Undressing our Landfills | Earth Day Network

What happens if I have two socks that don’t match?” I asked a crowd of 80 second-graders huddled on the floor of a local elementary school. A flood of students shot their hands up, eager to get involved. I pointed to a boy in the back corner.

“You just wear them! Who cares?!” he said.

I laughed to myself, admitti­ng I should have known that seven-year-olds wouldn’t mind rocking mismatched socks.

Again I tried to quiz them, “What if you have a t-shirt that has lots of holes and stains? What should you do with it?”

The kids yelled back surprisingly practical answers, like “sew it up!” and “put it in the washing machine!”

My line of questioning was part of an environmental presentation on textile recycling. I was expecting the students to suggest that I toss those seemingly useless items in the garbage, and then, in a profound teaching moment, I would explain that you should actually recycle old clothes instead of throwing them away. I failed to account for the altruistic spirit of these kids, however. Their responses, while not exactly what I was looking for, embodied the larger message I was trying to convey anyway: we throw away too much too often.

It’s difficult to resist the pressures of a culture like ours that encourages repurchasing over repurposing. The average American generates over four pounds of waste each day, and only about a third of that gets recycled. We are particularly guilty of wasteful habits when it comes to textiles; around 85 percent are trashed, despite the fact that nearly every item in our closets can be reused in some way.

The practice of throwing away used clothing has become an unnecessary and entirely avoidable environmental burden. Clothes in the landfill take up valuable space and emit harmful greenhouse gases as they decompose. Furthermore, the global demand for new clothing creates its own set of environmental problems, like the massive amounts of water and pesticides needed to grow material for new fabric, plus the additional pollution emitted by textile factories during the manufacturing process. Recycling our clothes is an easy way to diminish these harmful effects.

Unfortunately, a lot of people simply aren’t aware that there is indeed a place for used clothing that isn’t suited for donation. Underwear, lone socks, out-of-style pieces, or stained items often end up in the trash, but most nonprofit clothes collecting companies like Planet Aid will accept all of those things and find a purpose for them. Nothing from your closet needs to go in the trash because virtually all of it can be given a new life: good-quality items are shipped overseas to developing countries where the demand for used fashions are high, and the not-so-wearable stuff can be recycled into something new like wiping rags, furniture stuffing, or insulation for your home.

And while lack of awareness is likely a big factor in our low textile recycling rates, lack of convenience also plays a part. Studies show that the more difficult it is for people to recycle, the less likely they are to do it. This is why Planet Aid has over 23,000 bins throughout the country placed in frequently visited spots, like gas stations, shopping centers, and apartment complexes. People are busy, and they shouldn’t have to go too far out of their way to recycle.

The good news is that Americans have increasingly gotten better at recycling in general.  Kids especially are enthusiastic proponents– a recent survey has 62 percent of respondents reporting that their children are very motivated to recycle in the home, and 50 percent say that their children educate the rest of the family about the benefits of recycling.

My recycling presentation to those wise-beyond-their-years second graders definitely echoed the findings of that survey. It’s never too early to get our children involved in environmental stewardship, and there are plenty of opportunities to do just that as Earth Day approaches. Look for registered Earth Day events near you on the Earth Day Network website, or check your local municipality’s website for green celebrations in your area. Children in grades one through five are invited to participate in Planet Aid’s Earth Day Art Contest, which challenges kids to think creatively about how they can make a positive impact on our environment.

To learn more about textile recycling or to find a yellow recycling bin,visit planetaid.org.

Emily Heimsoth, Planet Aid, Inc.