According to the EPA, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash in 2010, but we only recycled and composted about 85 million tons of this waste or what amounts to a 34.1 percent recycling rate. Shoddy.
While most of us can easily imagine old food, packaging materials and plastics sitting in a landfill, textiles are further from our mind. Yet a lot of the waste that Americans don’t recycle is textile-based. For example, USAgain notes the following about textile recycling:
- The average lifetime of a piece of clothing is only about 3 years.
- It’s us, not the industry. Sure, the textile industry creates problems, but they are recycling. In fact, manufacturers recycle a full 75% of pre-consumer textile waste, while we (the consumers) only recycle about 15% of post-consumer textile waste.
- The average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothing, shoes and other household textiles each year, generating a full 13 million tons of textile waste annually.
- One in four American women own seven pairs of jeans, but only wear four pairs of them regularly.
Textile waste is a problem. However, you can cut back on clothing and other textile waste, plus learn how to recycle it or reuse it when you’re done, mainly by using the good ol’ three Rs.
- Buy less stuff. You don’t need 8 pairs of jeans and 20 sweaters, and neither do your kids. You also don’t really need new sheets, towels and bathmats every season. If you can’t fit everything neatly in your linen closet, you may have an overbuying issue.
- Buy WAY LESS – for babies and young kids. Babies and young tots need almost no clothing to survive and thrive, yet this is a demographic that often owns more clothing than adults. I get it. Clothing for little ones is adorable and fun, but honestly, little kids grow super speed fast, meaning they’ll get very little wear out of items you buy. Buy a lot less clothing for kids.
- Buy used. Thrift stores, garage sales and consignments are awesome places to get tons of clothing and other textiles like tablecloths and cloth napkins. You can even find tons of reuse fabric, yarn and other goodies at thrift stores, if you happen to be someone who sews.
- Buy green – although eco-friendly textiles costs more, it’s one, worth it and two, due to the added costs and trouble finding greener clothing, maybe you’ll think harder before purchasing something you really don’t need.
- Wash right with gentle, eco-friendly detergent and break your addiction to hot water laundry. Hot water and harsh detergents will break your textiles down faster.
- Make what you have last much longer by hanging it up to dry vs. tossing it into the dryer. Dryers are really hard on textiles, so if you must dry, dry on a low setting. But I advise you hang most laundry. If you’re lazy, like me, skip the whole clothespins drama and simply grab clothes from the washer and hang them on hangers. Once dry, pop them right into the closet.
- Really think through the textiles you do buy. For clothing, consider not buying something right away. Give yourself time to think it over. A week later, if you’re still dreaming of that cute little dress, go back and pick it up. You can do the same with other textiles and shoes too.
- Teach your teens, major textiles buyers in the USA, how to live with less stuff too.
- Ban annual shopping holidays. America is weird in that we hold major holidays simply to shop. The two biggies are Black Friday and the weeks leading up to “back to school” time. I know parents who purchase insane new wardrobes for kids JUST because it’s back to school time, even if they have plenty of clothing they haven’t outgrown. That’s nuts. Buy when you need, not by the calender. Start this when they’re young, or your kids will get used to shopping holidays.
Textiles are one of those items that almost never need thrown away. Especially if you’ve ditched paper towels (which I hope you have in most cases). We donate outgrown clothing that’s in good shape, but otherwise we re-purpose most of our used textiles into cleaning cloths or other goods.
Some nice ways to re-purpose textiles:
- Make a pet bed softer.
- Make a sock teddy bear or some good old sock puppets.
- Use for doll clothing and dollhouse furniture.
- Make an adorable halter dress for you, your daughter or onsies .
- Make a woven rug with old textiles.
- Make knotted doggie toys.
- Make a camping bag with old jeans.
- Keep old towels on hand for car oil changes or washing your car.
- Tee shirt baby hats – adorable!
- Make a baby memory pillow.
- Hem old textiles and make homemade baby wipes, dishtowels or cloth napkins.
- Make an awesome tote bag – or your own reusable shopping bags.
- Use old sheets or towels for kids art projects – either in an art project or as a catch sheet for paint and pastels.
For us, cleaning towels are usually the last step for our textiles. We turn everything from old socks to ripped reusable cloth bags to tees full of holes into cleaning rags. Once the rags get super, super icky, only then do we get rid of them and by now, they’re going to take up much less space in the landfill because they’re practically non-existent.
- Green clean correctly with cloth towels vs. paper towels
- Ditch paper towels and save $1,000 in five years
- How To Quit Using Paper Towels & Paper Napkins
*Important: If you plan on recycling textiles you should know that typically they’re not sorted at the point of collection, but keeping them clean and free from moisture is important. The EPA notes that once clothes get wet, stained, or mildewed, they cannot be sold for reuse.
- Give gently used textiles and shoes to thrift stores or another local charity or sell your used textiles at a garage sale.
- Host a clothing exchange.
- Find a local clothing drop off box through USAgain.
- Check with your local recycling center – some actually accept textiles.
- You can compost many textiles.
- Look for textile recycling options at Earth 911. Almost everything you have (textile-wise) can be recycled, even shoes.
Mall image by Flickr User Roberto Verzo; laundry image by Flickr User David Locke