Mon February 28, 2011

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Most of us who live amongst the hustle and bustle of the big city probably aren't aware of the fact that approximately 21% of Americans live in rural areas. This huge subset of the American population lacks something that most city-dwellers take for granted: easy access to recycling programs.

Many rural American communities are too small to support local recycling programs because, in comparison to bigger cities, lower volumes of recyclables are difficult to market. Additionally, longer distances between households, and the smaller financial base, adds to the burden of providing adequate and sustainable recycling programs. In short: It is easier to put waste in a landfill than recycle it even if it comes at a much greater cost to earth.

Most people would assume that this problem is confined to what comes to mind when we think of our blue recycling bins: glass bottles, plastic containers, newspapers etc. but textiles are just as harmful a part of the waste stream, while being equally reusable and recyclable. The average American household consumes over 200 pounds of new clothing per year and textiles are among the top most prevalent items disposed of by a single family home.

In rural landfills alone textiles account for 6.1% of the total waste by weight. And unlike America's big cities, rural communities aren't bursting at the seams with thrift shops and charity organizations which provide an easy outlet for recycling and reusing unwanted clothing. So in rural communities these unwanted clothes and textiles often end up in landfills where even biodegradable natural fibers do not easily break down due to lack of sunlight and oxygen. Incineration is unfortunately another popular form of disposing of textiles and can emit severely harmful toxins into the local atmosphere.

Organizations like USAgain have their eye on this problem and provide a good option for non-urban communities by placing drop boxes in central locations around communities so that people can easily and quickly dispose of unwanted clothes and shoes, keeping them out of landfills.

Most of the collected clothes are reused here in the U.S. or abroad, while the rest are recycled. There are tons of ways that textiles are given a second life through recycling. Some become wiping and polishing cloths. Cotton can be made into rags or form a component for new high-quality paper. Knitted or woven woolens and similar materials are manipulated into a fibrous state for reuse by the textile industry in low-grade applications, such as car insulation or seat stuffing. Other types of fabric can be reprocessed into fibers for upholstery, insulation, and even building materials. Buttons and zippers are stripped off for reuse. Very little is left over at the end of the recycling process.


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