Short Stories

The Afterlife of Our Closets

By January of 1930, America’s Great Depression had settled in, draping a mourning shroud over a decade of prosperity. Newlyweds worried over house payments. Parents worried over feeding their children.

While Americans were crippled by thoughts of money, the average consumer was still spending a sixth of their annual income on clothing. Granted, that money didn’t buy much. The value of clothing was high. $28, or $440 by today’s standards, was a reasonable price for a women’s winter coat, which kept closets modest.

Today, the average American spends only 2.5 percent of their annual income on clothes but buys 68 garments and 7 pairs of shoes each year. Unlike the garments of 1930, these are cheaply made items sewn from low quality fabric in the workshops of developing nations.

When our cheap garments fall apart, we have to find a place to put them. In 2011 alone, the EPA reported that around 13.1 million tons of textiles were sent to the dump, making up over 5 percent of the total municipal solid waste in the U.S.

For Margaret Frey, Graduate Studies Director of Fiber Science at Cornell, statistics like these send up a red flag. Textiles, even natural ones like cotton, can become serious problems at the dump, adding bulk to our landfills and keeping organic matter, including the fabrics themselves, from decomposing properly.

“Take a look at the fate of things like newspaper, which has the same base cellulose molecule as cotton. You’ll find reports where people have taken newspapers out of landfills years later and still been able to read them,” says Frey. “We should expect the same kind of behavior from cotton fabric.”

Landfills tend to be anaerobic, or oxygen deficient, causing oxygen-needy microbes to flee. Because organic materials like cotton need the help of both oxygen and microbes to decay, landfills become full of half-rotted waste that emits greenhouse gases, including methane. Currently, landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions nationwide, and the impact of methane on climate change is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide’s effect.

Unfilling the Landfill

The logical way to reduce the impacts of landfills is simple — stop relying on them so much. We already follow the rules of recycling for paper, plastics and glass.

But what about unwearable clothes?

According to Margaret Frey, one option for diverting textiles from the dump may be sending them to your compost pile. In a study on the compostability of synthetic and natural fibers, Frey and her team measured how polyester and cotton fabrics faired over three months in an outdoor compost environment. The polyester, which is made of the same plastic in a soda bottle, showed little change. As Frey explains, although polyester may hydrolyze, or break down, slightly, there’s no microbe alive that will digest plastic.

The cotton, on the other hand, was far more decomposed. Maybe not surprising, but certainly not a given.

In contrast with landfills, compost piles are living creatures, and they must be healthy to do their job right. Variables like temperature, composition, moisture, and size can all affect a compost pile’s health. In colder climates, like the northern U.S., summer may be the only time it’s warm enough for a pile to be active. Still, the cotton fabric tested in Cornell’s frigid temperatures was significantly decayed after only three months. According to Frey, “Within a year, you would not be able to find any recognizable pieces of fabric in the compost.”

It seems then, that warmer climates, like the southern U.S., might have a home team advantage in the composting game. According to Dominique Bischof, Co-founder of Compost Now in Raleigh, N.C., not necessarily. Temperature still plays a role, and pile that’s too hot is just as bad as pile that’s too cold. Dominique and the team at Compost Now are making their living developing a pile that’s just right.

Compost Now is a curbside composting service that’s changing the way most people think about dirt. People often ask, “Why would we want to compost?” For Dominique, the answer is obvious. “It’s so convenient to believe that when we throw something away, it just disappears,” says Bischof. “But that’s not true — there’s a behind-the-scenes impact that’s increasingly becoming very visible.”

Compost Now wants to reduce this impact by composting organic materials, like your old cotton t-shirt. Organic materials, as we’ve already discovered, don’t like to decay in landfills. Maybe less obvious though, is how these materials are used to make compost.

The “greens and the browns,” as organic materials are categorized, make compost piles swoon, but only in the right proportions. Achieve a 1 to 2 ratio of greens to browns, and you’re on the road to healthy compost. “Greens” can be green, like lettuce and grass, but anything that gives off nitrogen as it decomposes, no matter its color, is considered a “green.” Things like dead leaves, paper, and cotton fabric that provide a carbon source to the pile as they decay, all count as “browns.”

Contributing “browns” like cotton tees and wool sweaters to your compost pile can be as simple as chucking the whole garment into the heap, but this may not produce the best results. Cutting the clothes into small pieces — the smaller the better — will help them assimilate more quickly with the compost.

Once our old t-shirt is composted with the other greens and browns, we get a result much greater than the sum of its parts — a nutrient rich soil amendment that lawns and gardens love. Not only does the compost give us greener grass and juicier tomatoes, it’s giving whole communities a valuable gift. “Each community has already, locally, the means to achieve nutrient rich soil,” says Bischof, soil that gets buried when we pile trash on it in a landfill.

Polyester and the Rest

By composting our natural textiles instead of throwing them in the trash, we’ve contributed to better soil. But what about synthetic fibers like polyester? Are they still destined for the dump?

While compost piles might be picky eaters, textile recycling facilities are not. Paul Bailey, Public Relations Lead at Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), says 95 percent of all clothing and textiles can be recycled. This includes everything from polyester to linen, and excludes any wet, moldy, or solvent stained fabric, like a rag that’s wiped up paint thinner. Recycled textiles can be broken down to their composite fibers and transformed into other products, like housing insulation, or remain intact for use as items like industrial wiping cloths.

Unfortunately, only 15 percent of textiles are currently being diverted into the recycling stream, and 85 percent are being thrown away. For SMART, it’s important that people begin thinking about textiles as recyclable products, just like they do metal, glass, plastics, and paper. “People recycle their aluminum cans all the time,” says Bailey. “They’ll recycle their aluminum cans, and throw away their old t-shirts.”

Currently, around 2 million tons of textiles are recycled annually in the U.S. — the environmental equivalent of removing 1 million cars from our roads. “And that’s without textiles being considered a recyclable product by most local governments,” Bailey says. In some cities, like Queen Creek Ariz., textile recycling is being integrated into curbside recycling services — an exciting step forward with potential for national impact if other cities followed suit.

Recycling 2 million tons of fabric each year is a great start, but there’s room for improvement. We could make a more substantial impact if individuals, not just municipalities, recycled their textiles. Unknowingly, many of us already are.

According to SMART, big-name charities with retail components are only able to resell between 20 and 30 percent of donated clothing. That means 70 to 80 percent of the clothing we donate is going somewhere else entirely — usually to a for-profit clothing recycling company. Some clothes will be shipped in bulk to developing countries; others will be recycled into new products, but happily, none are headed for a landfill.

Ultimately, whether we decide to donate, recycle or compost our old clothes, the experts agree — any place is better than the dump.


3 thoughts on “The Afterlife of Our Closets

  1. I recently tried composting strips of fabric left over from sewing projects. Just today I found those same scraps while removing the usable compost material from my bin. The scraps only “cooked” for probably 6 -9 months, and I’m a lazy composter so after reading your article I’m going to do some more experimenting.

  2. Pingback: Upcycling: The New Wave of Sustainable Fashion

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