Challenges and Opportunities in Recycling Textiles

As part of our series on zero-waste, produced in partnership with Boulder County and Eco-Cycle, KGNU’s Hannah Leigh Myers looked into the world of textile recycling and discovered, regardless of the sharp increase in textile waste, very little used fabric from Colorado and the Front Range is being recycled.


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    Challenges and Opportunities in Recycling Textiles KGNU News


Mention recycling and most people think about items like glass, plastic and aluminum. But, considering the National Institute of Environmental Health Science considers the textile industry one of the top five overall polluting industries, recycling advocates say when thinking about recycling, fabric should come to mind.

One such recycling advocate is Jackie King, the Executive Director of an international alliance of textile reuse companies called SMART or The Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association. King says 95% of the fabric we throw away can be reused and the impact recycling that fabric would have on slowing climate change is sizable.

“Clothing and textile recycling has a major impact on reducing greenhouse gases. About 2 million tons of textiles are recycled each year in the U.S. and that’s equivalent to taking a million cars off of America’s highways. So, when you look at that and you compare it to say glass recycling, that’s about 210,000 cars removed, plastic is 640,000, aluminum is 1.3 million. So, textile recycling is almost as good as aluminum recycling. And those are things people think about because they always put their cans in the recycle bin.”

SMART has 140 members, all of which are looking for second hand textiles to resell or make into items like rags and insulation. But, regardless of that demand for second hand fabric, Colorado is not contributing much at all to the used textile supply stream and King says the distance between Colorado and her members is part of the problem. “The issue is transportation. Depending on the amount of material it is and the cost of getting it, it may or may not be worthwhile.”

Dan Matsch, Facility Director at Eco-Cycle’s Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM) in Boulder, says Boulder CHaRM’s current fabric recycling situation is unfortunately in line with the state of textile recycling throughout Colorado. “The actual recycling options within the textiles category are really slim. There’s very little actual recycling as opposed to reuse opportunities with textiles,” Matsch says.

The sharp increase in mixed and synthetic fiber fabric products is also cutting the amount of textiles recycling centers like the Boulder CHaRM can accept. “We had a good market for textiles into the rag industry. [The fabric they accept] has to be cotton or mostly cotton. You know, polyester does not make a good rag. So, that industry started to dry up about 10 years [ago]. The amount of cotton out there is just less,” says Matsch.

Currently, the Boulder CHaRM has three textile donation receptacles that are the same clothing drop off bins found in parking lots around the country.

Clothing items, accessories and pairs of shoes fit for resale should be bagged and deposited in the containers for pick-up by a for-profit company that will try to resell as many of the item as possible to clothing distributors and stores in the U.S. and oversees. Even though the bins do say “clothing items only” Eco-Cycle says it’s okay to put some undamaged linens like sheets and clean rags in your donation bag so the company can make the decision whether recycle the item or not.

SMART reports clothing donations to boxes like these are on the rise but the amount of clothing Americans are throwing away has doubled in the last 20 years to around 80 pounds per person annually and about 85 percent of that ends up in the landfill.

Groups and individuals working with textiles at various points along the materials life are pointing to “fast fashion” as the main culprit for that sharp increase in textile waste. As fashion trends come and go faster and faster, a Greenpeace report shows Americans are purchasing and the fashion industry in producing, more than twice what they did in 2000. Plus, there’s been a significant drop in quality.

Deb Henriksen, founder and CEO of a street fashion brand called Equillibrium in Denver, is bucking the fast fashion trend, embracing slow fashion and avoiding cheap fabric. She says, “[Fast fashion] clothes aren’t made to last. They do end up getting thrown out because they’re using cheap threads. The seams are ripping. The fabric comes apart at the seam like a perforated piece of paper.”  

But using high quality, eco-friendly materials increases the price of the items, a price increase designers like Henriksen says is worth it if you take into account consumers are keeping garments half as long as they did 15 years ago. “Embrace those fine things and invest in them. By that silk blouse and have it for years to come. It’s something that will last your life.”

Although the fashion industry is playing a large role in what some researchers are calling the textile waste crisis, consumer habits seems to be at the core of the problem. “People are still in denial. They’re in denial of having an addiction and their sugar is retail therapy. It’s time to really get a grip. Maybe you should teach your child to thread a needle [and] that when a button falls off a shirt you don’t buy a new shirt, you sow the button back on,” says Henriksen.

Companies like Equillibrium and Patagonia, and Community events like Eco-Cycle’s You-Fix-It clinics, are offering mending services to extended the life of their clothing. Innovators are also developing technology to expand the types of textiles recycling centers like the Boulder CHaRM are able to accept. So, although current data and textile recycling options on the Front Range are fairly bleak at the moment, individuals, companies and organizations are wising up to the textile waste problem and recognizing the room for improvement.

KGNU is partnering with Eco-Cycle in a year long series on zero waste issues, funded by a grant from Boulder County.


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