The Environmental Impact of Fashion & Textiles

by Becky Phung

Take a second and think back to the last thing you threw away. Was it a greasy napkin from Panda Express? An empty plastic milk jug? A single threadbare sock from five years ago that you’ve finally decided to part with?

The concept of waste management is as old as time, especially recycling. Materials ranging from scrap metals to rubber were collected to be used in the production of new goods during World War I and II. During prehistoric times, more waste was recycled during periods of resource shortages.

Clothing is now perceived as disposable as much of the trash we throw away. Our collective need for newness and immediate gratification has led to the the growth of fast fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M, and Forever21. As a whole, the fashion industry has also doubled the amount of clothing produced from 2000 to 2014. What does this mean for our environment?

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For starters, consumer textile recycling is not as sophisticated as other post-consumer recycling systems. Textile recyclables are largely collected by private companies, and according to US E.P.A., of the 16 million tons of textile MSW (municipal solid waste) collected in 2014, only 2.62 million tons was recycled.

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Producing clothing also requires a substantial amount of resources due to the complex supply chain of the textiles and apparel industry. Cotton may be farmed in Texas, shipped for processing and weaving in Indonesia, shipped to Bangladesh to be cut and sewn into garments, then shipped back to the United States to be sold at retailers. Each step along the way has its own environmental impact, from the chemically-intensive process of fabric and yarn dyeing to the fabric wastage produced from cutting fabrics for sewing.

However, environmental impact doesn’t just stop at the end of the supply chain. According to Kate Fletcher, author of the 2008 book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys, 66% of the fashion industry’s solid waste and carbon emissions result from washing and drying clothing. In 2017, IUCN also reported that washing synthetic textiles (i.e. polyester) results in 35% of the microplastics in the ocean, second after car tires.

To combat textile waste on our campus, Dr. Jonathan Chen, Dr. Katherine Polston, and Professor Eve Nicols of the Textiles and Apparel Department created the Textiles and Apparel Recycling Campaign, a UT Green Fund funded research project that aims to set up a student-run recycling center on campus and, in the future, create regenerated rayon from collected cotton recyclables. This semester, we set up textile recycling bins in the lobbies of Jester East, West, Whitis Court, and Gearing Hall.

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As mentioned before, most textile products will most likely decompose in a landfill, releasing methane gas instead of being recycled into new products or donated for use by someone else. So think twice before clicking on that clothing ad on Facebook and repair your clothing if possible, but if you have a textile item you want to get rid of, place it in one of our bins!

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Textile recycling bin in Jester West Lobby

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