The donation model is broken: we can’t recycle your ripped towels if we don’t also get your Nikes
The Mari Kondo purging trend this year lead to a torrent of clothes hitting thrift stores, along with an equal flurry of terribly misguided press about clothing reuse and recycling. Well-meaning journalists and bloggers are providing environmentally unsound guidance by encouraging consignment, swapping, and thrifts as the first stop for your best quality unwanted clothes, lastly encouraging people to place their mostly damaged items in bins. This advice is both misinformed and environmentally the worst case scenario.
As a country we are doing a bad job at clothing recycling. An estimated 81 lbs per person are going to the trash (SMART). Clothes and shoes are one of the largest growing waste streams in the world (A tipping point: the Canadian textile diversion industry). Only about 14.2% of clothes and shoes in the US are currently reused and recycled (EPA). The growing trend of inaccurate information risks putting large-scale collectors & recyclers, those doing the heavy lifting on an escalating problem, out of business.
Here are the facts: the only way recycling at necessary scale will happen is by for-profit recycling and reverse logistics companies, these companies primarily operate through bins. They afford the hefty cost of collection directly through the value of the goods collected, full-stop. Any type of recycling is a commodity-based and market-driven business. Just as in the traditional recycling industry (plastic/glass/paper), the value of the goods collected lies in the value of the most sellable materials. Think of it this way: we can’t recycle your ripped towels if we don’t also get your Nikes. As businesses we might be able to handle damaged or defective clothing items but can only afford to do so based on the best, most reusable & recyclable items we receive.
Clothes are discarded more readily than ever because of fast fashion and over-consumption. Clothing production is estimated to go up 63% by 2030 (Global Fashion Agenda). The antiquated one-stream, store/consignment, donation model means clothing recycling is not happening at an effective scale to address the growing issue. Second hand stores cannot sell quickly enough to handle the bulk of the waste: it’s estimated that they can only sell about 10- 20% of what they receive. The massive clothing waste problem is not one that they ever intended, nor are they equipped, to solve. Thrift stores provide a meaningful service in local communities by selling used clothing. The new trend of online resale is also welcome. However, when these channels focus on collecting and reselling only the top 1% of used clothes, they eat up the valuable clothing streams. This destroys the value streams for large scale collectors that makes it possible to transport, sort, re-sell, and recycle the other 99% of your old clothes. Without the best items your clothes are more likely to become trash.
The fashion industry should produce far less and better quality items that last, and consumers should drastically curb their consumption, but while we wait for the ‘shoulds’, recycling businesses are the only ones equipped to handle this waste. The bulk of used clothing is bought by and sold in overseas markets—over 70% of the world shops second hand clothing (SMART). If trade with these foreign markets stops, fast fashion imports will increase in these same nations as the next, most affordable option. Encouraging placing only the damaged and least valuable items in US bins will make the bins disappear, along with the thousands of American jobs they create. This means the billions of pounds of clothing currently collected by the bins will end up in overloaded landfills and incinerators around the country. The thrift stores and small charities remaining will continue to be increasingly overburdened and end up turning away, or simply trashing your damaged goods. We will be back to square one.
If you want to do the best thing for the environment, please put all of your clothing in the bins, including valuable items. If you want to help even more, convince your communities that clothing collection bins should be a town recycling resource and that used clothing collection is not a crime.