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With or Without COVID-19, Textile Waste Is on the Rise

Textile waste is a burgeoning problem, and not only for brands and retailers facing down mounting piles of unsold merchandise amid the pandemic-triggered retail slowdown. Stay-at-homers, too, with more time than ever on their hands, are amassing stacks of castoff garments as they clean out closets in pursuit of more “joy sparking” and a little pocket change for themselves or a favorite cause.

GlobalData, in a survey conducted for ThredUp last month, reported that 50 percent more people are decluttering their wardrobes than they did pre-COVID-19. And ThredUp itself said it has received more than six times as many requests for its donation clean-out kits, which convert unwanted clothes into charitable contributions, since the outbreak began.

Across the pond, U.K. households have cleared out some 184 million textile items, though the majority (57 percent) are still waiting at home until COVID-19 lockdowns lift and they can be safely disposed of, according to a new survey by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a Banbury-based charity that helps consumers and businesses reduce waste.

Clothes such as T-shirts, blouses, sweaters and hoodies make up the majority (37 percent) of textile items being given the heave-ho, WRAP said. Britons have also spent time sifting through unwanted shoes (19 percent), bedding (12 percent), bags (10 percent), accessories (10 percent) and household linens (10 percent).

Peter Maddox, director at WRAP, said U.K. organizations are already girding their loins for a massive surge in clothing donations when restrictions relax.

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“Our insights tell us that most people prefer to donate or recycle unwanted clothes, but with an unprecedented volume about to be unleashed it’s important that we all take a few simple steps so not to overwhelm the sector,” Maddox said in a statement. “Whether you’re using a charity shop, textile bank, retail take-back scheme or curbside collections the golden rule is to check they’re operating before you go. Call ahead or look online—check with your local authority—but please never leave clothes in front of a closed charity shop or a full textiles bank.”

WRAPs survey found people who are “actively committed” to preventing clothing waste now comprise 50 percent of the population, up from 31 percent just a few years ago.

Despite this ramping interest, managing textile waste remains a challenge for signatories of the WRAP-headed Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020, a commitment by 85 of the United Kingdom’s leading retailers, charity shops and clothing recyclers to collectively reduce clothing’s environmental impact by 15 percent by 2020. Britons are buying more clothing than ever but hanging onto them half as long, overwhelming existing routes of textile removal in serious need of significant investments—and scalable innovations—to keep pace.

There are pockets of promise in terms of up-and-coming recycling technologies, but few that have emerged from the pilot stage show financial viability and therefore real teeth. Fewer than 1 percent of textiles produced are currently recycled into new ones, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Because of the deteriorating quality of garments over the years, most unwanted shirts, pants and dresses are downcycled, incinerated or consigned to the landfill. With secondhand markets in Eastern Europe and Africa turning away imports of castoffs until the pandemic abates, Kondoed clothing will have few other viable outlets for the foreseeable future.

To suss out solutions, WRAP last month relaunched a 1.5-million-pound grant ($1.9 million) fund for “imaginative projects” that can tackle barriers to textile recycling and reuse. The Textiles Project Grant Fund draws from the 18-million-pound ($22.4 million) Resource Action Fund provided by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to support resource efficiency projects.

“I know coronavirus has placed extra pressures on the textiles sector, so I’m very pleased that this fund is helping more organizations to explore innovative solutions for the industry,” Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said in a statement.

Textile waste is no less of an issue in the United States, where discarded garments and linens are outpacing the growth of every other major waste-stream category, according to environmental consultants Resource Recycling Systems, which examined municipal data between 2000 and 2017 in a recent paper.

During that time, textile waste increased 54 percent on a per-capita basis, despite the fact that overall waste generation decreased by 5 percent. Americans, on average, snap up a new garment every five days while maintaining most items for less than a year, the Michigan firm said.

“In this era of fast fashion, consumer purchasing habits have driven average product prices down, and that price pressure has translated to price constrictions on materials,” the paper’s authors wrote. “As a result, product quality suffers and less-durable materials have a shorter lifespan.”

With the projected rise in population and the emergence of a new global middle class, consumption of textiles and apparel is poised to leap 63 percent by 2030, Resource Recycling Systems said. Saddled with that growth, however, are major environmental, labor and solid waste costs that require addressing. Still, the rewards for doing so are immeasurable.

“Due to its size, solving for textile waste in the United States can have a measurable impact on the global upstream investment of resources, energy, water and chemicals used to make textile products,” the report added.

At the same time, there are hints that the industry may be realizing it needs to tighten the spigot from the start. At the end of May, Gucci declared it was taking a “seasonless ” approach to collections that would curtail the amount of clothing it produces. Alessandro Michele, the luxury house’s creative director, dubbed traditional classifications like spring/summer, autumn/winter, cruise and pre-fall shows “stale.”

“Clothes should have a longer life than that which these words attribute to them,” he said.