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13 Million Tons of Clothes Are Filling Up Our Landfills

textiles in landfill 2

Many of us might already be donating used clothes to centers like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, but it looks like a good portion of textiles are still ending up in landfills and becoming a key source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA report, which is released every four years, looked at all municipal solid waste (MSW) (i.e. garbage) that ended up in our trash system in 2011. In total, we produced 250 million tons of trash in 2011 and recycled about 87 million tons, which equals to a 34.7 percent recycled rate and 4.40 pounds of trash per person per day.

Organic material, primarily food waste and paper goods, made up the bulk of our landfill at 42.5 percent collectively or 106.3 million tons (14.5 percent or 36.6 million ton for food waste and 28 percent or 70 million tons for paper goods).

While textiles are a smaller portion of our landfill waste at 5.2 percent or 13.1 million tons, most of this waste is not recovered for recycling like other MSW. It’s among the lowest on the recycling rung, right near food waste and wood.

Only about 2 million tons or 15.3 percent of clothes are recovered for recycling annually as opposed to 65.6 percent or 45.90 million tons of paper products, 19.4. million tons of yard trimmings, 3.17 million tons of glass and 2.65 million tons of plastics.

“When comparing the amount of materials recycled to the overall impact on the environment, it is clear clothing and textiles needs to become a top-of-mind recyclable just like aluminum, plastic, glass, and paper,” said Jackie King, executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) in a press release about the study.

It’s strange to think so many pounds of clothes are ending up in our landfills considering the plethora of recycling options for textile products from neighborhood donation/recycling centers to those steel donation bins at gas stations and parking lots.

The EPA states that clothing recycling today has an equivalent impact of removing one million cars from the nation’s roads, reports SMART.

If recycling textiles was more prevalent, we could effectively contribute to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. So next time you look at that holey sock or old t-shirt, consider dropping it at a recycling center or bin instead of tossing it into the trash.

Find the closest recycling or donation center near you with this useful search tool from the Council for Textile Recycling. And if you’re interested in knowing what happens to secondhand clothing within the recycling system, check out this infographic.

Image source: Waste Biorefining Blog

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2 comments on “13 Million Tons of Clothes Are Filling Up Our Landfills”

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Christine Robinson
4 Years Ago

The detail that was left out of this blog, and that I would like to know, is where is this clothing coming from? If we are going to stop it, don't we need to know where it is coming from?

Kristina Pepelko
10 Oct 2013

Hi Christine! Thank you for your comment! Unfortunately, the EPA report does not offer specifics as to where the bulk of the clothes are coming from. That being said, the EPA does mention this, "Sources of MSW, as characterized in this report, include residential waste (including waste from apartment houses) and waste from commercial and institutional locations, such as businesses, schools, and hospitals." Another source, Carbonrally, says 1 in 10 clothing items are bought, never worn and then thrown away, and so it's possible that a good amount of the landfill waste comes from consumer habits. Yet, there have also been reports of US retailers that throw out their unused clothes like this story from 2010 about H&M: http://earth911.com/news/2010/01/07/clothing-retailer-trashes-damaged-clothing. While there is no definitive answer at the moment for where the clothes are coming from, one can assume that they are arriving in landfills from both sides of the textile industry spectrum.

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