Tue April 27, 2010

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Christmas sweaters and dad jeans aren't just offensive out of principle - they can pose a serious threat to the environment.

Innocuous as they might seem when compared with plastic shopping bags or Styrofoam cups, clothing and textiles become garbage just like everything else when thrown away - and given our country's shopping crazed culture, discarded clothing is clogging up landfills at an alarming rate.

According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year and clothing and other textiles represent about 6.3% of the municipal solid waste (in major cities like New York and Chicago alone, textiles make up a whopping 10% of all municipal waste).

This figure only continues to grow, with large clothing companies like H&M setting disturbing precedents. The company recently came under fire for purposely destroying brand-new wearable clothing and tossing it into the trash, rather than recycling it.

Yet unlike recycling plastics, glass and aluminum - which is today taken for granted as a part of our daily life - there is an inherent lack of knowledge about the damage textile waste can do to the environment and of the options available for recycling it.

Most people don't realize there are outlets for putting their used and unwanted clothes back into the consumer cycle. There are.

The best way to "recycle" clothing is to simply offer it out to channels of reuse - including vintage stores, thrift shops, coat drives, and more. Charities and businesses all over the world collect used clothing to be resold or donated.

In fact, many people don't realize that used clothing represents a massive global market. Your giveaway "dad jeans" might end up for sale in a village market in Guatemala or Nigeria, helping the local economy while at the same time taking the burden off of landfills.

Some companies, like my own USagain, uses collection bins in major metro areas to offer a simple and convenient option for people to get rid of their unwanted clothing. Then we re-sell what we collect to thrift stores and wholesalers. From our experience, we know that if we work to provide the option of textile recycling, people will happily take advantage of these resources.

In 2009 alone, we diverted 54 million pounds of clothing from landfills.

Seems like it's catching on. Clothing companies like GAP are joining the trend of clothing recycling and encouraging their customers to follow in their steps. And New York City is mulling a proposal to provide Department of Sanitation-sanctioned textile recycling bins throughout the metro-area to collect textiles that would otherwise be thrown in the trash.

These initiatives are promising and leave us hopeful that with the right demand, word will spread about the necessity of textile recycling.

Who knows - with the right awareness, a used Christmas sweater might just become just the latest (unlikely) symbol of consumers doing their part for the environment.

Follow Mattias Wallander on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MattiasWall