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How not recycling old clothes can hurt the environment

Bret Jaspers
A discarded shirt at rest in the Cortland County landfill.

Binghamton resident Sara Hopkins wants her good, used clothes to have a second chance. But there are some she simply doesn't donate.

"I'm honestly not sure the best way to get rid of ratty old clothes, [like] old gym clothes with holes in them," she said in her home on the city's east side. 

"I don't know how to recycle those, so they usually end up going in the garbage."

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 trash.

"Tons, and I actually mean tons of textiles gets tossed every year," said Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace. She wrote the book, The Story of Stuff. "A very small percentage of that is recovered; only about 15 percent."

That’s right, 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 said the more we discard, the more we buy, and the production of so many clothes hurts the environment.

"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."

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.

Credit Bret Jaspers / WSKG News
Greg Ernst is the supervisor for Solid Waste Management for Cortland County.

Cortland County Solid Waste Supervisor Greg Ernst said about 5 to 10 percent of what they get at the county 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 said synthetic fibers will be with us a long time.

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

So Mother Nature may need an assist here from people. Some apparel companies have take-back programs. There is also new research at Cornell University looking at how to shred fibers and "upcycle" them into new products (there's more on this research in a video at the bottom of this story).

And there's an existing pipeline for your ratty old gym clothes: the same pipeline you use for your good used clothes.

Jackie King runs the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association; her members buy leftover clothes from places like Goodwill. She said much of what we drop off at thrift stores never goes on the rack.

"There is an 80 percent that's not being displayed [that] our members actually will purchase from charities or thrift stores," she said.

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.

Check out this video about new research at Cornell focused on clothing waste: