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Composting Clothing (& Recycling when you can't)

In 2018 the EPA estimated over 17,000,000 US tons of textiles waste was generated with only 2,510,000 US tons recycled, leaving over 14,500,000 US tons going to landfills or incinerators.

I sat down with Albert Diemand, co-founder of Elm City Compost Initiative to learn the ins and outs of #composting in Keene and #compostingclothing. Thank you Albert for sharing your insights with #locallydressed.

Diverting your waste locally starts with food waste, a typical compost ingredient

I know Albert because my husband and I deliver a 5-gallon bucket filled up with compostable items every week to the Monadnock Food Coop in Keene, NH in exchange for a new one. This service costs less than $4 a week and allows us to divert all our veggie scraps, meat bones, oil, and more from our town's landfill. Albert's crew collects it and delivers it to an industrial composting facility in Brattleboro, Vermont. I feel fortunate to live close to Keene and to be able to deliver our food waste easily and during a regularly scheduled grocery shopping trip.

"The organic gardener does not think of throwing away the garbage. She knows that she needs the garbage. She is capable of transforming the garbage into compost, so that the compost can turn into lettuce, cucumber, radishes, and flowers again...With the energy of mindfulness, you can look into the garbage and say: I am not afraid. I am capable of transforming the garbage back into love." ~ Nhat Hanh

Composting and Clothing - It can be a tricky but worthwhile process

Most people don't think about clothing going into a compost pile but Albert says "if it grew up from the ground or was previously part of an animal chances are it can be composted!" To compost faster, cut up the clothing before putting it in a compost pile or bucket. Or, use it as a rag before doing either. Natural fibers are typically absorbent and easy to use for household cleaning. (Wow, he must have seen my rag pile filled up with cut-up old flannel PJs.) What old clothes make up your rag pile? Tell me in the comments below and let me learn!

The table below outlines natural fabrics that can be composted*. Why the asterisk? It is because the processing of natural fibers can impact their ability to be composted and placed on a vegetable garden. Composting facilities want to collect clothing that won't leach unwanted toxins into the compost because farmers can use it to amend soils where food is grown. That is one reason I want to be #locallydressed. Knowing where the local fiber farmers, dyers and designers live, I can seek out information directly and understand the processes my clothing has been through. Often, tags don't supply this information and are made of plastic! Remove all tags before putting the garment in the compost.

Albert cautions that a garment headed for the compost pile must be 100% natural materials and reiterates that processes used when creating the garment affects its ability to be composted. The Washington and Texas state agriculture extension services have both stated that composting all-natural materials synthetically dyed is OK in a Grist post. Both synthetic and natural dyes have large scale issues for the planet. Synthetic dyes are created from petroleum products and coal tar. This traps those who work in the dyeing industry to live in toxic environments and continues a reliance on petroleum products. Natural dyes require farming land at a large scale and can use some harsh chemicals during processing. Dyeing is an issue not easily discussed in a few sentences and will be covered in upcoming posts.

Materials like leather can be difficult to compost because of the chemicals used in processing it into the material we use for belts, shoes and purses. In fact, the Higgs index, which measures the overall sustainability of clothing products, gives most commercial leather products a higher environmental impact score than polyester production because of these toxins and excessive water use involved in tanning. If you are seeking animal skin products, look for natural or vegetable tanning. Albert says that these garments would allow you to safely compost after the end of the garment's useful life.

Another clothing material often considered 'natural' is rayon. This material starts out as wood, cotton, sugar cane, or bamboo pulp. The final product, after chemical processing, is no longer a natural fiber and therefore not appropriate for composting. In an upcoming post I will take a dive into this fabric which has often been sold as eco-friendly.

A fiber that is a no-no for composting is Polyester as it is derived from fossil fuels, i.e. petroleum. Much of the clothing we wear today are polyesters such as spandex, acrylic, nylon, acetate, microfleeces and many more. Other garments are blends of polyesters and natural fibers like most women's jeans sold today. Before considering composting, check garment labels to see if it has polyester. No label? Listen to Albert explain how he figures out if plastic is part of a garment.

It can seem overwhelming to try to figure out clothing processes and how to safely dispose of them after they have reached the end of their life. That is why I am seeking a system that is closer to home and supports the local economy by lifting up local fiber farmers, dyers, millers, and designers. But, if you must have a particular garment today that can be composted in the distant future seek out sustainable designers. A quick google search will enable you to find several across the US and Canada. In fact, one such company resides in Maine, Rambler's Way. You might ask, why not just purchase clothing from this New England company? Purchasing local lifts up the community and supports local economies. Although many sustainable companies strive to use local fibers, many still source from overseas. It is vital that we all look for ways to keep it local and build industry so that sustainable companies can source more local products.

Barriers and some Solutions to Composting Clothing Today

The obvious barriers to composting clothing today are the dependence on petroleum and chemical processes for its creation. Seeking out less non-compostable fabrics can start to be a composting solution to our present clothing waste stream.

An additional solution that addresses our existing clothing products that cannot be composted is recycling. Building a circle economy around clothing fibers that are not natural or combinations of natural and manmade fibers are beginning to be seen. Smart Wool and Patagonia have processes in place that allows consumers to return clothing no longer wanted. Smart Wool is now collecting used socks from all manufacturers (only clean please). Through a partnership with Material Return, the fibers are used to create new products for sale on the Material Return website. This keeps the socks from the landfill and provides new items available for sale made from the recycled materials. Patagonia's Worn Wear program takes in and credits customers for previously purchased Patagonia clothing. It then offers these items back to consumers at a greatly reduced price. This enables consumers to choose a used product and slows garments going to landfills that have still have a useful life left. Patagonia also repairs garments if you don't want to empty your closet of favorite pieces.

Patagonia was part of the first Fibershed project in California being within 150 miles of Rebecca Burgess' home.

As communities work to transition toward creating vibrant Fibersheds it is nice to see pathways to reduce use and recycle alongside composting. The more ways to make our economy circular, the better for the people and planet.


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