The Trash Blog

Why Can’t You Put Clothes in Your Recycle Bin?

Please enjoy this fine tune while reading the following post:

Early on in the Trash Blog, I expressed my confusion about what to do with worn out clothes. Unfortunately, I never got around to discovering what happens to the clothes we no longer need. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about my jacket again.

Textile recycling is not something that people talk about very often. When they do, it almost always is in the context of how much scrap-textile and secondhand clothing gets shipped to Africa, Asia, and South America. What you are less likely to hear is somebody gripe about why curbside recycling has ignored textiles.

Macklemore Thrift Shop 2Almost 8.5 million tons of textile waste entered the US municipal waste stream in 2009. By comparison, in the same year, 7.2 million tons of glass entered the waste stream. Almost every city that offers curbside recycling, accepts glass. This is despite the fact that glass poses a lot of trouble for curbside recycling programs.

Glass is generally accepted to be inert, meaning that its not going to decompose and produce greenhouse gases, nor is it going to contribute to the toxicity of leachate, nor does it produce ash or very high emissions when incinerated. Textiles on the other hand do decompose and the dyes and materials that are found in synthetic textiles contribute to the toxicity of leachate.

Realizing that there is more textile waste than glass in our waste stream, and that textile diversion (from landfills and incineration) poses a more pressing issue than glass, why is it that we’ve largely ignored textiles in curbside collection programs?

Macklemore Thrift Shop 3It may be that society believes that textile recycling is being dealt with by the well-established markets for secondhand clothing as represented by Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift stores among many others. There is no doubt that the clothes resold at thrift stores and–to a greater extent–shipped overseas represent a large quantity of clothing diverted from waste; however, this diverted quantity represents only about 15% of the clothing that is discarded.

Another explanation for textile waste’s forgotten status may be the evolution of the recycling movement. Curbside recycling, as incarnated by Earth Day 1970, was more concerned with highly visible garbage: witness Keep America Beautiful’s campaign against litter. Scrap clothing didn’t make the list, perhaps because it was unrelated to industry-supported efforts to foster recycling.

If you think about curbside recycling, it’s paper, cardboard, glass, metal, and plastic. Most of the cardboard, glass, metal, and plastic that curbside programs collect are packaging wastes. So it might be fair to say that curbside recycling is for packaging and paper. Textiles don’t fit the rubric.

I’m unsatisfied with these explanations for why I can’t put my worn out jacket in the recycling bin, but given what we’ve learned about recycling lately, I’m not optimistic than any curbside programs are going to soon solve the issue. Maybe Macklemore will take my worn-out jacket.

Macklemore Thrift Shop 4

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This entry was written by Philip and published on March 27, 2014 at 12:03 pm. It’s filed under Recycling, Textiles and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Why Can’t You Put Clothes in Your Recycle Bin?

  1. I have heard that the big thrift stores (Goodwill & Salvation Army) do salvage unwearable textiles, which get baled, sold, and recycled into things like industrial rags and stuffing.

    If that’s true, it doesn’t answer your question on a broader scale, but on an individual scale you can donate unwearable clothes there and they will (hopefully) get recycled.

    Of course, if you look at the websites of those organizations, they tell you NOT to donate unwearable stuff. So evidently it’s not profitable for them. You guys should investigate!

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