases where disaster relief is needed, clothing may also be shipped to NGOs outside our community that can distribute it where it is most needed.
- Sold in a retail outlet run by the charity. The clothing is generally offered at prices that are more affordable, and the proceeds of these sales go to support the charities’ community services. What’s more, this is good for the environment. In 2006, the 12 to 15 percent of people who shopped at consignment or thrift stores in the US saved 2.5 billion pounds of clothing from entering municipal waste streams.
- If it cannot be used or sold in the United States, clothing may baled for sale and bulk shipment overseas. Again, the local charity benefits directly from the sale.
Scrap and other unusable items are sold as commodities to recycling markets that turn them into other things, such as fibers for insulation.
This information applies only to registered not-for-profit organizations. The City of Fort Lauderdale cannot provide information regarding what happens to clothing donated to other entities.
Council for Textile Recycling is dedicated to promoting awareness of keeping clothing, footwear and textiles out of landfills. Their website has easy to understand info-graphics about the issue and the life cycle of second-hand clothing, as well as other materials for presenting this issue at HOA meetings, in the classroom, or virtually anywhere.
Earth911 has, for over 20 years, positioned itself as recycling experts. They provide recycling guides in a variety of formats for most materials and products. This webpage focuses on clothing recycling, with links to interesting articles about the process. At the bottom of the page, you'll find a clothing recycling locator tool.
Since 1932, SMART (The Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association) has been at the forefront of recycling. As a trade association, SMART supports members who use and convert recycled and secondary materials from used clothing, commercial laundries and non-woven, off-spec material, new mill ends and paper from around the world.