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April 16, 2024
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Why old clothes are so hard to be recycled

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Image commercially licensed from Unsplash

Rapid fashion causes a mountain of garments to be discarded each year, negatively hurting the environment. So, can we have our old clothes recycled into something useful?

Be honest and let us into your closet. How recently had you worn some of those outfits? Do you think it’s time to clean house?

In the back of cabinets and at the bottom of drawers, you can find outfits that don’t fit anymore, out-of-date items, and even clothing that has never been worn. Additionally, sociologist Sophie Woodward’s study at the University of Manchester found that 12% of the women’s wardrobes she studied had items that could be categorized as “inactive.”

If you were brutal, you could fill a garbage bag or two with clothes you no longer desire or need. But then what?

Around 85% of all textiles discarded in the United States – approximately 13 million tonnes in 2017 – are disposed of in landfills or burned. The average American is projected to waste away 37kg of clothing each year. In addition, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste are generated each year globally, with the equivalent of a garbage truck full of clothes ending up on landfill sites every second. We are estimated to trash more than 134 million tonnes of textiles each year by 2030.

There are strong reasons to look for alternatives to throwing garments away: the fashion industry is responsible for roughly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, with textile production releasing 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere yearly. Large amounts of water are also required to manufacture our clothes; the fashion industry accounts for 20% of worldwide wastewater.

At the same time, we are purchasing more apparel than ever before, with the average consumer purchasing 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago. As a result, more than two tonnes of clothing are purchased in the UK every minute, more than in any other European country. Worldwide, around 56 million tonnes of clothing are purchased each year, with this figure anticipated to climb to 93 million tonnes by 2030 and 160 million tonnes by 2050.

While most clothes may be cared for many years, shifting trends imply that their lifespan is artificially limited by changing customer desires. According to industry estimates, modern apparel has a lifespan of 2-10 years, with underwear and t-shirts lasting one to two years and suits and jackets lasting four to six years.

Will recycled clothes help lessen impact on the environment?

Presently, just 13.6% of clothing and shoes discarded in the United States are recycled, despite the fact that the average American discards 37kg of clothing each year. Furthermore, only 12% of the material used in garments is recycled globally. As compared to paper, glass, and plastic PET bottles, with recycling rates of 66%, 27%, and 29%, respectively, it is evident that clothing lags.

Furthermore, the majority of recycled polyester utilized by prominent fashion designers today originates from bottles rather than old clothing.

Much of the issue stems from the materials used to make our clothes. Our fabrics are complicated mixes of fibers, fasteners, and accessories. They are made of risky combinations of natural fibers, man-made filaments, polymers, and metals.

This makes them difficult to separate and recycle effectively. Sorting textiles by hand into different fibers and material kinds is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and requires a professional crew. The increasing usage of new fabric blends in clothes also makes this difficult to execute manually. However, European researchers have been developing approaches for better identifying different fabric kinds using hyperspectral cameras, which can see the light beyond the limits of human eyesight. After sorting, the dyes used on the fabrics must be removed before the yarns may be reused.

Yet, very few of the recycled clothes are transformed into new clothing – a process known as “material to material” recycling. Wool jumpers, for example, can be recycled into carpets and cashmere into suits. Yet, as of 2015, less than 1% of used clothing was recycled in this manner.

While there is a thriving market for second-hand clothing online, the most popular option to dispose of unwanted items is to donate them to charity shops. Yet, clothing donations are increasingly being utilized to pass on the problem of textile waste to others.

Weekly, 80 tonnes of unwanted clothes travel through Oxfam’s Wastesaver clothes sorting and recycling plant in Yorkshire, UK.

Lorraine Needham Reid, Oxfam’s Wastesaver manager, has been with the organization for over ten years. But, she has noticed a significant drop in the quality of garments reaching them over that time, particularly in the materials used to produce the clothes.

Most of what reaches Wastesaver these days will never be worn again. Nearly a third of the clothes, 35%, are sold by Oxfam’s partners in Senegal. About 1-3% of items are returned to Oxfam shops around the UK to be resold.

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The bulk of the clothing is recycled in some fashion, but roughly six tonnes are of such poor quality that they are shredded up and used as industrial cleaning cloths and stuffing for beds or car seats.

Although fiber recycling technologies exist, they are only used briefly. In general, mechanical and chemical recycling procedures can be distinguished.

Reference: Why clothes are so hard to recycle

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