Keeping textiles out of of the landfill

How to prevent textile waste 

(revised 11/4/2022)

The amount of textile waste in the US has grown A TON over the last couple of decades.  The US adds about 15 million tons of textiles to the landfills each year.  This is extra depressing since up to 95% of textiles could be diverted from the landfills with recycling and reuse efforts.  (See smartasn.org for more information on textile waste and recycling).  

 

The fashion industry is a major contributor to this waste, especially fast fashion brands that make cheap, not-built-to-last articles of clothing (e.g., Forever 21, Top Shop – see Newsweek’s 9/9/2016 article about fast fashion).  Typically the clothes from these stores don’t sell as well at second-hand shops, and can end up donated overseas where their poor quality makes them less desirable as well.

 

As someone who makes & sells textile-based products (napkins, beeswax wraps, zipper bags, etc), I REALLY don’t want to become part of the problem.

 

I want to keep my products out of the landfill AND I don’t want to create waste in the making-process either.  So that’s what I work on in my sewing studio.  

 

In my home with my family, we have other textile waste challenges that I spend time on too.  We have socks that get super worn out & are beyond darning (my girls like those little stretchy socks with cute designs on them).  We have underwear that they out grow & is too worn out to donate.  We have sheets that start to rip because they’re too threadbare. And outdoor cushions that have started to disintegrate.  

 

You probably have similar issues in your own life, right?  

 

Luckily, there are lots of ways to keep textiles out of the waste stream and in circulation.  

 

Here’s my top ten ways to keep textiles like clothes and household fabrics out of the landfill.

No Trace’s 10 list for keeping textiles out of the landfill:

  1. Shop less, buy quality, and extend the life of your clothes and household textiles.

This is a big one.  It’s the “refuse/reduce” part of a low waste lifestyle.  The fewer items we bring into our life, the less waste we create. Instead of getting a few shirts that you kind of like, get one high quality sustainable shirt that will last longer.

And once it’s in your life, take care of it!  A few ways to extend the life of your clothes & textiles: 

  • wash them less often
  • line dry (which is also better for the planet)  Want some tips on line-drying year round?  Check out this blog post here.
  • Handwash delicates like bathing suits
  • Store stuff properly so it doesn’t get damaged by moisture or moths
  • Fix your stuff! Get that button sewn back on. Patch that hole.  Take a minute to find what you need to fix, find the supplies, & put them in a little pile or basket together.  Put that little pile or basket by your TV and next time you sit down to watch something, take care of that mending!  I’ve got a tutorial for how to fix a face mask right here.

2. Buy second hand whenever possible.

Second hand shopping is so much easier on the planet & on our wallets.  Chances are you have access to a few second hand stores in your community.  Some will even let you swap your gently worn clothes for new-to-you clothes from the store’s racks.  

Online second hand is another option, but locally sourced would cut down on packaging & shipping.

There may be a little stigma associated with second hand clothes but remind folks (like your kids) that used is cool because it’s better for the planet.  Plus shopping is more like a treasure hunt – everything is one of a kind and you get to find that just-for-you shirt or dress or pants.

3. Buy from companies that recycle their products or used recycled materials (e.g., Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Insecta).

Brands like Patagonia take back your worn out/damaged clothes and keep them out of the landfill.  Often they’ll get repurposed into new products that you can buy.  And other brands like Suay LA use repurposed clothes to make new clothes.  

When you’re searching for a more sustainable brand to support, make sure to read the fine print & find out about sourcing, manufacturing, labor, shipping & more.  Just because a company uses organic cotton or recycled polyester doesn’t mean they’re getting it right in other ways. (e.g., my recent organic cotton undie purchase came in a compostable plastic bag that isn’t actually able to be composted for 89% of Americans).  

4. Purchase 100% natural fiber fabrics (e.g., cotton, wool, hemp), rather than synthetic fabrics, which can be composted at the end of their lifecycle.  Purchase organic when you can as well. 

Buying natural fibers is beneficial on so many levels:  

  • First, most natural fibers use fewer fossil fuels to manufacture because they’re not made with plastic/synthetic fibers (which are fossil fuel based).  
  • Second, they won’t release microplastics into the water every time you wash them.
  • Third, they can be composted at HOME at the very end of their life.

Have an option for purchasing organic cotton?  I’ve got a whole blog post HERE on why organic cotton is best.

I’m sure there are even more benefits to natural fibers over synthetics but let’s get into #5, shall we?

5. Repurpose your textiles into something functional like a bag, bin, or a t-shirt quilt once they are worn out or outgrown.

For example, I recently turned a blown out pair of pants into a zippered tote bag that I’m using regularly.  I’ve got a full tutorial on that right here.

I also have a tutorial for turning scraps of fabric into new fabric (and then into pj pants)

And I have a whole playlist on upcycling & mending here.

6. Find a textile recycler near you.  

 

Head to smartasn.org for resources.  If you’re in LA, Suay LA takes some textiles (and you can even ship some!).  ForDays.com sells a take back bag for old clothes & textiles.  Terracycle also has fabric recycling options.

 

You might be able to find a rag manufacturer in your area too.  They’ll often take certain materials like worn out t-shirts that could work as a rag.

 

Your community might have a resource like The Fábrica in Santa Cruz that takes fabric & other crafty supplies.  Worn out clothes are probably not accepted, but it’s worth checking!

 

7. Find an artist, local art organization, art school, or even an animal shelter that might be interested in donations.

 

Animal shelters will often take old towels & blankets for your fuzzy friends.  Check with your local quilting guild for options.  Ask your local art instructors if they know of anyone who would have a use for your textiles.  Someone who weaves or creates upcycled art might want your worn out items..

 

8. Re-purpose your worn or stained items into handkerchiefs, un-paper towels, wash clothes, and rags for use around the house.

 

We have a bin of rags in the bathroom that are made of worn out textiles from our home.  We also have several small dish cloths that are made from old, stained towels.

 

I have a simple video tutorial that shows you how to make unpaper towels on your serger here.

You can achieve the same thing on a regular sewing machine by using a zig zag or overlocker stitch.



9. Donate your gently used things to a second hand store.  

 

Note that these donations, if they don’t sell, can end up in the landfill.  Estimates range from only 20% all the way to 75% of donated clothes are resold.  (See Newsweek’s 9/9/2016 article 

for details).

 

Before you donate, ask yourself if you would pay money for it.  If the answer is “no”, don’t donate it.  

 

10. Compost at home as a very last resort if it is 100% natural fibers.

 

It’ll breakdown more quickly if you cut it into smaller pieces first.  Make sure to remove any buttons or zippers and remove any synthetic tags. 



Bonus tip #11: Consider dying those stained clothes to give them a second life!  Suay LA offers monthly community dye baths that you can ship your items to.  But you can also DIY with just a few simple supplies.

 

I hope this list helps!  I’m making efforts to reduce my textile waste.  One of my resolutions this year is not to buy any clothes for the rest of 2017.  I’d love to hear from you – what are you going to do to reduce your textile footprint?

 

Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Keeping textiles out of of the landfill”

  1. I really appreciate your tips. I have been doing some of these things for a while, but some are new to me and I will definitely take them to heart.

    As a fiber artist I have been trying to learn more about materials and how they are made. You may not know, that many “man made” fibers are ALSO from natural, renewable materials and are ALSOO biodegradable. These include rayon, tencel, modal, lyocel, and viscose. They are made from fibers such as cotton, wood, birch, bamboo, cellulose, etc., and then sometimes chemically treated to turn into a usable fiber. The first generation of Rayon used chemicals that were not good for the environment, but the industry has been improving their techniques, and now it is in its fourth generation, and I think may be a good choice, at least compared to others. Cotton, on the other hand… I have a love/hate relationship with it. Typically cotton uses a lot of pesticides and herbicides to grow, and it is incredibly water-demanding to process. It also frequently uses child labor, forced labor. It is unfortunately, not the best environmental choice (even if organic), because of its use of water.

    I am not an expert, but I want to leave two resources here, and say that the industry is constantly changing and trying to improve. I wish it were a simple matter of buying materials we know to be natural, but life is often not simple these days, is it? Anyway, thanks so much for your article!

    http://plasticisrubbish.com/2015/04/11/regenerated-fibres/

    https://www.textileschool.com/154/eco-friendly-fibers/

    1. Hi Holly!
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I really appreciate it. I’ve looked into some of those other fibers and I’ll check out your resources as well and learn even more. The nice things about GOTS organic cotton are that there are also requirements in terms of labor practices to be certified GOTS. Linen is another great natural fiber that uses even less water than organic cotton. And both of these will breakdown in a home compost and not release any micro plastics. Some the man made from nature fibers don’t actually compost, although eventually they biodegrade. Thanks again for your thoughts and resources!
      Liz

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