Your Clothes Create More Plastic Waste than Plates or Straws | Opinion

Most people think that plastic items such as water bottles, plates, cups, glasses, dishes, bowls and containers used in homes, restaurants, events and schools would be responsible for the majority of plastic waste in the United States. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these items only accounted for roughly 1 million tons, or 0.4 percent of all municipal solid waste in 2018. In comparison, the amount of clothes and shoes that same year added up to 13 million tons, or 4.4 percent of all municipal solid waste.

Even more alarming is that the amount of clothing and footwear recycled in 2018 was only 1.7 million tons, meaning that just 13 percent was actually recycled. The amount of clothing Americans throw out every year has doubled in the last 20 years, from 7 million to 14 million tons.

There's a second way that clothes pollute the environment and worsen climate change. Everyone can picture plastic in the ocean harming fish and wildlife, but most don't know that clothes pollute the world's oceans every day. Different types of plastic make up about 60 percent of the materials used in clothing worldwide. These include various types of plastics, like nylon, acrylic and polyester, which in 2019 had a 52 percent market share of global fiber production alone, according to the Textile Exchange 2020 Preferred Material Market Report. The pollution impact of these synthetic fibers is two-fold; most of it is still produced today using finite and unsustainable fossil fuels. Additionally, whenever we wash clothes in a machine, thousands of synthetic plastic microfibers leach into the water supply from sewage to rivers and oceans. These tiny microfibers end up back into our food supply, getting ingested by humans and wildlife.

Most ocean plastic isn't made up of cups or straws, but small plastic pieces of textile microplastics, according to Our World in Data. BPA from a plastic bottle is dangerous, but these microplastics we're consuming are far worse.

This problem is being accelerated by consumers' demand for new fashion styles on an unprecedented scale, even during the pandemic. The Center for EcoTechnology pointed out that "fast fashion" is the new business model that most retail brands use today. Put simply, there are now nine or 10 fashion seasons for consumers instead of the traditional four retail stores promoted in the past. Today, shoppers can get their quick fix of a new clothing style almost every month. This means more clothes are being produced by manufacturers which creates more waste—not only from people eventually throwing those purchases in the trash down the road. Original clothes sold in stores also do not all get purchased. Some of those "out of season" clothes are sold at discount stores, but many are never bought. Even worse, clothes are being sold at cheaper prices compared to 10 years ago due to mass factory production, which allows customers to hoard more than they need.

People carry bags
People carry bags. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

A lifecycle assessment published by the Journal of Fiber Bioengineering and Informatics showed that the carbon footprint of a single polyester T-shirt is 20.56 kg CO2-eq throughout its lifecycle. Additionally, ROADRUNNER noted that textiles can take more than 200 years to decompose in landfills.

Across the globe, roughly 92 million tons of textile waste is either burned or landfilled. This volume is equivalent to filling the Great Pyramid of Giza over 16 times.

What are the solutions?

In Sweden, German company Stadler and Norwegian company Tomra have opened the world's first fully automated textile sorting plant in Malmö. The effort is funded by the Swedish government's research and development agency Vinnova, and headed by the Swedish institute for environmental research IVL. Their facility hopes to create a fabric sorting solution for recyclers and fashion brands.

Clean technology companies around the world are working to develop workable solutions to unlock the value of synthetic fibers in an effort to divert them from landfills and bring them into a circular textile economy. Fashion brands are also looking to design out waste and integrate recycled content into their products.

The time is now for governments, universities, brands and organizations to urgently design and mobilize more tools for reversing the damage done to the planet by textile waste. This can't continue.

Daniel Solomita is founder and CEO of Loop Industries.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.