Recycling, upcycling, reuse and disposal
Textile Waste in the UK has risen from 7% of total waste to 30% in the last five years, according to EcoTextileNews. The low cost of clothing makes it more practical to throw away garments than to repair them, and once they've become unfashionable we would rather not see them again. Millions of tons of clothing are tossed each year into garbage landfills where they rot and produce methane gas which is one of the by-products from the decomposition of organic materials, according to the Sustainable Solution Design Association
It used to be that clothes were disposed of when they were completely worn out, maybe after even being used as wash-cloths or polishing rags before they ended up in the bin. Not any more. With Fast Fashion and clothing chains that restock every week, clothes have become consumption goods that increasingly constitute a land-fill problem. In some countries (Norway is one example) the solution has been to burn the textile waste and produce energy. But the energy gained is much, much less than what goes in to the production of the same textiles; could they be effectively recycled, reused or upcycled – the energy-gain would be much greater. But disassembling garments is complicated and much of what is recycled in to new clothing or accessories today comes from pre-consumer waste (cuttings on factory floors being one such resource). Collection of used clothing varies a lot, but have you considered offering a premium to customers who return items? Factories that specialize in recycling everything from old knitting sweaters to polyester clothing have been around for several years, and fashion-forward companies have already discovered and started utilizing their products. Maybe in the future governments will demand that whoever produces something will be responsible for the product’s demise…
According to EcoTextileNews, in terms of the carbon dioxide (CO2) impacts of waste disposal choices, a report from Defra finds that the re-use of clothing is by far better than recycling or disposal, although much of the CO2 benefits occur outside the UK. Recycling is significantly better than sending textiles to landfill and energy recovery, and, compared to other components in the household waste stream, the CO2 benefit of textile recycling versus disposal is second only to that of aluminium. Charity shops and the textile recycling industry therefore have a substantial environmental benefit, displacing up to 8 million tonnes of CO2 per year, albeit not in the UK. You can read more about this study in the article "Worn out clothes can reclaim profits".
Recycling is significantly better than sending textiles to landfill and energy recovery
Teijin, a Japanese polyester supplier, offers Ecocycle™, maybe the best chemical recycling program for apparel. Their process allows polyester garments to be recycled into new PET polymer that is virtually undistinguishable from virgin PET.
When our clothes become worn and unfashionable, we throw them away. From an environmental perspective it seems that the best thing to do is to recycle them, either by giving them to the appropriate organization or to sort and reuse the clothes for e.g. production of yarn, cotton waste, mattresses etc. However, there may also be problems with sending them to the Salvation Army or others for reuse since the clothes will eventually end up as waste somewhere in the world and it might be in a place with no incineration facilities where the waste will end up in landfills.
Clothes containing PVC are harmful to the environment after disposal. PVC is made from raw oil and chlorine and during the production of PVC vinyl chloride is discharged which may cause cancer in human beings. Softeners are added to the PVC. The most common softeners are Phthalates which are on several countries’ Environmental Protection Agencies list of unwanted substances due to the harmful effects on the water environment and human beings. PVC often ends at the incineration plant and when PVC is burnt, toxic smoke, which contains hydrochloric acid, will be discharged. The smoke will therefore have to be cleaned but this process will create other environmental problems. Each time two kilograms of PVC are incinerated, another two kilograms of environmentally hazardous waste will be discharged which will have to be disposed of. Polyurethane and nylon (polyamide) are good alternatives to PVC since they are less harmful to the environment and humans. Not so NICE: "The hazards of conventional textile printing inks are not just to personal health but also to environmental health. Garments coated with plastisol inks do not decompose and they are difficult to recycle. The result is that you may soon grow tired of your Rolling Stones concert t-shirt and trash it, but it will live on in immortality in the local landfill."