What happens to clothes when you throw them away

Most clothes end up in a landfill or are incinerated. Only a small percentage of 12% is recycled worldwide.

On average a woman has 100 pieces of clothes and men around 60. Making it on average 80 per person. So with 8 billion people, that’s 640 billion pieces of clothing worldwide.

On top of that the average person buys 11 to 20 pieces of clothing every year, thats 15.5 on average. These are 125 billion pieces of clothing per year.

That are a lot of clothes that aren’t being recycled and end up in landfills or in the incinerator! In the rest of this article you will learn about the lifecycle of clothing as well as how clothes are being recycled and that not all clothing is recyclable.

The lifecycle of clothes

Most clothing start at a cotton farm in either America, India or China. Here cotton seeds are sown, irrigated and grown for the fluffy balls they produce. Self-driving machines harvest these crops and get brought to a factory where the seeds are seperated from the cotton. Then they are pressed in to cotton cubes of around 225kg for each cube.

The cubes are mostly shipped to China where high tech machines blend, card, comb, pull, stretch and twist into snowy ropes of yarn called slivers.

The yarn is send to a mill where it is knit into sheets of rough grayisch fabric treated with heat an chemicals until they turn soft and white. Here the sheets are dipped into bleach and various colored dyes to create the clothing we like.

Many of these dyes are made of materials that are harmful compounds when released as for example toxic waste water.

Technologies are now so advanced that the entire proces of growing and producing fabric is almost completely automated. But only up until the point that fabric has to be sown into a garment. This often happens in a factory in Bangladesh, China, India or Turkey.

From there the garments reach people their homes where they are washed 400 times a year and use 60000 liters of water per household.

The washing machines and dryers use a lot of energy. A dryer uses 5 times more energy than the washing machine.

Important facts and numbers about clothes

Here are some interesting facts that might put into perspective into how enormous the clothing industry is and how much of a challenge it is to make the industry more sustainable.

  • The global clothing industry is worth around 3000 billion dollars. While organically grown garments are only worth 5 billion.
  • It takes 2700 liters of water to grow enough cotton for a t-shirt and cotton uses more pesticites than any other crop in the world. Less then 1% is grown without pesticides.
  • There are 5 million people working in the sowing factories that face poor conditions and a low pay.
  • Clothing productions account for 10% of the worldwide emissions.
  • Only 12% of clothing is recycled.

How clothes are being recycled taking jeans as an example

A lot of clothes are a blend of cotton, nylon and polyester. That’s why for example with jeans it isn’t possible to recycle jeans into something else completely. But they are able to use the same fabric by cutting is up and remaking it back into small threads.

Why only 12% of clothing is being recycled

The reason why only a fraction of clothes are being recycled is because most clothing consists of a blend of materials. Consider the normal 100% cotton t-shirt. It probably has a label and it is hold together by sewing threads that are made of polyester. A pair of jeans has a zipper and a variety of dyes.

The blend of these materials is one of the reasons why only a small amount of clothes are recycled. On top of that sorting textiles into different fibres and material types by hand is labour intensive.

There is a growing use of modern fabric blends that is put into clothing that makes this even harder.

Another problem is that when clothes are being shredded and turned into fibres again the fibres are of lower quality and strength and a lot of it can’t be re-used for clothing. Therefore it will be used for other items like carpets and isolation material.

Less than 1% of clothing was recycled back into other pieces of clothing.

What you can do to reduce the amount of pollution from clothes

  • Sell your old clothes
  • Donate your old clothes
  • Shop second-hand.
  • Dry clothes using a drying rack
  • Cut down on the amount of clothes that you have or buy.
  • Use old clothes as rags

Selling or donating your old clothes will give you some extra income and you will give your garments an extra life. While shopping second-hand clothing is you being to one to keep a garment “alive”.

Dry clothes using a drying rack instead of a dryer will reduce the amount of energy used maintaining your clothes.

Cutting down on the amount of the amount of clothes that you have or buy is an obvious one. However it takes some practice to do this and to be mindful of this.

Using old clothes as rags. Don’t do this with clothes that can still be worn but with clothing that wouldn’t be worn by anyone anymore.

In conclusion what happens to thrown away clothing

So in conclusion your clothes mostly end up in the landfill or are incinerated. 12% is recycled, but not into new clothes. The clothing industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world and reusing clothes is much better then throwing garments away.

Do you want to know what happens to other categories of items that we throw away? Check out this link: https://greennova.eco/2021/08/04/where-does-your-trash-go-after-you-throw-it-away

Sources used


Greennova is created out of a passion for sustainability. The vision is to create a sustainable world for humans and our role is to provide a platform where people can learn about how to become part of the solution.

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