An estimated 1.2m tonnes of textiles end up in landfill sites in the UK each year. Of that 1.2m tonnes, around 360,000 tonnes are clothing items. In terms of monetary value, this is roughly £140m worth of clothing going to UK landfill sites every year.
“Waste is out of fashion!”
That was the message for 2022’s European Week for Waste Reduction. So how can we all make textile consumption more sustainable?
The problem with landfill use
At Shred Station, we have a strict Zero to Landfill policy for everything we shred including our textile shredding service. This is because burying waste under the ground can have many negative environmental impacts.
Why methane is bad
When waste in landfills starts to break down, it emits methane. Methane traps heat in the atmosphere, and over 100 years would trap 25x more heat than the equivalent volume of carbon dioxide. While many landfill sites now take measures to “de-gas” sites, a process whereby methane is captured to generate electricity, not all methane is captured. This is because the degassing process usually only happens when landfill cells are closed. While cells are open, methane can leak into the environment and can also cause dangerous explosions and fires. If fires do break out, they can damage the waterproof membranes that landfill sites install to prevent soil contamination. This further introduces a whole range of other ecological problems.
Landfill can contaminate soil and water sources
Another issue with landfill sites is the harmful runoff. When it rains over landfill sites, the rainwater becomes contaminated with chemicals, solids or microplastics from the rubbish. This contaminated liquid is known as leachate. When leachates flow into nearby water sources or enter the soil, they can wreak havoc on local ecosystems, water supplies and habitats.
Landfill can harm wildlife
The building of landfill sites in itself can decimate habitats. The average landfill size is 500-600 acres, and the UK alone has over 570 landfill sites. This is a big habitat loss. With nowhere else to go and their food sources depleted, local animals gravitate towards landfill sites. This is because landfill offers the creatures a constant, but highly dangerous food source. Unsurprisingly, eating discarded rubbish poisons local wildlife which then affects the food chain. This is the case globally. For instance, a single landfill site in Sri Lanka has caused the death of 20 elephants in the last eight years. Clothing items in landfill too can find its way into the stomachs or nests of animals, further risking the ingestion of synthetic microfibres and plastics.
Landfill sites can also have long-lasting impacts on migratory bird species, which are now in global decline. Instead of flying south for the winter, there have been cases of migratory birds staying put near landfill sites because they see them as a reliable source of food. Their new diet is deadly, killing off the flock, and the chicks do not learn the migratory behaviours they need to survive as a species.
Landfill can affect human life
Landfill sites can also be deadly for humans. In March 2017, 115 people died at the Addis Ababa landfill in Ethiopia when the rubbish pile collapsed. A month later, a landslide occurred at a dump in Sri Lanka. Dozens were killed and dozens more remained missing. In 2020, the Zaldívar landfill site in Spain collapsed, killing 2 workers. Those living close to landfill sites also tend to suffer from more medical conditions than those who do not, including asthma, lung cancer and respiratory diseases.
With clothes and textiles contributing mountains of material to landfill sites, discussions around clothing waste are well past due.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just the disposal of textiles and clothing items that can cause environmental damage.
The environmental impact of clothing production and use
The textile production process generates 15-35 tonnes of carbon emissions per tonne of textiles produced. With the emissions so high for textile manufacturing, it’s no surprise that the industry puts a lot of pressure on the planet.
Scientists believe that 35% of microplastics in our oceans originate from the abrasion of synthetic textiles during washing. Synthetic textiles are commonly made from finely woven plastics. This means, when we wash our fleeces, polyesters, nylons, microfiber cloths or any other synthetic textiles, tiny fibres from those garments come loose. Through our wastewater, these tiny microfiber plastics then end up in the ocean.
So, with both natural and synthetic clothing taking their toll on the environment, how can we win this battle?
Solutions to make textile consumption more sustainable
Reducing clothing and textile manufacture and waste relies on supply and demand. If we all throw away last season’s clothes to buy new garments, there will be a continuous need for new clothes and a continuous stream of textile waste into landfill. So, what’s the solution?
Reduce textile consumption
There are many solutions we can all adopt to prolong the life of our clothing and reduce the volume of textile waste going to landfill. The simplest of these is to reduce the volume of new clothes and textiles we consume.
Since 2013, the people of Britain have consistently spent over £50bn each year on clothing, even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. By reusing or giving new life to just a few garments a year, we could all help to reduce our textile consumption.
A recent survey by British Wool found that two-thirds of people throw away items of clothing that could be mended, recycled or donated to charity. A reason for this could be the increasing availability of fast fashion and low-cost items. If a t-shirt only costs a few pounds to buy brand new, many people probably wouldn’t think it was worth donating.
Additionally, a YouGov study found that 33% of UK adults did not know how to sew. This figure was much higher in young people, with 46% of 18–24s admitting they didn’t know how to sew. If a button comes off or a small tear appears in the seams of a shirt, it’s no surprise that these items may just get thrown away and new items bought, especially if the items are cheap.
So, how do we tackle this problem?
The best solution is to encourage people to repurpose, mend or donate their old clothes. A needle and thread are very cheap to buy and can be found in most supermarkets. Most clothing items with buttons even come with a spare sewn or attached to the label. Video-sharing platforms are full of sewing tutorial videos if you don’t have anybody to show you in person.
For clothes past the point of reuse or unsuitable for donation, the next best option is to recycle.
Recycle clothing and textiles
Clothes are quite easy to recycle if they are all made from one fibre rather than blended fibres. However, with things like poly-cotton blends, that process does become harder. Additionally, as the time or the cost to extrude and recycle fibres increases for the manufacturer, it becomes very difficult to create an affordable recycled product for the end-consumer.
With our own textile shredding and recycling service, we will separate items into materials wherever we can, and all suitable materials we send for recycling in their dedicated waste stream. With some garments that are tax-tagged, company logos can be removed allowing the entire garment to be recycled while protecting the company brand. Other materials can also be sent for rag recycling where they are made into things like insulation, underlay, dust cloths and much more. Remaining shredded/mixed materials, we send to Energy from Waste facilities. There, they are incinerated under strict controls to generate energy for the National Grid. We feel that this is a much more environmentally friendly option than sending materials to landfill. This method of shredding and recycling is ideal for businesses where large quantities of branded materials or uniforms need to be destroyed to prevent misuse or reselling.
Prevent clothing from entering landfill
It’s unrealistic to expect every person in the world to stop buying new clothes. It’s also unrealistic to expect everyone to stop using and washing synthetic fibres. Synthetic fibres can be incredibly useful and can be used to make bandages, warm fabrics like fleece, and much more. However, there are ways we can prevent these fibres from entering our oceans. Many companies have already released laundry bags and balls that capture microfibres in the wash. There are even special filters you can add to your washing machine’s outflow that do the same.
You can also prevent your clothing and textiles from entering landfills by taking the time to properly dispose of them. Many councils have public textile recycling bins and your local recycling centre may also accept textiles that aren’t suitable for donation. It may be a mild inconvenience, but it will prevent those materials from lingering in landfill sites for years to come. For commercial clothing and textiles, there is also the option to shred and recycle.
Innovation is one of the best ways the world can find solutions to any kind of waste problem. With clothing and textiles, science is already providing a glimmer of hope. Worn Again Technologies is just one example of a company trying to solve the challenge of converting polyester and polycotton blended textiles back into circular raw materials.
We are also pleased to announce that we have joined the UKFT, Worn Again Technologies, Tesco, New Look, and many other organisations in a £4m project which aims to revolutionise textile recycling in the UK.
As more funds are allocated to innovative projects that solve climate-related issues like these, we can hope to see even more recycling solutions for materials that are not currently recyclable.
We hope that this blog has given you some ideas about how we can all take steps to become more sustainable in our use of clothing and textiles.
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