Last month we talked about fabric: how some are grown, harvested, and woven all so that we can put on our clothes everyday and go about our business.
Today we’re going to talk about the other end of the spectrum: what happens when we decide to discard our clothing? With everyone Kon Mari-ing their closets right now we figured that this would be a particularly good time to discuss what happens when clothing is recycled, donated, or thrown in the garbage. So let’s break that down a little.
Textile recycling has become more popular in recent years as Madewell, Reformation, and other chic brands offer to take your old clothes and recycle them for you. The issue is, that after you put these clothes in the recycling bin they sometimes are recycled into housing insulation etc. and they are sometimes sold to overseas markets... we’ll get to why that’s not great in moment. Anyway let’s say that they are being recycled, sometimes the company doing the recycling is turning around that recycled product and making a profit off of it, which may or may not bother some people; I personally think I’m okay with it. But it is slightly shady that that’s not mentioned up front, more transparency in this recycling industry would be great. Again, as long as these clothes are being re-used in some way...I’m mostly okay with it.
Have you ever been into a thrift store where the wracks weren’t stuffed completely full? Yeah me neither. The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago. In the US the average person buys 5x more clothing then we did 30 years ago and we donate about 40% more as well, so it is not surprising that the volume of donated clothing clothing is over saturating the market. For the most part, donation centers have more clothing then they can realistically resell. About 20% of clothing donated is resold locally, the rest can goes to: recycling factories (ok not terrible), overseas markets (complicated), or landfills (very bad).
Selling clothes, often in 1000 pound packs, to developing textile markets overseas sounds harmless enough but it isn’t harmless. The US, and the UK, once had booming textile industries, that is until companies realized that they could undercut that thriving market by importing cheaper clothing from somewhere else. And this is what is happening with our used clothing in many ‘developing’ countries. Our used clothing is packed into 1000 pound (!) packs and shipped off to developing countries where it is bought and sold without any parties even knowing what is inside. It is then (sometimes) re-sewn and resold at marketplaces by thrifty entrepreneurs. In many ‘developing’ countries the disappearance of the textile industry is directly related to the western world’s growing consumption for fast fashion, which we are disposing of in greater and greater quantities. For example, Ghana’s clothing and textile employment fell by 80% between 1975 and 2000 and Nigeria’s textile workforce has all but disappeared in recent years. The fact that fast fashion in the western world is affecting economies all over the world is troubling. Still, the clothing is not being thrown in a landfill or the ocean so...OK.
A landfill is defined as ‘a place to dispose of refuse and other waste material by burying it and covering it over with soil. You may be saying to yourself that your shirt is made of cotton and would easily decompose in a landfill, so what’s the big deal? But this is a common misconception. Very little actually decomposes in a landfill. Decomposition requires oxygen and microbes, but landfills are so tightly packed with so little oxygen and there is no room for microbes to decompose your perfectly compostable cotton t-shirt. Landfills are not compost heaps.Textiles, and many other things, that end up in landfills are often very well preserved because of the lack of oxygen under all of the layers of rubble. Not pretty. Mostly we should try to throw away as little as possible. Recycling and composting... you know the drill.
Throwing Away Textiles
Dont! Okay okay I know that there are definitely bits of textile in your life that are so gross that you think they should be tossed in the bin. But if it is a natural fiber it can be composted and if it’s not a natural fiber it can be recycled. So ultimately just don’t throw it in the trash. Even composting is a little wasteful, someone made that fabric! Recycling or donating are decent options and I can’t think of anything that doesn’t fall into one of those categories. But really we need to start reusing our textiles.
So now that you’ve Kon-Mari-ed your closet and I’ve made you feel sufficiently bad about donating clothing, what are you going to do with all of your garments that don't “spark joy”? I’ve got some ideas! I even pulled some items out of my donation pile (nobody’s perfect) to do a few more of these.
We know you can buy beeswax wrap (plastic wrap replacement) but it's pretty easy to make too. You just need some old textiles (I find 100% cotton works best for this because it is a bit sturdier) cut to size and beeswax pellets. Oh you’ll need a cookie sheet, pick one up from a thrift store unless you want wax on yours. Lay out your fabric on the cookie sheet, spread your beeswax pretty evenly, put in the oven on low, take out after beeswax melts, and let cool.. You're done! Wrap your bowls, wrap your sandwiches, etc.. wash in cool water.
I’ve used old shirts, that I love but were a little to small or the fabric is too thin, to make produce bags or bulk bags. You can take them to the bulk section and fill them up with beans or pasta. Or put bell peppers in them from the produce section. I find that this is a bit easier for me then filling jars in the bulk section. I do get some funny looks on occasion but hey, less plastic is less plastic.
Napkins or Paper Towels
Use old sheets to make napkins! Use old towels to make un-paper towels. Just hem the edges to prevent fraying. I don't have a sewing machine so i just do this by hand.
(Helps, but not necessary, to wash and dry these items in a mesh lingerie bag to keep small pieces of fabric from getting lost)
Swap cotton balls or pads for reusables.
I’ve seen these sold on the internet but you could make your own too! Some old soft t-shirt would do just the trick I think. (I just dug an old fleece-y sleep shirt out of my give away pile to make these,
Use old textiles to make face linens (i guess we aren't supposed to use hand towels on our faces anymore because germs?). I cut up an old dress and made very colorful face cloths that I use to dry my face after washing and also to remove mascara.
greenex has changed my nose and my life. It is much nicer to blow a stuffy nose into a substantial piece of fabric than a flimsy piece of paper. We dont blow and reuse at our house, we just use them once and throw them in the jar for dirties. I cut them from old leggings (softer then 100% cotton and less fraying) and aim to make them about the size of regular kleenex. throw them in a hot wash with the towels. I keep a dirty jar and a clean jar.
I occasionally dabble in making old things into new things (again no sewing machine). I’ve made long skirts into short dresses, men’s buttons ups into me-sized tops, and am currently working on turning a gold bridesmaid dress into some seriously fancy pants (probably my most ambitious project yet).
Reusable decorations can be made by cutting shapes out of fabric and strung up like traditional bunting.
Giftwrap!!! I love this Idea. I hate all that crinkly paper.
If you have a lot of parties you could make cocktail napkins out of, you guessed it, old textiles. These would be a bit smaller than dinner napkins and would likely also require hemmed edges. (This is super fancy, I applaud anyone who is this fancy and this eco-friendly)
With all the cutting and sewing of old textile, scraps in the form of small pieces of fabric and lengths of thread are bound to happen. I may be crazy but I save these up and plan to eventually have enough to stuff a small throw pillow, at which point I will start collecting again. It’s a pretty simple way to use things that would otherwise be unusable.
I don’t do all of these things but I’m working my way in that direction. Let me know in the comments if you do any of these or if you have other “green” tips to share!
Sometimes it just takes a little change of perspective to make something old into something new.
I say that if you love the fabric of something that doesn’t work for you anymore, find a way to use it that it does work for you. I love my face cloths, my beeswax wraps, and my greenex(!) because I have good memories of them from when they were clothes or sheets or whatever.
* don’t be too discouraged by hemming by hand. It’s easy to do once you get the hang of it and doesn’t need to be perfect. I usually try to do these types of things while I watch tv.
You do you, but let’s all do better. xo
Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline