Trends come and go and kids outgrow their clothes at the blink of an eye. This surplus of unwanted articles of clothing can make it difficult to know how to dispose of these items properly, especially when affordable clothing tends to be made of synthetic materials.
What’s the difference between synthetic fibers and natural fibers?
Natural fibers are derived from the natural materials that come from living organisms, like plants and animals. Examples include linen, silk, wool, cotton, and hemp. Because these fibers are completely organic, they can be broken down into nutrients that will support new growth!
Synthetic, artificial, or man-made fibers live up to their names. They are produced using a chemical process called polymerization. Since these polymers are sourced from petroleum by-products and natural gas, they can take up to 200 years before they fully decompose. Examples of these fibers include nylon, polyester, acrylic, and elastane. These materials cannot be composted.
U.S. landfills received over 11 million tons of textiles in 2018 but over 60% of clothing is made with synthetic fibers. Even if an item of clothing has some natural fibers, it likely contains a mixture of both natural and synthetic fibers.
So, I can compost my cotton t-shirt?
Natural fibers are technically compostable, and if you have a system at home that can generate the right conditions to break down natural fibers, we encourage you to try it! Sending it off with a service like ours, however, poses a few issues.
Though composting clothing seems like a good way to prevent clothing from reaching the landfill, we see first hand that it can be difficult to decipher if clothing or fabric scraps are truly compostable at a Compost Outpost®. When our Crew is sifting through a load of organic materials and comes across fabric scraps, clothing, and dryer lint, a number of things can prevent us from keeping the items in our piles.
→ The item doesn’t have a label, leaving no proof that it is made of 100% natural fibers
→ The label is covered in gooey food scraps, making it difficult to read
→ Dryer lint, or the shedding of clothing fibers from the dryer, usually contains a mix of both natural and synthetic fibers.
When it comes to composting clothing, we practice the same advice we give to our customers: When in doubt, leave it out. This is why we’ve recently updated our List to reflect our standards of creating high quality compost. We are no longer accepting clothing, fabric scraps, or dryer lint.
What should we do with our unwanted clothes?
Before tossing it or trying to compost it, consider different options to give clothing a second chance at life. Unfortunately, only about 20% of clothing donated to local thrift stores is actually resold. Most will end up in a landfill and take hundreds of years to break down. We recommend researching local organizations that are seeking donations before taking your unwanted items to a thrift store or attempting to compost them at home.
In general, local homeless shelters, soup kitchens, youth emergency shelters, and domestic violence shelters are willing to accept used clothing so they can help individuals and families in need. Check out the organizations accepting clothing donations near us!
It’s always best to try to get every last use out of an item before disposing of it. Remember, it takes more energy to compost materials and create new materials than it does to reuse existing materials!
By: Ivy Nargiz
Editors: Carlye Brooks, Dan Israel