Without fail, every sustainable fashion and no waste campaign talks about clothing going into landfill. Often accompanied by pictures of mountains of clothing in amongst pile of trash for shock value. It looks pretty bad, but how much do we actually know about it? I’ve done some reading and whilst landfill isn’t a sexy topic I think its worth knowing. After all, no trash ever goes away, it just leaves your house or apartment and you don’t have to think about it anymore. If you’re interested in more general reading about what happens to clothes when you chuck them out, have a look at my posts here and here.
What happens to clothing in landfill?
Clothes break down (biodegrade), in the case of natural fibres. Or they break up (photodegrade), in the case of synthetics. Under composting circumstances, natural fibres such as cotton or wool are expected to break down in 6-12 months. Synthetics take many more years, as many as hundreds. You can see more about this on the BBC documentary “The Secret Life of Landfills” which I really recommend watching. The people on the show went on to dig up a 1980s landfill and found almost fully intact cotton clothing … and even more worryingly, legible newspaper from the 80s! So what this means – landfill prevents anything from being broken down (or up) quickly.
Why don’t clothes break down quickly?
To understand this we need to know how a landfill works. The long version is on the Veolia website here (they are a waste management company in the UK) but here is the short version for you:
- A landfill site has a number of holes dug into the ground. Modern landfills line the holes with several different layers. This is to create a barrier between the trash and the environment and to prevent leachate spilling out – that is the liquid you get from rain and other liquids in your trash which seep to the bottom of the hole. As you’d expect, it picks up toxic chemicals from the trash. This includes stuff in your clothing.
- Trash is put in and compacted to fit in as much as possible.
- Once the hole is filled with trash, it is covered with plastic then layers of topsoil etc. to allow grasses, flowers and other plants to grow on top.
The compacting of the trash means that there isn’t a lot of oxygen which you would have in a compost heap. Or if you left something outside to degrade at the mercy of the elements. The lack of oxygen is the reason why natural fibre clothing takes so long to break down.
PS – as an aside, I learned recent that landfills are not necessarily flat. One example of landfill hills being repurposed is for indoor ski slopes – one example is SnowWorld in Zoetermeer, Netherlands (no I haven’t been there).
Some of the problems with landfill
Environment Victoria, an Australian not for profit body summarises the problems pretty well:
- Toxic chemicals. Before there were stringent controls around landfill, people threw everything in. Heavy metals in batteries and all.
- Leachate getting into the environment. As with the toxic chemicals, the older landfills with ineffective (or no) lining means that leachate can just seep into the immediate environment.
- Greenhouse gases. Organic waste (e.g. food, natural fibres) and biodegradable things do break down in landfill without oxygen. But as this happens, the bacteria releases gas and some of this is methane. As well as being highly flammable, you may have heard methane is particularly bad in climate change terms. More potent than CO2 in terms of trapping heat and keeping it in the atmosphere. Its also the gas produced by farting cows 🙂
Also I’d like to add that old landfills don’t have the technology we have now. The 1980s landfill I referenced earlier in the BBC documentary is still being managed for environmental impacts. And there are plenty of articles about old coastal landfills and rubbish being blown into the ocean due to erosion – see for example a relatively recent Guardian article here, or another one here.
How much clothing goes into landfill?
My reading didn’t find just one or two statistics. There was a huge amount depending on what you wanted to look at. In the end I settled for reading a set of UK government published statistics on waste , and doing a little high level math.
According to DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), in 2016, 15.7 million tonnes of municipal non-industrial waste was sent to landfill in the UK. Of this, 5.7% was textiles and shoes, so about 895,000 tonnes. If we think that a pair of jeans is about 500g and a pair of shoes is 1kg (according to the Royal Mail posting guide then that is the equivalent of 895,000 pairs of shoes, or almost 1.8 million pairs of jeans!
BUT when I looked at the the total amount of waste collected by local authorities (councils) in England this told a more interesting story. The local authority collected waste is higher than municipal waste, totalling 26.1 million tonnes in 2016 (as it includes also waste collected from parks etc). This is greater than the municipal waste as it also includes the waste from parks etc. Check out this graph, particularly the changing proportions of colours with each year:
It looks like around 15% of the waste was landfilled in 2016, down from around 60% 10 years before. Incineration has gone way up and recycling rates are relatively static.
So is burning our waste is a better than burying it from an environmental perspective, or have we just decided landfills are bad?
This is an open question. I know there have been targets for reduction of waste being put in landfill, but I have to look at incineration another day to have an opinion on it.
Is it worth worrying about the amount of clothing that goes into landfill?
Given that incineration seems to be replacing landfill, I’m not sure that if landfill is going to continue being the primary problem. I need to read about incineration as I don’t know enough about that yet. I do know that environmentalists say that fumes have a lot of toxic chemicals and so do the ashes left behind. The ashes incidentally also need to be dumped somewhere … in special landfills!
But landfill and incineration are the least preferred ways of dealing with waste. In the case of incineration, burning means there is no opportunity for the material to turn into anything useful ever again. For landfill, technology to capture and use methane as an energy resource does exist. Landfill mining is also being explored, particularly for metals, e.g. from our electronic devices like mobile phones. So it might not be all bad if we make use of waste. But personally I still feel uneasy about generating a lot of waste in the first place and chucking it out.
Back to the clothes, my opinion is that throwing clothing into “general waste” should be avoided if possible. If there is textile recycling, even old underwear can go into it and be shredded for things like mattress stuffing. But the volume of unwanted clothing in the world means that often it becomes another form of waste to manage. As you’d expect, prevention is better than cure so we could also buy less and throw away less.
Do you have textile recycling in your country? What do you do with your old clothes?
PIN FOR LATER:
Thanks for the information Kate. Really interested to see that graph with the amount at landfill going down and looks like a bit of an overall decrease (may be statistically significant, but I’m only eyeballing it). Buying a bit less – be it clothes or food – really would make a difference if many of us did it. Interested to see what you find out about incineration. Have you read the book Drawdown? A coalition of scientists researched it and they propose a solution to climate change. They rank the top 100 things we can do to effect change. I’m going to look for waste disposal now!
Hi Emma! Thanks for reading, this was one of my most enjoyable bits of internet research (possibly sad I know but I love knowing bits about how stuff works). I haven’t read Drawdown but I will have a look for it in the library. Not sure if you heard of Richard Branson’s climate challenge last year – no one won the prize. You can still see the finalists online though, worth googling
Great article! I have been wondering about natural fibres and compost but haven’t got around to it yet…
Hi Chloe, I’m not sure about clothes and compost either. Clothes are not just the fibre, there’s colouring, chemicals, polyester thread … so not sure how it would do in a home compost – maybe an experiment worth trying if you have one! I know there are some brands that do compostable clothing but I wonder what is special about it. Will also look into it when I have time.
Hi Kate, I just found you up after having heard you on the Stitcher’s Brew podcast. This is an extremely interesting and impossible topic; thanks for spreading knowledge. I listened to some interesting episodes of the BBC Radio 4 programme Costing The Earth on IPlayer Radio recently; two of them were about sustainably in fashion, textile waste, etc. It also mentioned incineration. Looking forward to reading more of your blog. Fiona
Hi Fiona, thanks for your comment and I do try when I have time! I really like the Costing the Earth program. Actually bizarrely the one about the camels in Australia was probably my favourite, but I also really liked the fish farm one… I find it all totally fascinating! Fashion is but one (albeit massive) industry causing a load of environmental problems. Just saw they just released a plastics episode, its on my list for tomorrow’s commute!
The most important things are never sexy, this topic and discussion needs to be had! Thanks for summarising a heap of info and raising awareness. I’m in HK at the moment, and the wasteful culture here is sad to witness. Excessive consumption, throwaway habits, poor sustainability awareness, resistance to change, inadequate recycling facilities, the people’s mindset of choosing convenience over reducing the burden in the environment…and the beliefs and behaviour do pass onto future generations through daily routines, inaction, ignorance. If you just inspire one person to change, already it’s possibly subsequent generations of people you are changing in a positive way.
Hi Kate, what do you think about using cotton thread instead of polyester? I usually use Aurifil threads just for quilting but in this post (https://auribuzz.wordpress.com/2018/10/26/dressmaking-essentials-with-jenni-smith), Jenni Smith talks about how polyester threads will outlast most of our clothes – perhaps for most garment purposes, cotton is sufficient?
Hi Christine, polyester will always “outlast” cotton because they break up instead of breaking down. What Jenni says about the “tightness” of polyester I find can be corrected with handsewing instead of a machine. I know people who use cotton threads successfully and others who hate it, but I suspect there are different types. I have only seen it a basting thread myself which is designed to break easily. Try it and see what you like best, but there’s so much more fibre to a garment than just the thread so I wouldn’t get too hung up about it. Ps – Gutermann also now sells recycled polyester thread, 1 plastic bottle = 1 small spool. Is it more sustainable than virgin cotton? Lots of arguments for and against and no universal right answer, unfortunately!
Thanks for that perspective! I’m conscious of the fact that this is also Aurifil trying to reach another part of the sewing market. I will keep my eye out for the recycled polyester Gutterman!