In my last post I talked about municipal solid waste (MSW)—residential and commercial garbage—and how the U.S. rate of MSW creation and disposal has leveled off over the last ten years [(It's important to note that MSW is measured by weight. Between 1960 and 2012 lighter materials like plastics replaced others such as glass and metals. For that reason, the trend of U.S. MSW generated and discarded might look different if another metric were used for calculation (e.g., volume, life-cycle energy, etc.)]. That's an admirable feat and arguably the first time it's ever happened in the nation's history. Nonetheless, this aggregate statistic hides a divergence of outcomes for different materials and products. Let's look, instead, at a particular waste product: clothing and footwear. Thrift stores like ReUse process loads of it each day, and still that only makes up a small fraction of all post-consumer textile waste.
In 2012 (the year of the most recent data available) the average American consumer produced over 91 pounds of textile waste! That's a 365% increase from 1960 and a 27% increase in just the last ten years. The average American throws away more than 3 1/2 times as much textiles as they did in 1960. We see similar trends specifically for clothes. Per capita post-consumer waste from clothing and footwear grew 329% between 1960 and 2012. Today an average consumer throws away 15 1/2 more pounds each year than they did just ten years ago. For comparison, between 1960 and 2012 the annual amount of all MSW per capita generated grew by only 60% and actually fell by 4% over the last ten years.
The rapid increase in textile waste generation might have been sustainable if recovery rates had kept pace as well. But the amount of textile waste Americans produce is exploding at the same time that rates of recycling and reusing have stalled. In 1990, the recovery rate for all MSW (MSW composted, recycled, or reused divided by MSW generated) was 16%; for textile waste it was 11.4%. By 2012 the recovery rate for all MSW was 34.5%—for textile waste it was still only 15.7%. The same can be observed in clothing and footwear. Between 1990 and 2012 the recovery rate for clothing, footwear, sheets, and pillowcases grew by only 8.9% while the recovery rate for all other nondurable goods grew by 127%.
Moreover, this isn't a phenomenon unique to the United States. Globally, clothing consumption and waste is growing. In 2011, word-wide fiber consumption was more than 93 million tons, about 60% of which was made from synthetic, largely petrochemical-based, materials. Consider even famously 'lagom' Sweden. There, private consumption of clothing and footwear increased 53% between 1999 and 2009. A 2011 study found Swedes throw away more than 17 pounds of clothing per person each year and a 2013 study determined 62% of Swedes put unwanted clothes in the garbage. Keep in mind this is a country that in 2011 had a 92% recycling rate for glass, compared to only 34.2% in the U.S. World-wide textile waste is expected to continue increasing as populations and levels of consumption rise.
The question remains: why is the amount of textile waste generated and discarded increasing?
· The cost of clothing has plummeted. In the 1950s the American household spent 12% of its income on apparel—today it's less than 3%. Globalization and continued mechanization mean textiles are cheap. And because clothing costs less we value it less and are more likely to dispose of it. Consider this scenario: your car and your jacket are both key items you use every day but which no longer bring you the same pleasure they used to. Which one are you more likely to get rid of? You can be flakey about keeping your jacket; most of us don't have that luxury when it comes to very expense items. Also, remember that the clothing we wear is strongly influenced by the fashion industry, institutions which actively encourage the short-term desirability of particular items and styles.
· Synthetic fibers and synthetic fiber blends make up a growing percentage of all clothing. These fibers are more difficult to break down into their constituent materials for recycling and harder to sort for reuse.
· Global markets for used clothing are becoming saturated and the commodities market in general is weak. This decrease in demand means used clothing is less valuable and more of it is thrown away.
· The recovery system for textile waste is inadequate. It's run largely by cash-strapped nonprofits and businesses with little coordination or buy-in from governments. Public waste managers generally don't judge textile waste to be a key issue because it's not hazardous and has historically made up a small percentage of all MSW. That may be changing. In 1990, textiles comprised only 2.8% of all MSW burnt or put in a landfill; in 2012 they made up 7.4%. In the last twenty years we've gotten pretty good at recycling many materials; we can't say that about textiles.
· For most people, clothing isn't an environmental issue. When people donate clothes for reuse it's almost always for charitable reasons. Thrift stores make apparel affordable to low-income populations. Giving your clothing away is typically done to help those less fortunate than yourself, not to lower your environmental footprint. Most Americans aren't aware that even 'unwearable' clothing has potential value since nearly 100% of used clothing is recyclable.
Ok, we've established that the growth of textile waste is grossly outpacing post-consumer solid waste in general. But, why exactly should we care? To answer that, we need to better understand the impacts of textile waste on ourselves and the environment. In my next post we'll look at the economic, social, and ecological costs of increasing textile waste.
- Zach Swick