The news media is sparking renewed interest in the issue of textile waste and strategies for tackling textile waste. A recent PBS news hour show focused on “how to stop 13 million tons of clothing from getting trashed every year” and the Huffington Post recently asked us to “Imagine a World in Which Nothing Gets Thrown Away” with strategies for creating a more “circular economy”.
So, what exactly is textile waste and what are ways in which both consumers and companies are tackling the textile waste? There are three types of textile waste:
1. Pre-consumer textile waste is created during the manufacturing process and includes fabric selvages, left over fabric from the cutting process, and other fabric scraps. Companies that use textile materials typically have a waste tolerance rate that they use when generating their production markers (pattern layout guides). In general, they want to waste as little fabric as is possible given their design parameters. For apparel companies, waste tolerance rates can be anywhere from zero to 15%; although to be honest, there are few companies that have a zero waste tolerance rate.
2. Post-consumer textile waste includes apparel and household textiles (e.g., towels, sheets, rugs) that are discarded by consumers. It also includes carpets, window coverings, hotel linens, upholstery and other textiles used in commercial settings and discarded. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2013 approximately 15% of all post-consumer textile waste (2.3 million tons) was recovered (i.e., recycled, reused, etc.). This means that that approximately 85% (12.83 million tons) of all post-consumer textile waste was not recovered. Some have suggested that the amounts are higher; others lower. However, even with differing statistics, it is fair to say that a great deal of post-consumer textile waste is generated each year and most of it ends up in landfills.
3. Industrial textile waste is generated from industrial applications such conveyor belts, filters, geotextiles, wiping rags, etc.
In the past, most of the strategies have focused on reducing post-consumer textile waste that ends up in landfills. However, more recently companies are implementing strategies to address pre-consumer textile waste. Both pre- and post-consumer textile waste materials can be converted for use in industry applications (e.g., wiping rags, filters, spill absorption). Below are a few examples of strategies and resources for additional information.
Strategies around pre-consumer textile waste
• Zero-waste fashion design: Zero waste fashion design takes fabric utilization to the extreme – creating patterns for a design that create a marker (pattern layout) that looks like a large jigsaw puzzle and results in 100% fabric utilization. Successful zero waste fashion designers such as Timo Rissanen, Tara St. James (for Study NY), and Daniel Silverstein create unique and wearable apparel designs with zero fabric waste in the cutting process. The fashion brand, Tonlé, combines two strategies for zero-waste fashion: “creative pattern making that uses 100% of a given material, and generating garments from remnant materials.” Designers and production team members at Tonlé work side-by-side to create merchandise that results in only 2-3% waste fabric (which by any account is amazing!). However, they then take this waste fabric to create recycled paper.
• Materials made from reclaimed fibers and yarns. Reclaimed fibers from pre-consumer textile waste are the result of collecting fabric scraps and cuttings left from the cutting and sewing processes and processing them to create a new fiber. For example,
ECO2cotton yarn is made from processing pre-consumer cotton knit cuttings to create denim fabric. Thread International combines reclaimed cotton (from pre-consumer waste) and post-consumer polyester to create new fibers and fabrics. Their jersey knit, for example, is made from reclaimed U.S. cotton and recycled plastic bottles collected in Haiti. As part of their ZERO Landfill and No Fiber Left Behind campaigns, Martex Fiber Company offers services for utilizing reclaimed cotton fibers using pre-consumer textile waste.
• Materials made from regenerated fibers and yarns. Both pre-consumer and post-consumer waste textiles are also regenerated to create non-woven textile products such as acoustic textiles, insulation, roofing felt, filters, etc. For example, Martex Fiber creates materials for these types of products by recycling both pre- and post-consumer textile waste.
Strategies around post-consumer textile waste
Recovering post-consumer textile waste is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Numerous firms sort, reuse, repurpose, recycle, upcycle, and re-sell used clothing and other textile products. The term recycle refers to processes by which waste materials are made suitable for reuse. The term repurpose refers to the process of using waste items again but with new purposes. The term upcycle refers to the process when the discarded items are transformed to create products with a higher value than what was being discarded without changing the composition of the original material. The website for the association, Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) has a wealth of information about this industry.
• Donated clothing and textiles. The used clothing market is an important component for the post-consumer textile waste industry. Consumers are encouraged to donate all clothing and other household textiles (even worn or stained clothing) to charities such as Goodwill. In the U.S. only about 5% of the textiles donated to these charities ends up in landfills; with approximately 20% of donated clothing sold in charitable shops and 75% reused, repurposed, and/or recycled. The Council for Textile Recycling has great information around these efforts.
• University/industry upcycling collaborations. Being a former faculty member, I love to learn about university/industry collaborations. San Francisco State University, PeoplewearSF, and the San Francisco Hotel/Non-Profit Collaborative collaborated on the Table Cloth Project in which used table clothes from hotels were used to create innovative tote bags. As another example, Columbia College Chicago, United Airlines, and Re:new Project collaborated in transforming large United Airlines banners into upcycled carry-on bags.
• Recycled carpet. The carpet industry has been instrumental in organizing efforts to increase recycling of post-consumer carpet and encourage design and production of carpet that encourages its recyclability. See Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) for more information about these efforts.
• Materials made from reclaimed fibers and yarns. Reclaimed fibers from post-consumer textile waste result from taking used clothing and textiles and processing them to reclaim their original fibers to be used again. For example, wool from Miller Waste Mills, Inc. is made from 100% post-consumer fibers. In addition, new technologies have emerged for reclaiming cotton fibers. For example, Evrnu technology purifies cotton garment waste by first stripping dyes and other contaminants. The waste is then converted to a pulp, breaking it down to fiber molecules. The molecules are then recombined and extruded as a new fiber. Evrnu has recently partnered with Levi Strauss to create jeans from fabrics made with at least 50% post-consumer cotton waste.
With all the attention textile waste has received, I’ve heard concerns that the focus on tackling the textile waste issue has taken away from the real issue which is reducing consumption of clothing and textiles. As the argument goes, if there were fewer consumer and commercial purchases of textile products, there would be less waste, so the focus should be on reducing consumption! However, rather than prioritizing the issues, let’s continue to explore ways to tackle textile waste in addition to reducing consumption! I’m encouraged to earn about new technologies, new companies, and new collaborations that are taking on this challenge!