Ask Eartha: Give clothing a second life
August 19, 2016
Every year I donate clothes to our local thrift stores, but sometimes they're too full and can't accept items. Where do leftover clothes go in the afterlife?
— Kaitlin, Silverthorne
We've all been there. Your favorite pair of jeans no longer fits or your closet is full of clothes that are out of fashion, have holes or you just don't like them anymore.
What do you do?
The amount of clothing waste we Americans generate is concerning. Each year, we trash over 68 pounds per person and export even more to markets around the world. The good news is that since 2010, the thrift store and reuse markets in the U.S. have grown 7 percent, meaning that Americans, while still buying more stuff, are also buying more secondhand goods or reusing what they do buy more than once. As always, the Eartha household advocates for reducing consumption first — do you really need a new pair of jeans? — and then for the reuse and remanufacturing of old products. This helps cut down on the need for more virgin resources to make the products, as well as the water and energy input needed to process and transport virgin material.
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When you're looking at those old jeans, hopefully you consider donating clothes to a local secondhand market, so they can be used again before they end up in a landfill. There are several local organizations that take clothing for secondhand use in Summit County, such as the FIRC's Thrift Store and Horse Cents. In addition, the High Country Conservation Center and County Government offer a collection event coinciding with Town Clean Up Day in the spring that accepts used textiles for recycling. But sometimes local organizations are overwhelmed and can't accept additional material or the clothing you have is no longer wearable.
Clothes get shipped around the world to countries in need, an industry that accounts for over $1 billion in trade. Historically, sub-Saharan countries in Africa have been a major importer of secondhand clothing goods, importing over half of their clothing goods from secondhand markets. However, in a recent proposal by East African countries, governments would ban secondhand imports to help revitalize the domestic clothing industry, create jobs and exports as well as bolster their domestic economies. The ban would go into effect in 2019 in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda: countries that traditionally have imported upwards of 1,500 tons of used clothing from the U.S. alone. This move has significant impacts for countries like the U.S. that are accustomed to getting rid of used goods via secondary markets. Makes you think twice about getting rid of those jeans!
So, since African countries move in this direction, what options are left for Americans? For starters, consider product stewardship and take-back programs, garment leasing and formalwear rentals. Take-back programs like the one H&M runs means that shoppers can return their old textiles (industry word for clothing) in exchange for coupons or stipends for new clothing. By keeping 25,000 tons of textiles out of the landfill, H&M can now produce clothing from recycled fibers. There are several other models and programs available from companies trying to encourage moderate consumption of goods while still maintaining a strong bottom-line. If clothing is too worn for donation, there are also take-back programs such as USAgain of Denver that repurpose, recover and recycle textile material into new goods. A quick visit to their website shows that by keeping clothing out of landfills, their organization has saved over 4.5 billion pounds of CO2 and 3.6 million cubic yards of landfill space. That's the carbon sequestration equivalent of 728,487 trees planted.
So, the next time you're looking through your closet, consider your clothing's end of life. Can you get additional wear out of it? Can someone else locally? Globally? If not, how can you properly dispose of it so that it's not sent to a landfill or so that it's recycled into new material? The outlets aren't always easy to find, but they're out there. And remember, don't buy that bridesmaid dress for your best friend's wedding — rent it.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.