Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Problem of Denim Waste in Landfills

Table of Content

  • Can You Recycle Jeans?
  • Can't I Donate My Jeans?
  • What Really Happens to Your Donated Jeans?
  • Pushing Problems Out of Sight
  • Sustainable Ways to Clean Out Your Closet
Recommended Product
Take Back Bag

$ 10.00 USD

Don't let your denim dreams become a landfill nightmare! Before you bid adieu to your beloved jeans, think twice about where they're headed. That donation bin might not be as charitable as you hope...

You thought donating your clothes was the ultimate do-good deed. Still, they might have ended up in a landfill or incinerator across the world. Shockingly, a whopping 84% of clothing meets a tragic end in landfills. Isn't that a slap in the face when we're constantly told to recycle and help others?

The average American throws away between 70 and 81 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. So what happens to denim after recycling or donating? Here's what you need to know about the sleazy greenwashing tactics that cloak the apparel recycling industry.

Can You Recycle Jeans?

Technically, yes. When you think of "recycling," you may imagine piles of textiles waiting to be repurposed. It seems logical to use dead-stock fabric for new, eco-friendly jeans. Jeans, especially those made from 100% cotton, are recyclable as the material can be broken down to its natural form. However, this requires some excess effort from the organization responsible for processing the jeans.

First, the discarded jeans must be sorted to remove any pairs containing polyester or other non-recyclable materials. Today many jeans are rarely made out of 100% cotton. Instead, they are made out of man-made fibers like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyester, nylon, and acrylic, preventing material reuse. In fact, most textiles —about 60 percent of them — are not recyclable. Additionally, metal rivets, buttons, zippers, and thick seams must be removed to leave only cotton fabric to be recycled.

This sounds relatively easy, but most recycling programs do not go through this effort. Because of this, though the material is technically recyclable, tossing your jeans into a recycling bin is ill-advised. Recycling programs get masses of recycled clothing and do not have the time to sort and break down each piece. Therefore, the jeans you thought you were recycling never end up getting recycled at all. Off to the landfills, they go!

Can't I Donate My Jeans?

Donating your jeans to a local charity can feel like an act of kindness. Still, there are some things to remember before giving away your clothing. Before donating, be aware that up to 90 percent of donated clothing ends up overseas or used as insulation, carpet padding, rags, or yarn.

Charity resale shops such as Goodwill or Salvation Army operate with good intentions. Goodwill, for example, provides job training, employment placement services, and other community-based programs using revenue from their retail sales. The problem, however, is that they are receiving huge volumes of clothing, and much of it is in poor condition that cannot be resold. Anything that does make it to the resale racks is typically sent to textile recyclers if it does not sell within three to four weeks.

Further, when you toss your jeans into roadside donation bins, those are often operated by for-profit textile recycling companies. These organizations make money by bundling clothes and selling them in bulk to recycling companies that ship them overseas.

What Really Happens to Your Donated Jeans?

Most people don't intend for their spring cleaning project to harm the environment. Still, that's the most likely outcome due to the reality of textile recycling. By 2030, more than 134 million tonnes of textiles are expected to end up in landfills yearly. It's a staggering number, but what does that mean for the environment?

When denim is disposed of in landfills, it doesn't break down quickly like other materials such as paper or cardboard. This means that it will sit there indefinitely and take up valuable space. Furthermore, when these materials break down, they release methane gas into the atmosphere, which is highly damaging to our ozone layer and contributes significantly to global warming. It's estimated that landfills account for over 25% of all methane emissions alone!

Pushing Problems Out of Sight

About 700,000 tons of used clothing are sent to other countries annually. Industrialized countries export waste to the developing world because it's cheaper than domestic disposal or recycling options.

Landfills cause adverse health, environmental, and social consequences that affect the quality of life of local residents. The immediate impacts of landfills include air and water pollution, which can cause respiratory problems, illnesses, and waterborne diseases. Landfills can also decrease property values in surrounding areas, leading to economic hardship.

Exporting waste from wealthier nations to poorer nations is known as "waste colonialism." Waste colonialism undermines efforts to build sustainable and equitable waste management systems in the countries where waste is exported. It stifles local recycling industries and reinforces the reliance on the global North for waste management solutions. It also perpetuates a waste creation and disposal cycle rather than promoting a circular economy that prioritizes waste reduction and resource conservation.

Landfill at Accra
Source: ABC News Australia

70 percent of global donations end up in Africa, primarily from countries such as the USA, Canada, and the UK. According to Remake, Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, is an epicenter of this. 60 shipping containers full of secondhand clothes enter the market every week — that's 3,120 containers every year. The market can process 2,000 metric tonnes of waste per day, and the workers there are faced with almost double that in donations from abroad.

The landfill at Korle Lagoon, also in Accra, comprises approximately 60 percent of unwanted clothing. On a cliff that reaches up to 20 meters high, cows graze.100,000 people live in Old Fadama slums next to Korle Lagoon, increasing their risk of respiratory problems, illnesses, and waterborne diseases.

Ghana is experiencing a rapid increase in waste generation, and the lack of proper waste management infrastructure has led to illegal dumping, exacerbating the negative impacts of landfills. Aside from Africa, denim and other clothing are exported to other destinations such as Chile and Guatemala, incinerated, and likely go to domestic landfills. The USA is the leading exporter of used clothing, accounting for 40 percent of secondhand exports globally.

Sustainable Ways to Clean Out Your Closet

Let's face it, our closets are overflowing with cheap clothes doing more harm than good. Every time we buy into the fast fashion craze, we're contributing to the destruction of our planet and the exploitation of communities like Accra. It's time to take a stand and start consuming less. Only then can we tackle the textile waste epidemic and make fashion sustainable for future generations.

Invest in items that are built to last and can adapt to any style or trend that comes your way. Don't settle for disposable fashion – choose pieces that will stand the test of time and keep you looking fabulous for years to come.

When you do need to clean out your closet, think local and work with organizations that are transparent with what they do with your recycled or donated goods. Transparency regarding the destination of recycled goods and donations is crucial for individuals aiming to make a positive impact. Consider these things:

When it's time to clean out your closet, don't just dump your old duds! Give back to your community by partnering with organizations that spill the tea about where your recycled or donated goods go. Transparency is key, folks! So, before you toss your threads, consider the impact you can make by choosing the right place to send your old stuff. Consider some of the following options:

  1. Repair
  2. Give to someone you know
  3. Host a closet swap party
  4. Resell
  5. Donate to a local charity

Proper Keeps Your Clothing Out of Landfills

When it comes to your old denim, Proper is here to help. We aim to keep as many pairs of jeans out of landfills as possible. When you are ready to bid adieu with your favorite pair of jeans, grab a Take Back Bag to send us your jeans. Proper sorts through every pair and determines how to give your jeans a new life through resale, repurposing, and recycling. We ensure that every pair of jeans we receive stays out of landfills.

Related articles you might be interested in

Make your jeans green

Discover our favorite sustainable denim brands.