Why you should donate your used clothing, not toss it in the trash

As people clean out their closets at the start of the new year, clothing recyclers are asking Nova Scotians to donate their old duds rather than send them to the landfill.

“There’s way too much waste and most of what’s going into the landfill can be reused,” said Catherine Stevens, executive director of the Association for Textile Recycling, a Nova Scotia coalition of six organizations that accept textiles for recycling and collect donations from bins across the province.

About 95 per cent of textiles can be recycled. Textiles include clothing, footwear, upholstery, curtains, carpets, bedding, stuffed animals and towels.

A 2017 audit of the Otter Lake landfill found textiles made up 8.6 per cent of incoming residential waste.

Bruce Rogers, executive director of the Eastern Recyclers Association, said roughly 40 per cent of the clothing its depots accept are sent to thrift stores, while the rest is mostly made into rags and used for products such as insulation, or sold overseas.

Workers sort through textiles at a recycling centre in Diamniadio, Senegal, on June 25, 2019. (Mariama Darame/AFP via Getty Images)

He said around five per cent of textiles can’t be recycled, often because they’re contaminated by oil or other chemical substances.

Rogers said in the five years they’ve been accepting textiles, they’ve seen a steady increase in the amount of clothing people are recycling, an increase he attributes not just to greater awareness of their programs, but to changing attitudes.

“I think there’s a greater sensitivity to the environment,” he said.

Regardless, clothing recycling programs are having a hard time keeping up with the onslaught of new textile waste.

North Americans send millions of tonnes of clothing to landfills annually, some of it unworn.

Dustin Barker, owner of Mariner Auctions and Liquidators in Dartmouth, N.S., said much of what his business sells is merchandise people have returned to online retailers, which includes clothes.

A 2017 audit of the Otter Lake landfill found textiles accounted for 8.6 per cent of incoming residential waste. (CBC)

“A lot of this product might only have minor defects or scratches or nothing wrong at all,” Barker said. “[But] it’s a lot cheaper for them to write it off, as opposed to put it on the shelf.”

Barker said some companies have started auctioning off a portion of their returns and overstock to companies like Mariner Auctions, a process he hopes will reduce the amount going to landfills.

“It’s crazy to see how wasteful we’ve become,” he said. “And because of non-deliverables and hassle-free returns, it does seem to be growing.”

Stevens said as the volume of textile waste rises and governments look at alternatives, tackling the issue will require a more aggressive approach.

“I fully expect we will have a textile ban within the next few years,” she said. “We’ll have to figure out what to do with all of these clothes that are coming out of the landfill, because there’s 30,000 tonnes in the landfill [in Nova Scotia] on a yearly basis that’s going to be redirected.”

In 2014, the Nova Scotia government was considering a ban on sending textiles to landfills. When asked whether a ban was still being contemplated, a provincial spokesperson said the province doesn’t currently have a ban.

What to do with your textiles

Stevens said her association has commissioned a study to examine the impact of textile recycling on the province’s economy. The results are expected in the spring.

Stevens suggested anyone looking to donate clothing can drop off clean textiles (even if they’re worn out) to donation bins found around the province, or can look on the association’s website for organizations that will pick up donations.

“Don’t worry if you have a single sock, don’t worry if this T-shirt has a stain. We make sure it goes in the right direction,” she said. “It’s so important because we’ve got to look out for the planet.”

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