How Not Recycling Old Clothes Can Hurt The Environment Americans may think they donate all of their used clothes, but only 15 percent of textiles are reused. That means a lot of fabric ends up in landfills.

How Not Recycling Old Clothes Can Hurt The Environment

How Not Recycling Old Clothes Can Hurt The Environment

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Americans may think they donate all of their used clothes, but only 15 percent of textiles are reused. That means a lot of fabric ends up in landfills.


Maybe you've done this yourself. You have clothing you want to get rid of. You sort out the stuff to donate. And the stuff that is just ratty beyond belief, well, you just toss it. Bret Jaspers, from member station WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y, reports that that might not be the best strategy if you care about the planet.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Sara Hopkins wants her clothes to have a second chance, or in this case, her husband's clothes. These are destined for a clothing drop box.

SARA HOPKINS: We've got some polo shirts. They're not in terrible condition. Like, the fabric might be a little faded. Some of the hems of the jeans have been worn. But some people that wouldn't bother - or they could hem it up if they wanted.

JASPERS: But there are clothes she doesn't donate.

HOPKINS: And I'm honestly not sure the best way to get rid of ratty old clothes. Like, if it's old gym clothes with holes in them, like, I don't know how to recycle those. So they usually end up going in the garbage.

JASPERS: It turns out, a lot of ratty old clothes and plenty of not-so-ratty ones don't end up at Goodwill or The Salvation Army. They find their way into the garbage.

ANNIE LEONARD: Tons - and I actually mean tons - of textiles get tossed every year.

JASPERS: Annie Leonard is the executive director of Greenpeace and wrote the book, "The Story Of Stuff."

LEONARD: A very small percentage of that is recovered, only about 15 percent.

JASPERS: Yep, just 15 percent of textiles are recovered each year according to the EPA. Textiles as a category includes things like shoes, carpeting and stuffed animals. But clothes are a big chunk. And it's a problem. Leonard says the more we discard, the more we buy. And the production of so many clothes hurts the environment.

LEONARD: So the more that we can reuse and recycle stuff, the less we have to make new stuff. And there's just huge environmental benefits to be saved there.

JASPERS: One potential savings, carbon emissions - the EPA estimates that what we do donate each year, that 15 percent, is like taking over a million cars off the road.

GREG ERNST: We're down into kind of more the active face now.

JASPERS: Greg Ernst is looking at the exposed part of the landfill he runs for Cortland County in upstate New York.

ERNST: From where we're just standing right here, you can see there's a couple couch cushions. There's a piece of rug. You know, there's an old shirt over there, a rag of some sort, some blankets. That's typical of what we see of the textiles.

JASPERS: Ernst says about 5 to 10 percent of what they get at the landfill is textiles. They'll occasionally see a big load of clothes when someone's moving or cleaning out a house after a death in the family. Ernst isn't too worried about organic textiles, like wool and cotton. But he says synthetic fibers will be with us a long time.

ERNST: Man-made materials is not something that Mother Nature has created and necessarily equipped to deal with as a disposal or a waste item.

JASPERS: So Mother Nature may need an assist here from people. Some apparel companies have take-back programs. And there's an existing pipeline for your ratty old gym clothes. Jackie King runs the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. Her members buy left-over clothes from places like Goodwill. She says a lot of what gets dropped off at a thrift store never goes on the rack.

JACKIE KING: So there is an 80 percent that's not, you know, being displayed that is what our members actually will purchase from the charities or thrift stores.

JASPERS: Some of the clothes get resold overseas. Some get sold to heavy industry as wiping rags. Others get shredded and used as insulation or stuffing for couches and cars. King says your ratty old drop-offs simply have to be clean and dry. For NPR News, I'm Bret Jaspers in Binghamton, N.Y.

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