Waste Not? Fast Fashion’s Big Waste Problem

Have you ever done a serious audit of your wardrobe? You may be avoiding it, and we wouldn’t blame you.

Wardrobe full but nothing to wear? 60% of UK consumers are storing unwanted clothes, with 12% of women at Manchester University leaving 12% of their closet unused.

60% of UK consumers say that they are storing unwanted clothes in their homes. Meanwhile, a study of UK women at the University of Manchester found that 12% of clothes in participant’s wardrobes were “inactive,” which is to say unused. These figures are hardly surprising given the change in consumption habits over the last 20 years, with the years between 2000 – 2014 seeing a 60% increase in clothing purchases by consumers.

But unwanted clothes languishing in wardrobes are the least of our problems.

A vast amount of clothing waste is destined for landfill, with £140 million a year’s worth of clothes ending up at the rubbish dump in the UK. Meanwhile, globally 92 million tonnes of textiles are wasted every year. In theory natural fibres like cotton and wool take 6 – 12 months to biodegrade once they’ve reached landfill, while synthetic fibres can photo-degrade (break apart), but this process takes hundreds of years.

Landfill conditions prohibit biodegradation; even natural fibres can take 6-12 months in these conditions, while synthetic fibres can take hundreds of years to degrade.

An inconvenient fact is also that landfill conditions prohibit biodegradation. A BBC documentary called ‘The Secret Life of Landfill’ showed investigators digging up intact cotton clothes from the 1980s as well as newspapers which were still legible. In addition, those things that do decompose emit an alarming amount of methane. Landfill is the world’s third biggest source of methane, contributing 11% of the heating gas in the atmosphere.

Methane makes up 14% of man-made greenhouse gases and, although it breaks down faster than CO2, has 21x the potential to trap heat.Truckloads of waste garments also never make it to landfill at all, with horrifying images emerging of deserts in South America covered in miles and miles of discarded fast-fashion clothes.

Why are Clothes so Hard to Recycle?

Modern clothing has an estimated lifespan of 2 – 10 years, with underwear and t-shirts at the lower end of the spectrum and suits and jeans expected to last longer. Of those with unwanted clothes in their homes, 57% of Brits say that they recycle them, while 41% say that they don’t know where local recycling facilities are.

Most of us have probably bagged up our unwanted garments and taken them to a charity shop, with scant regard for the condition they’re in. Second hand outlets then sort the good from the bad and send the bad onto recycling centres. This is how clothes are filtered out with only the most worn and lowest quality ending up in fabric recycling. Once there, the problems begin.

All clothes are made of a mixture of fabrics. This is most obvious in the case of garments where synthetics and organic mixes are used ( cotton and polyester for example), but in truth even 100% cotton items have labels attached and seams sewn with thread of a different fibre. Added to this, almost all clothes also contain synthetic dyes which must be removed in order to remake them into items of equal worth.

Charity shops will send only the lowest quality clothing for recycling; the majority will be downcycled with very little returned to fabrics of equal worth and quality.

Separating these fabrics into composite elements is what makes them so difficult to recycle; only 1% of garments sent for recycling are made into new clothes, with 13% made into other items.

Mechanical recycling, whereby clothes are ripped apart by machines and then turned into fibres that can be spun into yarn, is one way in which clothes are processed for reuse. This is the biggest form of fabric recycling which can be done on an industrial scale, however it can only produce low-grade fabrics which are used for industrial carpeting, stuffing car seats and sofas, or insulation; often termed downcycling.

Downcycling refers to the process by which low-grade fabrics are further degraded to manufacture e.g., stuffing for car seats and sofas, industrial carpeting or insulation.

For garments to be remade into fabric of equal worth and quality, chemical recycling is required. This process – which is currently only done on a small scale – strengthens fibres and also removes the dyes from them. It has, however, received heat (pun intended) from environmental groups who say that it is too energy intensive due to the high temperatures required.

Finally, biological recycling is a process which has in recent years loomed larger in the public imagination. In this futuristic sounding system fungi and enzymes are used to eat natural fibres in mixed-thread clothes and leave behind synthetics for reuse. We’re a long way from this process being used on a large scale but it is very promising.

Can We Change the Future of Design?

While we wait for mass fungi farms to gobble up cotton and leave behind reusable polyester, the solution to fashion’s waste problem would seem to be a design rethink.

The emissions figures of the fashion industry are by now well-rehearsed, but they bear repeating. 10% of greenhouse gases globally come from this sector and it is second only to fossil fuel extraction and agriculture in terms of environmental pollution. When it comes to fast fashion outlets, the figures are stark. Inditex, the company that owns Zara, pumped out 350,101 tons of CO2 equivalent in 2019. Meanwhile, H&M emitted 72,580 tonnes in 2020, an increase of 18% on the previous year.

While textile recycling innovations are exciting, it is a change in mindset that is truly needed to significantly reduce the impact of fashion on the environment.

The answer to our waste problem cannot be left to technological recycling innovation and must begin at the source. This means (of course) buying less, but it also requires a commitment on the part of manufacturers and retailers to make less, or at least make differently.

Inditex has committed to using organic, sustainable or recycled cotton by 2023 and recycled polyester by 2025, but this is not enough. To produce less waste, clothes will have to be made to last longer and with recycling in mind. Only in this way can catastrophic levels of waste be avoided.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to avoiding fast fashion? And do you think the responsibility lies with the consumer, or with the manufacturer? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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