Why is it so damaging when our clothes end up in landfills?

According to the circular fashion advocacy organization, Remake, only 20% of clothing is collected with the intent of being reused or recycled. Of that 20%, only 1% is actually recycled into new yarns and fibers. The majority of clothes end up in the landfill or incinerator, even if consumers intended for them to be donated or sold to someone else — a problem because burning or burying millions of tons of textiles is making environmental crises like global warming and plastic pollution exponentially worse.

One word: methane.

Carbon dioxide is the most notorious global warming causing greenhouse gas (GHG), but, in reality, its global warming potential (GWP) is relatively low compared to other GHGs like nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, and methane. Carbon dioxide’s GWP is one because it is the base measurement that other GHGs are converted into. Methane has a GWP of 28 to 36 times carbon dioxide over 100 years. In simple terms, the more methane released into the atmosphere, the quicker the earth will warm. So how does clothing disposal contribute to the rising methane levels? When municipal solid waste — commonly called “trash” and consisting of everything from plastic packaging to old cell phones to clothes — is sent to a landfill, anaerobic decomposition occurs in which methane-producing bacteria breakdown the waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated that the methane resulting from the decomposition process accounted for roughly 15.1% of human-related methane emissions in 2018. Clothes and fashion products are not the only items in landfills, obviously, but with clothing consumption rising the amount of fashion-related trash is expected to increase as well.

Our soil and groundwater is being contaminated with toxic dyes.

Solid waste in landfills can leach into surrounding soil and groundwater, potentially carrying toxic chemicals and substances. These chemicals make their way to soil and water through precipitation and surface runoff. Luckily new landfills are required to have liners and collection systems to protect soil and groundwater. Unluckily, even landfills that do have modern liners still leak contaminants into the environment as synthetic or clay liners develop holes over time, says the Conservation Law Foundation. Conscious fashionistas should care about the lack of adequate landfill liners because as clothes decompose over time, they release toxic chemicals that are used to dye and treat fabric. Most of these dyes and chemical treatments — used for natural fabrics like fur and leather that would be prone to decomposing quicker than synthetic fabric — are made with environmentally hazardous toxicants. Some brands are trying to incorporate more natural dyes and remove harmful chemicals from their processes, but with approximately 40 million tons of clothes being trashed every year, it is reasonable to assume that a fair amount of toxicants are still making their way from clothes to soil and groundwater.

Those pesky microplastics are everywhere.

Microplastics, or pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in length, are typically seen as an issue plaguing the oceans and aquatic life, but microplastics can also be found in the soil and air. When synthetic clothing decomposes in landfills, synthetic fibers — which are considered microplastics — are released. Those synthetic fibers get into the surrounding soil and water sources, much like chemicals from clothing do. Synthetic fibers can also travel out of the landfill, ending in the air we breathe. Landfills are supposed to be closed when they are filled, but much like the liners at the bottom of landfills, there are holes that are big enough to allow microplastics to escape at the top.

The Bottom Line:

When consumers are done wearing their clothes, there are four paths those clothes can take.

  1. Recycled into new clothes through processes like chemical recycling.

  2. Passed along to another consumer through resale or donation.

  3. Incinerated.

  4. Landfilled.

The first path is the least traveled while the fourth path is the most common route for unwanted clothes. Often landfills are out of sight and therefore out of mind as well, but more attention should be paid to them since landfills can have profoundly negative effects on the health of humans and the environment.