Recycling Fashion’s Remnants: Residential and Commercial Textile Waste
By Jessica Schrieber
Where there is discussion of textiles, let there be talk of trash. Balancing the glamour with the waste is a necessity as fashion finds its way into the landfill at an alarming rate. Every year, New York City residents discard 200,000 tons of clothing, shoes, accessories, and linens. Fashion is now 6 percent of New York City’s residential waste.
It can be hard to visualize this amount of discarded material without context. Picture instead the granite and limestone towers and steel wire cables of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. The weight of the discarded clothing is the equivalent to the weight of the Brooklyn Bridge — fourteen times over. The bridge itself can hold just over 98,000 tons. To hold the weight of clothing thrown out, we would need the suspension capacity of two Brooklyn Bridges. Every year. Just for New York City’s textile waste.
The crisis of residential clothing disposal has been well documented. The EPA estimates the average U.S. citizen will throw out 70 pounds of textiles every year. And though 1.9 million tons of clothing are donated, reused, or recycled, that is only 15 percent of the total textile waste. The other 85 percent, or 10.75 million tons, is going straight into the ground. Every year. Just in the United States.
It’s time now to make a critical distinction. Not all waste is counted equally. Commercial waste is NOT included in the numbers above.
Residential waste, as described above, measures the discards of people, families, or individuals. It’s the trash that is created by the use of items. It is also known as “postconsumer waste.” Commercial waste measures the discards of businesses. It’s the trash that is created in the development and production of items. It is also known as “preconsumer waste.”
As it relates to textiles, the preconsumer waste of fashion includes fabric headers, cutting room scraps, unsellable samples, muslin mock-ups, and overstock bolts. As with a cookie cutter, when a pattern is cut from a sheet of fabric, there will be remnants.
Measuring preconsumer waste is difficult. Most businesses have private waste removal contracts. The haulers removing that waste are not required to report tonnages picked up, to share the destination of the material, or to characterize it by its contents. According to Annie Leonard in her book The Story of Stuff and movie of the same name, the best estimation is that “for every pound of trash that ends up in municipal landfills, at least forty more pounds are created upstream by the industrial process.” That’s correct — consider commercial textile waste to be forty times the residential volumes.
But why should we care? And who is responsible? As fabric decomposes in landfill, the dyes and chemicals can leach into the soil, contaminating the local water systems. Each pound of fabric waste from apparel production is associated with 2.06 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions — specifically, methane, which has 72 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. For every pound recycled or reused, more emissions are saved than from paper, plastic, and glass recycling combined.
Assigning responsibility for residential textile waste is complicated. Traditionally, the fashion industry has relied on encouraging the consumer to seek donation and reuse options. This tactic is not moving the needle. Based on reports from the EPA, between 1999 and 2009, postconsumer textile waste increased 40 percent, while diversion from landfill increased a small 2 percent. Thus, the burden of disposal often falls on municipalities. Even with an extensive network of nonprofit partners and a robust, convenient reuse program, the New York City Department of Sanitation spends $60 million a year on residential textiles sent to landfill. Changing the habits of a population is an uphill battle, and with the exception of a few innovative brands, the fashion industry as a whole has not joined the fight.
The industry may not be able to avoid this minimal participation for long. Extended Producer Responsibility legislation — already enacted for e-waste, tires, and some types of packaging — could simultaneously ban residential disposal and place at least the financial, if not the collection, onus of recycling on manufacturers. Hopefully, as these types of policies are discussed and introduced, fashion’s designers and manufacturers will consider practices that will make compliance easier. Some examples to aid the industry are utilizing fibers that are recyclable once recovered from consumers and creating more durable items to extend their life. These types of changes will take time and conviction. Companies that begin examining the end-of-life options for their products now will be ahead of the curve.
An easier first step might be to address the waste created as the product is being designed. Not only is commercial waste significantly greater in volume, but accountable entity is more clear. Responsibility for commercial textile waste has already been defined. In New York City, if textiles comprise 10 percent or more of a business’s waste, that business is required by law to recycle it. This is the “low-hanging fruit” of textile recycling, and it requires only introspective, internal change. So why isn’t all preconsumer textile waste recycled? Even for businesses with the best intentions and a willingness to commit the time and money, the supportive infrastructure and markets are not yet suitably established.
Industry manufacturers face obstacles to textile recycling in the areas of scale, space, and shipping. While excess bolts and large remnant pieces can be donated or resold, a single designer or brand may produce more fabric scraps and cuttings than local arts organizations or schools can use. Conversely, a single designer or brand may not have the available storage to accumulate the high minimum volumes required by industrial recyclers. In both cases, the designer or brand must also plan for the transportation of the material as well.
There are market challenges. The rise of fast fashion has repercussions reverberating beyond the residential waste stream. The traditional non- profit funds the operational costs of processing donations with the revenue from what can be resold in thrift stores. As the quality of donated clothing declines, the price for which an individual item can be resold follows suit. Therefore, the nonprofit must focus its resources on procuring and sorting donations to recover the garments of highest quality for the current season. There is very little or no resale value in mixed-fiber textile waste unless it is sorted specifically by fiber content. Many nonprofits find it’s not worth the time or effort to adapt their sorting methods to examine it, and prefer not to accept preconsumer textile waste at all.
There is also a lack of technology. Shockingly, all textile sorting (of both pre- and postconsumer streams) is still done by hand. Though this is extremely inefficient, someone must touch and visually inspect every item. Identifying a garment’s wear and tear is by far simpler than determining the fiber content of an unmarked cutting room scrap. The vital step to a real solution will be mechanized sorting by fiber. Once mixed fabrics can be sorted by like content, fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies will have meaningful volumes of clean and consistent feedstock. Processes for cotton and polyester are just now in development and represent the first opportunities for a truly circular supply chain.
Finally, there are proprietary concerns that do not exist in the postconsumer waste stream. Certain garments and fabrics are not suitable for reuse. Some uniforms — fabric with trademarked patterns or logos or confidential design mock-ups, for example — are designated for destruction before disposal.
With these constraints in mind, the current recycling options are not convincing. The first and best option is reuse. Redistributing fabric of any size from where it is unwanted to where it is wanted not only saves it from the landfill, but also reduces the need for more resources to be used in new production. However, we cannot rely on reuse as a solution for the massive volumes of waste. The second option would more appropriately be called downcycling. If not destined for landfill, preconsumer material is most often shredded into rough fibers and re-spun into low-quality yarns to create shoddy. Shoddy can be used as insulation, as carpet padding, as moving blankets. Though not quite ideal, downcycling is the likely fate of most fabric waste.
There is one huge obstacle to reducing the volume of fabric that can be downcycled. Spandex, Lycra, and elastane fibers melt during the shredding process, contaminating the other fibers. The growing popularity of the athleisure lines, which emphasize stretch, is troublesome. It could further complicate sorting and reduce diversion options for both residential and commercial textile waste streams.
Addressing textile waste is daunting, but not without hope! Personally or professionally, everyone utilizes textiles. Everyone can pay attention to what’s being thrown out and where it’s going. If it’s not immediately apparent, look for answers. Seek out options and allies. For postconsumer textiles, use garments as long as possible and learn to repair them. Bring your unwanted goods to thrift stores and buy secondhand whenever possible. Residents of New York City can request a re-fashioNYC bin in their building, which makes it even more convenient to recycle old clothing. For preconsumer textiles, ask your company’s building management what waste carter they use and whether or not they have a textile recycling partner. Connect with jobbers who buy unused fabric and recycling services like FABSCRAP for smaller pieces.
There is a growing community of large brands, independent designers, cutting rooms, textile artists, fashion schools, reuse organizations, and regional processors working toward solutions. Only through conscious collaboration will we find a path to sustainability. This is the fashion industry’s greatest chance to be creative.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 Design Journal, published by Cooper Hewitt, in conjunction with the exhibition Scraps: Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse, on display September 23, 2016-April 16, 2017.
Don’t miss the Scraps Stories blog at cooperhewitt.org/channel/scraps.
Scraps: Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse was made possible by the generous support of Eileen Fisher.
Support was also provided by The Coby Foundation, Ltd.
Additional funding was provided by Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. In-kind support for Reiko Sudo, NUNO was provided by Tsuruoka City.