The astronomical amounts of clothing we donate and throw away is proving disastrous for the Earth. Technology and better shopping habits can’t fix it, but only slow it down.
Here's the average life of a sequined romper from Forever 21. It's on the shelf for roughly a week, gradually reducing in price until it costs less than a lunch salad (but more than the daily wage of the Bangladeshi factory worker who stitched it). By then, a new sequined romper—similar, but with sleeves or cutouts—would have taken its place. The person who buys it makes decent use of it for a few months, maybe a year, then either re-sells, donates, or throws it away, but it will eventually end up in a landfill or incinerator. That's when the almost mythical longevity of the sequined romper really begins: when it takes hundreds of years for the plastic—and synthetic materials like nylon, acrylic, or polyester, which is most likely contains—to decompose.
The central irony of fast fashion—a system in which retailers, such as Zara or H&M, get trending styles in stores quickly and change styles—is that is it quick to make, sell, re-sell, and toss, but extremely slow to leave the earth. Even when made of natural fibers, clothing does not biodegrade without a fight, especially if they have been dyed, printed on, or liaised with harmful chemicals, as residual toxins seep into the earth or get released into the air if burnt.
The sheer volume at which new, largely poor-quality clothes are produced is causing problems for the developing world as well. A significant bulk of unwanted clothing in the US, at an annual export profit of $687 million, gets donated abroad, the BBC reports. Countries like Uganda, where about 80 percent of all clothes purchased are secondhand, depend on these imports, but in an effort to boost home manufacturing, the East Africa Community, an intergovernmental organization composed of six countries, is pushing to phase out imported secondhand clothing by 2019, also according to the BBC.
What's crazy is that this multi-million dollar industry regards only about 16 percent of the unwanted textile stream. According to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report from 2012, 84 percent of used clothes go straight to landfills or incinerators. A Newsweek investigation from September 2016 adds that the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons in the past 20 years. The rise of fast fashion, with older retailers like Macy's and JC Penny following Zara's "climate of scarcity" model of changing styles once or twice a week, has everything to do with this.
Since fast fashion doesn't seem to be going anytime soon, can technology help manage or eradicate the many tons of used clothes we toss?
It's not impossible, but it's also unlikely to happen anytime soon. Processes like plasma gasification, in which trash is converted into syngas (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide), which can be used as fuel, may help. Unlike incineration, it does not release harmful dioxins into the air. A company called Integrated Environmental Technologies (InEnTec) has a plant in a landfill in Arlington, Oregon that helps process 35,000 tons of household trash weekly. But it requires more funding for research, a lot of energy, and is very expensive to operate. Moreover, many environmentalists believe it is a red herring from the bigger issue: that we need to change our lifestyles in a way that produces less waste—especially items like clothes, which can have second or third incarnations.
Emily Cohen, Director of Communications at RoadRunner Recycling, a share-asset waste and recycling solution for commercial businesses, says it is crucial to increase that 16 percent number of unwanted textiles. Even if impoverished countries curb their dependence on secondhand clothing, there is still plenty to be gained from "down-cycling," or repurposing fibers to make materials like dish rags, floor mats for cars, and insulation for buildings. "It's only the lowest grade of textile that is saved for this, so synthetic fibers like petroleum-based polyester can at least be used in some way." It produces significantly less waste than creating virgin materials for the same purpose.
"Part of the psychology behind the low number [of recycled clothes] may be access, as few residential recycling programs accept clothing," says Cohen. "As per usual, Austin is leading the pack and just about to launch a curbside textile residential recycling program, which could provide the basis for an interesting model."
Some brands are taking admirable strides in the right direction. Patagonia, for example, invests a lot of money into creating a closed-loop structure, in which customers can donate their used Patagonia items so the brand use those same fibers to make new clothes. Adidas is releasing a limited-edition shoe this month that's composed almost entirely of ocean waste, and Volcom is making a line of bikinis from discarded fishing nets. H&M does make an effort to recycle fibers, but the fact that so many of its items are, as The Telegraph describes, "cotton-poly-elastane-wool-acrylic-etc" blends stymies the process, and the sheer volume of clothes they produce renders their efforts laughable.
But let's not be complacent and fall for greenwashing, where eco-friendliness is more marketing strategy than mission. Cheap acid wash jeans and ironic 2Pac tees have limited staying power—in style and quality. Poor countries don't want them; landfills don't have room for them. Cohen's advice for conscientious shoppers is to understand the lifespan of their clothing, how to make it spend more time as a useful item of any kind before it can be called trash. Buying fewer clothes—and not from fast fashion retailers—is the first step. We may be able afford these clothes, but climate change cannot.