Unwanted clothing, fabric and other textiles currently make up the fastest growing waste stream in America. In fact, only about 15% of textiles are recycled. This was at the heart of a recent webinar hosted by the United States Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG).
Despite many technological advancements, America manages to recycle less than 3 million tonnes of textiles each year. ‘We’re making more clothes than we can wear. Most of them end up in landfill or an incinerator,’ says Olivia Sullivan, zero waste specialist at US PIRG.
And then there’s the toxic trend of big brands like Burberry and Nike burning unsold merchandise. ‘While these companies have pledged to stop doing this, there are no policies in place in the US at the moment to make sure that companies actually follow through,’ Sullivan points out. ‘That’s why we have launched a new campaign calling on states to hold the fashion industry accountable for its overproduction.’
Jessica Schreiber launched her company FabScrap in 2016 to help solve this tricky waste problem. FabScrap offers collection services to businesses, retailers, and big fashion brands like Marc Jacobs in order to keep as much material in the loop. All scrap is carefully hand sorted and shredded to create insulation, carpet padding, furniture lining, etc. The material is collected in reusable bags that hold almost 25kg.
‘Whenever possible, we utilise fibre-to-fibre technologies. We currently sort for 100% cotton, 100% polyester, and 100% wool for this purpose,’ the ceo says. ‘I think that 75% of what we get are fabric swatches that designers get from fabric mills to choose what they’ll be working with that season. We get mock-up products, deadstock on rolls, full leather skins, cones of yarn, zippers, buttons and embellishments – you name it.’
According to Schreiber, there’s more than 12% of all material wasted in the product design phase alone. Besides, an estimated EUR 410 billion of value is lost worldwide every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling.
Larger companies tend to have dedicated sustainability managers to arrange waste contracts, she adds. It also seems the next generation is eager to embrace circular practices. ‘In some cases, it was the interns who introduced us to their bosses and were lobbying to get them to sign up to our services.’
Schreiber goes on to state: ‘I’ve heard about staff members storing swatches of discarded or unused textiles under their desks or in closets. You have to imagine, some of it is beautiful, unique fabric. To throw it away kind of hurts. And there is only so much material that can go to fashion schools or arts organisations. They can’t process it at such high volumes. That’s where we come in.’
She adds that volunteers, artists, teachers and students are allowed to browse the FabScrap warehouse to ‘shop’ any material that is not proprietary. Larger items or stacks of smaller items are sorted by size and colour so the company can sell them online.
Sadly, any items containing Spandex, Lycra, or elastane cannot be recycled yet, Schreiber laments. Though her crew is working hard to find an alternative solution that works for all textiles.
‘For so long, textiles have been handled by non-profits. There really isn’t an infrastructure to handle them in any other way. The real opportunity lies in further developing technology – we’ve already come a long way – and collaborating with other parties in the value chain.’
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