Miles of Textiles: The Gaia Movement USA Looks at How Clothing Recycling Can Make a Big Difference

| by Cassandra Cassillas

Making a significant environmental impact often seems like a daunting task. The world is a big place, and there is only so much individuals can do on their own. However, rather than being scared off by the magnitude of the task, the best thing people can do is focus on a specific area where they feel like they can make the biggest difference.

That is the theory behind textile recycling, a movement that has been picking up steam in recent years.

Currently, 85 percent of textile trash (including clothes, shoes, and more) goes to a landfill where it takes up large amounts of space and releases pollution. Textile recycling can reclaim almost all of this material.

The Gaia Movement USA is a nonprofit organization focused on educating the general public about the plight of our environment and what action can be taken to protect it.

Eva Nielsen, President of The Gaia Movement USA, spoke to Opposing Views regarding the importance of recovering the dumped textiles.

“Millions of tons of textiles wind up in U.S. landfills every year. Landfill space is at a premium, and discarded clothing and similar materials are taking up a large amount,” Nielsen said. “As textiles break down, they release methane and CO2 gas, which are significant contributors to global warming. The dye used in clothing or shoes can cause contamination of the soil and water. There are many good reasons to not throw out clothing, and pollution is a big one.”

Textiles have grown into a $1 trillion industry globally. This includes not only clothing, but also furniture, mattresses, linens, draperies, cleaning material, and many other items that are probably located in your house or on your shopping list right now. Other industries have long practiced recycling – melting down metals and glass bottles, reusing paper, etc. – while the textile recycling program is relatively new.

According to recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, in 2010, Americans threw out 13.1 million tons of textiles. Out of that 13 million tons, only 15 percent was reclaimed for recycling. That leaves more than 11 million tons of textiles to be dumped in landfills across the country. Luckily for us, the importance of recycling textiles is being recognized more and more.

Besides Gaia, there are dozens of other organizations that recycle textiles. One such initiative, Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) has been at it since 1932.

“Our members collect, reclaim, and ‘close the loop’ by processing, converting, and distributing these recyclables,” they explain on their website.

Nationally, states are encouraging their citizens to take part in the effort. Oklahoma provided their citizens information sheets with facts such as “almost 100 percent of household textiles and clothing can be recycled, regardless of quality or condition. Recycling clothing and textiles benefits charities, reduces solid waste, and provides employment to Oklahomans.”

Nielsen agrees with this general sentiment.

“Almost all used clothing and other sources of textile can be reclaimed,” she said. “This means they are put to alternate uses, rather than disposed of. This cuts down on pollution, and makes us more sustainable as a society. Recycled textiles can be broken down into yarn to be used again, or utilized as filling for products like furniture or mattresses.”

Various organizations, from Goodwill to SMART, have placed special bins all over the country in hopes of putting textiles to better use.

Almost all used clothing and other sources of textile can be reclaimed. This means they are put to work in other ways, rather than simply being disposed of. As a result, pollution is reduced and society suddenly becomes just a little more sustainable.

Massive environmental reform understandably seems like a frighteningly overwhelming task. But by taking baby steps like recycling textiles, everyone can do their part in leaving future generations a world that is better off than the one we found.