Clothing waste weighs on local environment

"Fast fashion" ends up in landfills

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By Lesia Pogorelo and Lauren Vanderdeen

Metro Vancouver’s yearly textile waste, such as clothes, towels and sheets, is one-third the weight of the CN Tower.

That’s 40,000 tonnes.

Experts say brands, governments and consumers need to get educated on the effects of throwing out your used clothes – and take action.

Lauren Degenstein, who has a master’s degree in human ecology and specializes in textile sustainability, said the increase in textile consumption began with the rise of “fast fashion” in the 1990s, when many different styles of clothes began to appear on the market and seasonal trends began to change rapidly. Consumers began buying more clothes and wearing each item fewer times.

Not only has clothing quality decreased, but higher prices don’t necessarily entail better quality.

Since then, Degenstein said much of the responsibility for ethical purchasing falls to individuals.

“We also need to have brand accountability, we also need to have policies in place so that brands are held accountable,” she said.

City programs aid textile recycling

Vancouverites can drop off their used textiles at the bottle depot Return-It station. Sandy Sigmund, Return-It’s vice-president of development and chief marketing officer, said the company is using its recycling infrastructure to make it easy for people to help the environment.

In 2021, Sigmund said Return-It collected 478,853 kilograms of textiles, a 31 per cent increase from 2020.

The collected textiles are transferred to the Salvation Army for reuse. What’s not sold is shipped overseas to new markets.

“What we need is to build in a circular economy, so that [textiles are] used over and over again, to be made into the materials and right now that does not happen,” Sigmund said.

A circular economy aims to keep products out of the garbage, extending the use of products to keep them from becoming waste.

Metro Vancouver’s Think Thrice campaign strives to educate residents on reducing textile waste, including options for repair and reuse.

Karen Storry, a senior engineer for Metro Vancouver’s solid waste services, said while running the campaign, she found that people didn’t understand that they could donate any kind of textile, as long as it’s clean and dry. Even holey shirts and ripped jeans have a market.

Sigmund said most people understand that plastic bottles can be recycled but thought people might be confusing textile recycling with textile reusing.

Return-It, the Salvation Army and other used clothing shops are all part of the reuse stage, but Sigmund noted there are no real textile recyclers in Western Canada.

“I think in order for textile recycling to really become significant, especially here in British Columbia, or in Western Canada, we need to have local markets and markets to recycle the materials, so it can get turned back into the monomers and polymers made into fabric again, so that brand owners can use that fabric to make new clothes,” Sigmund said.

Sigmund said that kind of textile recycling infrastructure doesn’t necessarily come from the government. Customers need to want to make sure they’re buying clothing with recycled content to increase demand and influence brand owners to source new materials.

“The best regulation is one that just says you should have some recycled content in your material,” Sigmund said. “That incentivizes both customers to want it, and brand owners to provide it.”

Storry said other countries have implemented some regulations for clothing brands.

She said France has introduced an extended producer repair program for textiles. Durability standards, which are emerging in the electronics sector, could happen for textiles, as could lower taxes for textile repair.

Shopping habits hard to break

Knowing there’s a problem doesn’t stop people from buying new.

Oksana Honcharova said shopping always cheers her up. Honcharova lives in the small Saskatchewan town Bienfait and enjoys the variety of clothes she can find online.

“It especially delights me when you look for a thing for a long time, and then you find that very perfect handbag – these feelings cannot be explained in words. Joy has no limit. New things give me the feeling that something new and pleasant will definitely happen in my life,” Honcharova said.

Angela Marie MacDougall is the executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services which runs My Sister’s Closet, an “eco-thrift boutique.”

“We’re trying to bring more ethics into shopping and clothing,” MacDougall said. “We’re not at a critical mass yet, not even close, but we are definitely pushing for that.”

MacDougall wants to draw awareness to the interconnected, global systems that our clothing is a part of.

For Honcharova, purchasing is still part of her lifestyle.

“I feel guilty if I don’t buy something. I sit and suffer, walk around the apartment and look for what needs to be replaced or bought in addition, reviewing my wardrobe and trying to find what I lack. And, as a rule, I always come up with a reason to buy,” Honcharova said.

Degenstein’s first suggestion for a person who wants to change their purchasing habits is to look to what’s already in your wardrobe. She also recommended developing a cost per wear system and encouraged buying from thrift stores and participating in clothing swaps.

Storry said you can look great, minimize waste and save money by buying used clothes. “It’s really time to rethink our our closets and how we manage our clothes, and to look for things that you’re going to love for a long time and wear for a long time,” she said.

For Degenstein, the shift is necessary.

“I don’t foresee in the future, when we have more resource scarcity, that we can just continue to produce and consume as much as we are,” Degenstein said.

“I would say both in environmental and social standpoint, there needs to be changes because it’s just not a sustainable industry, in that we’re using up all the resources we need for it to continue.”

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