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Americans Need to Stop Trashing 15 Million Tons of Clothing Every Year

There are three key ways consumers can immediately lessen clothing waste: recycling, repairing and reducing consumption.

Fashion-lovers are buying more and more clothes; Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014. People are also throwing out their high-fashion items increasingly quickly, many within a year of production.

More than 15 million tons of textile waste is generated every year in the US, an amount that has doubled over the last 20 years. On average, each American throws out approximately 80 pounds of used clothing a year. Nationally, it costs cities around $45 per ton to dispose of old clothing. Even worse, synthetic clothing can take hundreds of years to decompose.

“Part of the difference between Europe and the US is that Europeans often value high-quality clothing,” said Jana Hawley, the director of the University of Arizona’s School of Family and Consumer Sciences, to PBS Newshour. Hawley has studied the textile industry for over 20 years.

Americans value an abundance of clothing, she added. “We want cheap and a lot of it.”

I can relate to this: I emigrated from the UK to the US several years ago, but I remember being shocked when I first looked inside an American closet and saw that it was jam-packed with clothes. To accommodate this, the closet itself was about twice the size of my English wardrobe.

What to Do About This Horrific Waste?

Emma Watson showed the world her answer to clothing waste when she attended New York’s Met Gala last year wearing a dress made from recycled plastic bottles. But we can’t all afford Calvin Klein garments.

Most clothing companies seem unconcerned by the environmental impacts of their business. But there are a few exceptions.

The Economist points out that H&M has eliminated toxic per- and polyfluorinated chemicals from its textiles (these are used to make clothes waterproof). The company also buys the most sustainable cotton, meaning cotton grown under regulations that don’t use the nastiest pesticides and employ strict water management. Nike knits certain shoe lines, instead of piecing them together, a scheme that reduces waste by 60%.

In a simple step to help the planet, Patagonia encourages its customers to buy only what they need (what a concept!) and the company also mends older items to make them last longer.

Recycling for the Earth

Some companies have tried giving customers a discount on their next purchase if they bring their old clothes back to the store. But what happens next?

An exciting new development is the emergence of Evrnu, a startup that’s been working with Levi to turn recycled T-shirts into jeans. This is a challenge since these days most clothes are made from several different kinds of fiber. If you check out the label on your favorite jeans, for example, you will probably read something like “84 percent cotton, 14 percent polyester, 2 percent spandex.”

But Evrnu has come up with the technology to handle the challenge.

“Evrnu fiber transforms old clothing into a new, useful raw material for the creation of premium garments. Designers who create clothing will be able to lead the way by offering consumers style and performance without compromising integrity,” reads the promotion on their website.

Buying recycled clothing could be the way of the future, but it may take a while to get established.

Meanwhile, there are three key ways consumers can immediately lessen clothing waste: recycling, repairing and reducing consumption.

Just because your shirt has a rip or a stain doesn’t mean you should throw it in the trash. Instead, learn how to fix your clothes — or take them to someone who can. If you have clothing that no longer fits, there are many ways to donate or sell it so it can be recycled. Finally, think twice before buying an extra apparel item that you don’t really need. Reducing consumption is the first and best way to start cutting down clothing waste in the landfill. After all, the planet’s health is worth much more than the latest pair of shoes on sale.

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