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Give the Shirt Off Your Back for the Planet

Textile waste is a big problem, and an Ontario study says most discarded clothing could be reused or recycled. How do we shift our habits?


The fast fashion industry is fast becoming one of the world’s worst environmental issues, responsible for 20% of global waste water and 10% of carbon emissions worldwide. In Ontario, a new study has found that 500 million kilograms of textiles are discarded in landfills every year — but according to the researchers, the majority of this textile waste could have been reused or recycled.

The study was led by researchers at Seneca College and the University of Waterloo, and published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

An enormous amount of textile waste is generated in Canada every year, yet little research has been done into how to properly reuse, recycle, or dispose of textiles. Because of this, most textile waste winds up in landfills — and in some cases, this waste won’t decompose for hundreds of years.

To learn more about this growing environmental problem, the team behind the study — along with students from Seneca College — collected more than 10,000 textile waste items from 10 Ontario municipalities over the course of a year. The team sorted the items into six categories (and 44 sub-categories), in total analyzing nearly 1,800 kilograms worth of textile materials.

The researchers estimate that Canadians produce nearly 200,000 tonnes of textile waste every year, which is equivalent to twelve kilograms of textile waste per person. Yet of the thousands of items they analyzed, they found that 65% of this waste could have been reused rather than discarded. Another 21% of the items could have been recycled.

“A lot of what is in the garbage is in perfect condition, which is really sad,” said Sabine Weber, a professor at Seneca College’s School of Fashion, in a press release.

Part of the problem is that Canada doesn’t have standardized systems for reusing or recycling textile waste. While clothing that is in good condition can sometimes be donated, clothing that could be repaired or broken down and recycled is often thrown into the trash simply because consumers aren’t sure what to do with it. Even clothing in perfect condition often ends up in the trash due to limited donation options.

“We need to create a recycling infrastructure in Canada that will have people donating materials that are in bad condition too,” Weber added.

“If we donate only good things, as is happening now, we’ll never build a textile recycling industry because there will be nothing to recycle.”

While donating clothing is one way to help solve this problem, it’s also important to be mindful of what sort of clothing we’re purchasing in the first place. Not all textiles are created equal, and plastic-based textiles such as polyester are particularly problematic to dispose of. In fact, Weber explained that polyesters can stay in landfills forever.

Textile waste is a huge burden on our environment, and if we want to solve this issue, we need to explore sustainable options for reusing and recycling clothing.

This could be as simple as hosting a clothing swap with friends, or learning to repair worn clothes. Together, we can help reduce the burden of the fast fashion industry.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.