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What happens to your clothes when you throw them away?

What happens to your clothes when you throw them away?
By Elena Picci

With the rise of fast fashion, modern consumption is at the highest it has ever been. People are addicted to shopping for new clothes and throwing away their old ones. Actually, on average one person keeps a piece of clothing for a maximum of 3 years! And even though, once you throw them away they are out of sight and out of mind, it is important to ask ourselves: what happens to our clothes once we throw them away?

Let’s think back to 5 years ago and ask ourselves: ”What happened to that one t-shirt that I didn’t want anymore?”

In modern times, we tend to buy twice as many clothes as we did 10 years ago, keeping each article for only 2-3 years. According to a report done by the EPA office of Solid Waste US, each one of us throws away, on average 30kg of clothes each year!

Why has this number increased this much?

Some of the most common reasons are boredom and the need to replace old items. However, following the rise of fast fashion, clothes are also thrown away simply because they are no longer fashionable. And as the years go by, trend cycles get shorter and shorter, making people want to throw away their “old” items and get new ones instead.

What happens to clothes once they are thrown away?

what happens to our clothes when we throw the away
Image via Stella McCartney

Once an item has been classified as unwanted and put in the trash it becomes ‘’waste’’. In Europe, waste is typically abandoned or burned, which contributes significantly to the detrimental effects that the environment suffers nowadays.

The majority of fashion waste ends up in landfills

Sad but true.

Clothing that is thrown away usually ends up in landfills, the most common method of waste treatment. According to The Waste Management Hierarchy – a scale that ranks waste management options by their environmental impact – landfill is the most harmful to our planet. 

While decomposing, clothes emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and Methane gas (CH4), a substance that is is 28 times higher than CO2 in terms of emissions. This is a major global warming problem. Clothes do not biodegrade while in a landfill.

An article of clothing could remain there for more than 200 years before decomposing as it is surrounded by (and sometimes made) of plastic. Materials made by petrol such as acrylic are similar to any other plastic and will not decompose. Chemicals used in clothes, such as the one used to create waterproof material and color dyes, can leach to the ground and cause environmental damage!

what happens to our clothes when we throw the away
Image via Jun Takahashi

Most of your old items have probably been incinerated

Depending on the country you live in, some of the clothes you throw away might be incinerated.

In Europe, 5.6% of the total waste is burned and transformed into energy. This represents over 80 million tons of waste incinerated to create energy. This waste treatment is considered as a win-win solution as it makes vanish waste while creating steam, electricity or even hot water!

Jun Takahashi
Image via Stella McCartney (left) and Manish Nai (right)

So cool right?Not so fast! Burning your clothes also contributes to global warming. It emits more CO2 emissions than electricity generated by burning coal.The gas released from burning a piece of clothing can be dangerous for the environment and for human health. Even the most advanced technologies cannot completely avoid those pollutants that contaminate the air..

Buy less, choose well, make it last

The fate or your clothing is in your hands.To avoid having your clothes incinerated or sitting for 200 years in a landfill, the best solution is to:

#1 Buy Better

Buy better, buy second-hand items, swap or rent your clothes! Buy clothes you think will stand the test of time. Save clothes from landfills by buying pre-owned clothes or sustainable basics that will always be a part of your style!


#2 Choose Well

If you are careful about the material that you choose, you can lower the impact of eventual disposal. For example, some clothes are now made of biodegradable material, so that they will compost when you no longer need them. Resist the allure of fast fashion and invest in high-quality clothes. They will pay you back in longevity and comfort.

#3 Make it last

Repair, sell and donate your clothes to local charities or thrift stores. Also, learn how to take care of the clothes that you already own! 

And if you choose to donate, try to do it at local points to ensure it doesn’t end up in a landfill.

#4 Reuse

Re-wearing old clothes is the hottest trend at the moment!
So why would you throw them away?

At the end of the day, we hold a big amount of power to reduce the amount of waste that the fashion industry produces every year. It is important that we start learning a bit more about the effect that our actions can cause, and raise awareness towards it.

Long story short: please don’t throw away your clothes!

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