There is a growing concern about what happens to our old clothes. Most of our clothes end up in landfills. It is simply pollution that contributes nothing.
Some of our clothes are sent overseas (mostly Africa). The recipients sift through the clothes to find the few key items and then, unfortunately, burn the rest. This is bad because the burning produces carbon. A more direct disadvantage is that the flood of free clothes stifles the recipient country’s textile industry. This can be particularly harmful to developing nations. The cut and sew industry is compatible for countries with little infrastructure and cheap labour. I recommend the CBC article called: “What Really Happens to Old Clothes Dropped in those In-Store Recycling Bins”.
There is now a greater focus on the “end of life” or “life cycle” of clothing. How can we dispose of our clothes is a more environmentally responsible way? In the last three years, there is a great deal of talk about biodegradable and compostable clothes. [The two terms are not the same. To be labelled compostable, the item needs to decompose at a certain speed and by a certain amount. It is a level of biodegradation that is achieved by only some biodegradable items.]
Biodegradable clothes can be organic (direct from nature) or synthetic (spun from a chemical soup). The clothing can use bio-based materials (soy, gluten, etc) or industrial chemicals (petroleum). Some fear that biodegradable clothes will just rot off the hanger. This fear is unfounded. Many biodegradable fabrics only start to degrade if they are exposed to a certain enzyme, at a certain temperature, or both. This durability creates useful clothes, but it does create one disadvantage. More details of the utility of enzyme-specific biodegradation can be found in the GreenBiz article: “Got Plants?”
Biodegradable clothes need to go to a commercial or industrial composter to decompose properly. Few such facilities exist, and people do not know that their old clothes need to be disposed of in a special disposal stream. People simply throw out their old clothes falsely believing that they will biodegrade in the landfill. As a result, the biodegradable clothes sit in the landfill just like any other clothing. A good summary is found in the article “Sustainable Bio-plastics Can Harm the Environment”. Even if the clothes biodegrade properly, there is a real issue as to whether the compost is particularly useful for plant life. Second, if the clothing biodegrades while there is no oxygen, most bioplastics create a great deal of methane. This case has a greater climate changing impact than carbon dioxide.
Fortunately, the problem suggests a solution. A non-profit environmental consultancy organization called CE Delft suggests collecting biogas from decomposing clothing. It is well known that biogas can be collected from the decomposition of regular textiles. A study called: “High Rate Biogas Production from Waste Textiles” details the best method for doing so. Implementing this solution would require government education, regulation and investment. Given the vast amount of pollution textiles produce, however, the investment may be well worth it.