The Afterlife of Clothes
1 September 2021
Where do clothes go after we dispose of them? The final destination for 73% of clothes produced is a landfill or incineration. While they may look good, more affordable clothes may have harmful effects on the environment for decades – many living longer than you.
“I’ve outgrown it.”
“It’s not my style anymore.”
“I’m trying to downsize.”
People dispose of their clothes for many reasons, but “out of sight, out of mind” is a dangerous phrase in the context of textile waste. Clothes live long after disposal, and only about 20% are reused or recycled. An article from Fashion Revolution revealed that “an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually from the fashion industry”, which is equivalent to dumping one garbage truck of textiles in a landfill every second. As eco-conscious citizens of the earth and consumers, ask an important question: where do clothes go after we are finished with them?
Where does textile waste end up, and why is it harmful?
Landfills are a dedicated site for the disposal of waste material, and therefore may seem like the obvious solution to disposing of textile waste. With 73% of clothes produced are doomed for the landfill or incineration, it is disheartening to hear that landfills are unsustainable and harmful destinations for textile waste for three reasons: time, space and emissions.
Firstly, clothing, the majority of which are made with non-biodegradable plastic-based fibers, can sit in landfills for more than 200 years decomposing. Secondly, clogging up landfills for that amount of time significantly impacts the amount of space clothes take up in landfills. Textiles account for 85% of national landfill space in the United States alone; and just one year of discarded textiles occupies about 126 million cubic yards of landfill space. Thirdly, while clothes made of non-biodegradable plastic-based fibers remain in landfills for hundreds of years, they undergo anaerobic digestion to decompose. This process releases greenhouse gas emissions like methane into the atmosphere and toxic substances like dyes and chemicals into groundwater and soil, accelerating climate change and environmental pollution.
What can be done?
The fact is that clothing made of non-biodegradable fibers can take 200 years to decompose, and decomposition is not ideal because of the toxic substances and emissions these plastic-based fibers release. Therefore, purchase clothes made with biodegradable cellulosic fibers. These fibers reduce the amount of time clothes stay in landfills and hasten decomposition without releasing anything harmful into the environment or atmosphere because they are derived from natural raw materials.
Another solution is to avoid sending clothes to landfills altogether. While the usefulness of an item may conclude for one person, it can find a second life with others. Allow others to love the clothes you loved by participating in a closet swap, or give old or broken items a second chance by repairing, recycling or upcycling them. There are many solutions to avoid filling our landfills with textiles and to give clothes a new purpose in their afterlife.