Now that Kondo-ing is a verb—created in the wake of the sensational debut of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the related Netflix series—clotheshorses across the world are embracing the power of decluttering. While the goal is to achieve a more organized, streamlined life, a less elegant result are the bags upon bags of discarded clothing you amass.
It’s easy to see how so much waste is generated. Globally, the garment industry produces 150 billion pieces of clothing per year. The United States is the largest importer of new clothes, racking up $220 billion in sales in 2016, or around $2,000 per person. While the appeal of fast fashion is obvious—it’s cheap and trendy!—the toll it takes on the environment is significant. For instance, producing just one ton of the fabric used for our denim jeans and cotton T-shirts requires 200 tons of water, which is filled with chemicals from dyeing and finishing. And popular synthetics like polyester are manufactured using nonrenewable, fossil fuel-derived materials.
Even worse is when we toss those resources into the trash after just a few wears. According to the EPA, Americans threw out 16 million tons of textiles in 2015 but recycled only 15.3 percent of the total. The rest, says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at NRDC, is simply landfilled or incinerated.
Here’s how to tidy up—and find new homes for all that clothing—without the waste.
Host a clothing swap.
So you’ve gathered up all your old college jeans and dresses, and now you want them out of your house. But first things first: Is it possible that someone in your local circle wants them? Clothing swaps are a great way to send your old stuff off to a loving home, catch up with friends, and get something new for yourself.
“That’s the first step—think about whether you can regift an item without even involving any kind of outlet for items that you know have resale value,” Hoover advises.
If you’re planning a swap event, consider timing it around a common clothes-buying occasion—say, before the kids head back to school in late summer, as you get ready for Halloween in the fall (costume-swap, anyone?), or during wedding season, when evening wear may be in high demand.
Find out if your city recycles textiles or partners with outlets that accept donations.
There’s a good chance your city’s or town’s sanitation department has some suggestions on how to recycle your textiles locally. In San Francisco, for instance, you can simply bag them up and drop them in your recycling bin. In addition to partnering with resale organizations like Goodwill, the city also works with I:CO, a global end-to-end solutions provider that collects textiles, manually sorts and categorizes them, and finds innovative ways of reusing them for items like toys, insulation, and carpeting. New York City’s Department of Sanitation has a detailed interactive map of drop-off locations and options for locals, as well as a list of organizations and companies that accept mail-in donations.
It will take only a little research to find a more complete list of organizations and stores that accept clothing donations in your area.
Donate to item-specific charities.
You can be sure your stuff goes to where it will do the most good—and supports a mission you believe in—by donating to an organization that solicits particular goods. For example, depending on what you have, consider Soles4Souls, Dress for Success, or I Support the Girls. Many organizations require donated goods to be only gently worn and ready to wear; others accept torn goods, particularly if they are repurposing fabrics for other functions, as with Blue Jeans Go Green, which partners with Habitat for Humanity to turn the fabric into insulation in homes. Regardless of which destination you choose, always make sure whatever you’re passing on is laundered and clean.
Don’t forget about local homeless shelters.
Shelters often welcome donations, but before you assume a shelter wants your particular bounty, ask what’s in need. Many shelters seek warm winter clothes or interview attire for their residents and may not want other goods.
Be wary of drop-off bins.
Many discussions have been had on the legitimacy of donation bins dotted around cities like New York and Philadelphia, where much of the clothing collected is baled up and sent abroad—sometimes with harmful impacts on developing economies. The takeaway has generally been that it’s better to bring your goods to a reputable organization like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, each of which operates thousands of community-based retail stores. Still, it’s important to be aware that with either choice, your clothing might not be reworn at all; only about 50 percent of donated garments are reused as such. Those items deemed to have no resale value often make their way to the textile recycling industry, which turns them into rags and wipes or breaks them down into fibers (which may end up as filling for furniture, home insulation, or even car soundproofing).
For clothing that is beyond repair, however, the bin (and the textile recycling industry) is still a better option than the trash can. Alternatively, Hoover says, you can call a thrift store with questions on what it will accept and whether that store will send clothing it can’t sell to recyclers. “Just find out what the practices are at that store and whether [your drop-offs] are going to just end up in the landfill,” she says. “If that’s the case, don’t take your things there.”
Repurpose worn-out items.
“Are you going to be painting? Do you need some rags?” Hoover asks. In her home, she repurposes old socks this way. “You just stick your hand in the sock and it makes a really easy dust rag.”
Depending on how crafty you are, there’s almost nothing that can’t be given a new life with a little imagination and patience (maybe with the help of an online tutorial). An old T-shirt can become a tote bag. A baseball cap can become a bedside organizer. Old jeans can stop drafts from creeping under your door. And these newfound functions may even spark joy.
Try incorporating these small tweaks into your routine. You’ll throw out less trash, and help fight climate change at the same time.
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Darby Hoover, NRDC’s waste expert, says this “single stream” type of recycling is mostly about customer convenience, but the costs may outweigh the benefits.
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