Textile Waste

Textile Waste

Author: Lily Meier


At the beginning of my project I asked myself the following question: What happens to the
masses of garments that are discarded worldwide?
By conducting different kinds of research, such as studying reports on the subject on the Web,
a visit to the Red Cross clothing depot and a tour of a local recycling company, Becker und
Brüggesch, I found the answers.
The days of thoughtless production and consumption and of unlimited growth of the economy
are over.
A growing world population of almost 9 billion, increasing demand by a strengthened middle
class in developing countries, and conflicts over water, raw materials and food are resulting in
ever-higher prices.
According to analysts, prices of stock exchange quoted that cotton has risen continuously since
1972, which is seen as a permanent trend.[1] Other reasons are considered to be less amount of
land under cultivation and increasing speculation on commodities markets.
Chemical fibres, such as acrylic or polyester fibres are made from oil, the price of which has
also risen continuously in recent years.[2]
Another aspect besides price trends is that cotton farming is one of the most polluting ways of
cultivation. It destroys farmland and pollutes water. 22.5% of all insecticides and 10% of
pesticides are used in cotton farming worldwide.[3]
The industrial nations still account for 70% of world resource consumption.
However, more and more people are beginning to realize and understand the environmental
benefits to be obtained by seeking a convenient way to have their household waste recycled
and re-used. This is increasingly the case for garments and textiles as well.
Today, there is a global market for second-hand clothing, with a annual volume about of
billions of dollars. The prices per tonne are between 100 and 600 Euro in
Germany and up to 1000 Pound Sterling in the UK.[4]

But why are these huge numbers of second-hand clothes on the market?
Great Britain alone has seen a 60% increase in textile purchases over the last decade.[5]
The following are some of the reasons for this trend:

  • a growing world population
  • an average garment life of only three years[6]
  • poor quality of products which do not fit or last long
  • low purchase prices (make it easier to decide to throw garments away after a short

period of use)

  • young people, especially, become victims of the fast fashion phenomenon as new

collections of cheap clothes are often dropped into stores weekly

  • consumers simply want a change

British people are estimated to throw away more than a million tonnes of garments each year.
In Germany, 750,000 tonnes are collected annually.[7]

In the following chapter, I will explain the many different routes taken by garments that are no
longer of any use.

The Recycling Street

The whole chain starts with consumers who throw away their clothes. These days, we are
unlikely to just throw them into the garbage bin, but try to think of ways to re-use them.
Options include:

• giving them away to friends as a present

• taking them to local charity organisations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army or

• dumping them in various collection containers

• selling them to local second-hand shops

• selling them in garage or flea market sales

• offering them at online sales, such as eBay or various portals for second-hand goods

Professional for-profit and non-profit making collectors send the garments to graders and
salvagers, who after sorting use their national and international distribution networks. Grading
is based on consumer demand at the particular destination. For example, Muslim-dominated
North African and increasingly Asian countries do not accept fashion worn by European
women. Warm clothing is mainly demanded in areas with hard winters and no heating

At national level, the clothes might go to humanitarian aid organisations, recycling factories, domestic
markets for period, retro or vintage fashion stores, or even to special second-hand designer labels in
Paris, London or Berlin.

The largest proportion goes to brokers and exporters. After natural disasters such as tsunamis,
floods or earthquakes, clothes are sent as emergency aid wherever they are needed.

As the demand for second-hand clothes in developing countries continuously rises, the main
portion is now shipped to Africa, followed by Asia, South America and eastern Europe.[8]

Other lots are sent to India, for example, where it is cheaper to convert the garments into
fibres that are then imported to Italy for the knitting and weaving industry.

European and American textile factories lead the global recycling industry, re-using
garments as seat stuffings, linings, paddings, rags and wipers, or to produce synthetic or
natural fibres for the production of new garments.

At the end of the recycling chain, the so-called trash is collected from all the recyclers referred to
above. Ripped, torn, stained and unsellable clothing is disposed of in landfills.

Positive Aspects of Garment Recycling

In general, clothing and textile recycling provides both, environmental and economic benefits,
some of which are listed below.
Producing and trading used garments consumes much less energy (for extracting, refining,
transporting and processing) than the manufacturing of new clothes. The bureau of
“International Recycling” claims that a mere 1 kg of used garments reduces CO2 emissions
by up to 3.6 tonnes.[9]
The textile industry is accused of being one of the most polluting industries in the world. This
means that more recycling also results in less contamination of water resources.
Raw materials and natural resources are also conserved as a result.
Millions of new jobs were created in and around the recycling industry and trade around the
Additional profits made by communal waste disposal companies through recycling can help
to reduce the fees for the citizen. Second-hand clothing provides the poorest people in least
developed countries with usable clothes they could not otherwise afford.
Emergency aid is provided after natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis or floods.
Major charity collectors, such as the Salvation Army, the Red Cross or Goodwill, donate their
profits to social projects that provide treatment for alcohol abusers, shelter for the homeless,
education, etc.

Negative Aspects about the Recycling of Used Garments and Textiles

Illegal trade: Smuggling of used garments is permanently on the increase, due to the
considerable profits that are anticipated. In the South Chinese area of Guandong, about 100
million items are traded annually on the grey market – to take just one example.[10]

Crime: Gangs from Eastern Europe were recently caught stealing from charity bins in Great
Britain and Ireland. Governments claim that a substantial amount of taxes are lost as a

Wrong impression: Collectors often give the impression that discarded clothes will be donated
directly and in their entirety to people in need, but this is the case for a small percentage only.

Fake collectors: Collection bins increasingly carry fake logos of non-existent charity
organisations and are often placed at illegal locations.

Health risks: Second-hand clothes often reach markets in the developing world without being
disinfected beforehand, which can cause health problems.


During my research, I learned that the second-hand clothing industry is a global multi-billion
dollar business which has created millions of jobs worldwide since the 1980s.

A large quantity of clothes goes to charity, while an even larger quantity is exported to
undeveloped countries, especially to Africa and sold there.

Of course, there are critics who claim that these immense imports are destroying the African
textile industry, However, several international studies have proved that this is not the case.

Historically, African countries have never had a clothing sector like India’, nor the climate for
cotton production, which requires high levels of water consumption. The quality they
produced was always too poor and not competitive on the market. On top of that, there is the
difficulty of borrowing money to set up a business, and the problems of corrupt governments
and failed management policies.

Some critics point to the colonial attitudes of foreigners dumping their old clothes into a
country, but there is no comparison with foreign oil companies, for example, which deal with
corrupt African governments to buy the respective country’s natural resources, with only a
few powerful people benefiting as a result. Second-hand trade in Africa is mainly a family-run
business, from which many poor people make a living.

Africa has seen the greatest population explosion over the past 30 years. Local industry could
never have satisfied demand, and imports are too expensive.

Depending on imported used garments or donations is not an ideal situation, especially not in
the long term, but is currently the best way to satisfy the growing demand of the world’s poor.

To really help improve the economic situation of Africa, we have to change our way of
thinking. All efforts should be guided by respect and by an honest will to achieve
improvements. The world owes Africa a fair deal, especially in view of its history of slavery
and colonization.

In general, we should have more concern for the people than for capital.