Spring brings with it warmer temperatures, blooming flowers and that sudden urge to purge your entire closet. Spring cleaning fever overtakes me fast and furiously. Suddenly, I’m standing in front of piles of clothing that I have no idea what to do with. My go-to solution is usually the local charity shop, but lately I’ve been wondering what happens after the drop-off. Is that clothing sold in my community? What about the holey t-shirt that I’m too embarrassed to donate—what can I do with that? I feel guilty just throwing it in the trash.
Textile recycling is a confusing and rarely discussed system in Canada. The mystery has prevented me from feeling confident that I’m making the most sustainable and ethical choice. I realized it was time to do a deep dive into the industry to uncover what is happening to our recycled textiles in Canada.
A Massive Waste Stream
It is estimated that 500,000 tonnes of apparel go to disposal in Canada each year. If that’s hard to picture, imagine the weight of the CN Tower and then multiply that by four. In 2015, global fashion waste equalled more than 90% of the estimated global fashion fibre production1. Fast fashion has skyrocketed the production of cheap, unethically made clothing that fills up our landfills after minimal usage—the average number of times a garment is worn before it is thrown away has decreased by 36% over the past 15 years [PDF].
This massive waste stream is avoidable, for the most part. A study of Metro Vancouver textile waste found that out of the 22,000 tonnes that go to landfill each year, 95% is either reusable, repairable or recyclable. That means that it’s not that textiles can’t be recycled, it’s just that it isn’t happening often enough. Sara Blenkhorn, Founder and Director of Leverage Lab and the Textile Lab for Circularity, says that the issue is multifaceted, a combination of the proper systems not being in place, manufacturers not being held accountable, and consumers not being educated about their options.
Donation, Resale and Fibre Reclamation
The most commonly relied upon choice by the public for clothing recycling is donation. Clothing that is considered of resalable quality will be distributed to charity partners with retail locations, most commonly The Salvation Army, Diabetes Canada or Value Village in Canada. About 20 to 25 percent of that clothing is sold locally, but donation volume is much higher than domestic demand. The remaining resalable goods are sold to clothing graders who sort and bundle the items for shipment to markets in developing countries. In 2016, Canada exported more than $160 million of used textiles.
This is a controversial system. The clothing resale economy is now very well established in many African countries and can provide a sustainable livelihood for families. It is estimated that by 2023 the global apparel resale economy will be worth $51 billion. However, the influx of cheap secondhand clothing is harming domestic textile industries in these countries and Rwanda has gone so far as to ban the import of secondhand clothing. The infrastructure in many of these countries is not robust enough to handle the recycling of any unsellable textiles and, they will often end up incinerated or in the landfill.
The other common stream for textile recycling is fibre reclamation. Fibre reclamation is the process of pulling a material back down to a fibre level. Natural materials like cotton or wool are webbed together and used as carpet padding or insulation. Synthetic materials go through a similar process but are more commonly used for sports equipment like stuffing in punching bags and gymnastic mats. Chemical recycling is a third and newer option for textiles. It is a promising opportunity as it can return fibres to virgin quality. However, the technology is still new and expensive, with the chemical processes requiring additional resource use.
The options of donation or fibre reclamation are the two recycling streams most commonly used by municipal textile programs across Canada. Return-It in British Columbia, the City of Markham Ontario, and the City of Brandon, Manitoba, are just a few examples. In 2017, Markham was, the first municipality in Canada to ban textile waste at the curb. Not many other cities have followed suit.
Another large source of textile waste is from the unsold goods of clothing brands. Brands such as Burberry, H&M, and Nike have been criticized for incinerating or destroying unsold goods rather than donating or recycling them. Debrand is a company managing the recycling of customer returns, damaged goods and excess inventory in Vancouver. They work with popular companies like Lululemon, Aritzia and Canada Goose to sort their unused or damaged textiles into the highest-value recovery channel. Amelia Eleiter, Debrand’s Co-Founder, says that the best textile recycling option varies based on the garment but their goal is to keep these materials out of the landfill and work towards a system where you can take a piece of clothing and make it back into a new one.
Many Ways to Reduce Your Fashion Footprint
So, why isn’t a system to turn old clothing into new clothing developed yet? It seems like it would make sense to turn any high-quality materials back into new clothes rather than sending a partly-damaged item to live out the rest of its life in between the walls of your home. Eleiter cites a lack of options available and the high cost and labour involved, but does note that some small artisans are doing this in Canada. It is estimated that less than 1% of clothing is recycled to make new clothing—some experts even believe this to be as low as 0.1% [PDF].
Even with a variety of recycling options, a lot of textiles are still unnecessarily going to the landfill. Only 13% of textiles are recycled in some way and every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned globally [PDF]. Canadian groups like the Association for Textile Recycling, in Nova Scotia, and Winnipeg Textile Recycling Corp. in Manitoba are working to divert textiles away from landfills and towards reuse within their communities.
As consumers, we can’t individually solve the failings of the textile recycling industry but Fashion Takes Action, a Canadian non-profit fashion industry organization, recommends following their 7 Rs of Fashion: reduce, reuse, repurpose, repair, resale, rent and recycle. Recycling is pointedly the last option as they point out “there are many ways to reduce your fashion footprint, beyond the 3R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”