Unravelling textile waste in N.S.
Experts weigh in on why our landfills are full of fabric — and how to fix it
By Heather Laura Clarke
There’s a misconception that if your old clothes have picks, holes, stains, or rips, they’re not fit to donate — which means far too much clothing is winding up in the garbage.
According to Divert NS’s 2017 waste audit, textiles make up an astonishing 9.2 per cent of the waste ending up in our landfills.
That’s why the Association for Textile Recycling (AFTeR) is working to address the misleading perception that clothing must be “gently used” in order to be donated.
Catherine Stevens is the Executive Director of AFTeR. The not-for-profit is comprised of six member organizations that collect used clothing to fund social causes — Big Brothers Big Sisters, Diabetes Canada, LML Trading, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (Atlantic), Salvation Army Thrift Store, and Value Village — and is actively looking to increase their membership.
“AFTeR and our partners have created more than 600 jobs here in the province while working to keep textiles out of landfills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Stevens.
She explains the plan is for AFTeR to grow textile diversion and recycling in Nova Scotia because “there’s value here — business value and employment value.” The first step, however, is getting the public on board with reducing textile waste.
“Globally, we’re consuming way more textiles than we ever used to — and part of that is fast fashion and cheap production,” says Stevens. “It’s critical for people to think more carefully about how they use textiles and how they dispose of them.”
In big cities, Stevens says it’s not uncommon for people to throw out a brand-new item of clothing after wearing it just two or three times. Once it’s in the waste stream, it can’t be saved. But even the shabbiest clothing can often be “down-cycled” into rags, and there’s a plant in the U.S. that turns old jeans into insulation.
While there are organizations in the province that already recycle textiles, most focus on residential textiles, many believe there needs to be more collaboration between all levels of government, institutions, commercial businesses, and textile recyclers.
Divert NS regularly funds research projects that focus on waste diversion, so Dalhousie University student Emily Bibeau prepared a 66-page report on textile waste from industrial, commercial, and institutional (ICI) sources in Halifax as part of her BSc (Hons) in Environmental Science and Environment, Sustainability, and Society.
Bibeau’s study, Characterizing ICI Textile Waste In Halifax, Nova Scotia, found “an absence of industry, municipal, and provincial involvement” in ICI textile diversion efforts. She concluded that there are practical solutions which would have “immediate benefits in significantly reducing the amount of textiles going to landfill in Nova Scotia,” like expanding local markets for used textiles and enhancing textile education initiatives aimed at both the residential and ICI sector.
Bob Kenney, Recycling Development Officer with Nova Scotia Environment (NSE), encourages people to donate their textiles directly to charitable organizations if possible, because it costs municipalities to collect and dispose of them. There are more than 400 donation bins at stores, gas stations, malls, pharmacies, and Enviro-Depots across Nova Scotia.
“A lot of people think ‘I wouldn’t want to give it to charity because it’s not something anyone would want to wear,’ but that’s only one possibility for it,” says Kenney. “It could be sent overseas and sold as affordable clothing for people who need it. It could recycled into a new garment or turned into rags. It could be processed back into fibres and turned into paper, yarn, or insulation.”
As long as the textiles aren’t filthy, wet, mouldy, or soiled with something nasty (grease, oil, blood, or hazardous materials), they’re just fine to donate.
Some regions in Nova Scotia, like Colchester County, accept dry textiles during curbside recycling collection. But Nova Scotians generate more than 37,000 tonnes of recyclable textiles every year, yet only about 7,000 tonnes (19 per cent) of them are actually reused or recycled.
Even donated textiles don’t always wind up being saved from the trash. Sometimes charities and second-hand clothing stores receive so many donations that they can’t handle them all, so they pay a fee to dump them in a landfill.
But the problem isn’t limited to clothing and household textiles. The textile industry is known for being one of the world’s dirtiest, between the toxic chemicals and dyes used in production and the energy and water used to create them.
Textile production worldwide emits more than 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, and that’s projected to increase by more than 60 per cent by 2030 if nothing improves.
The industry's negative environmental impact doesn’t end once the textiles are made and sold. More than half of all textiles winding up in the province’s solid waste stream are coming from industrial, commercial, and institutional sources.
Mike Lee, Director of Operations at Stanfield’s, says textile waste is an unavoidable part of the garment business. At their manufacturing facility in Truro, he estimates they generate 1 tonne every week.
“We take steps every day to reduce it, but when you’re cutting out pattern pieces it’s impossible to get 100 per cent utilization from that fabric,” says Lee.
He says Stanfield’s is always looking for a way to repurpose their scraps, whether it’s to add heft to an archery target or provide craft materials for adult education centres. He would like to see more resources put towards recycling textiles to keep those scraps out of the landfill.
There’s also an artful path for many used residential textiles. Stevens hopes AFTeR can build relationships with artisans in Nova Scotia who create things from recycled textiles — like turning old sweaters into mittens and baby booties, wool coats into hooked rugs, leather shoes into sculptures, or cotton scraps into baskets and quilts.
“It’s important that we all support each other and work towards creating cleaner environments and healthier communities,” says Stevens.