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Art With a Message: Get With the Textile Recycling Program

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Art can be a vehicle for all kinds of messages, social and political, blatant and subtle, personal and public. A new exhibition at Chicago's Columbia College is using art to send a message to the fashion industry and consumers that it's time to wake up and really examine the impact of fashion and apparel on the environment.

Every step of the clothing life cycle presents potential environmental hazards. The manufacture of polyester, which is made from petroleum and other synthetic fabrics, is an energy-intensive process and releases harmful emissions. Even the growing and manufacture of cotton is harmful to the environment; 25% of all pesticides used in the United States are used on cotton crops. It takes 700 gallons of water to grow the cotton to produce just one T-shirt.

But the damage doesn't stop there. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year. Retailers also produce a huge amount of waste. Clothing giants H&M and Walmart came under fire last year when the New York Times reported that both companies had been caught throwing away or destroying perfectly wearable clothing.

Columbia College aims to confront these concerns with their exhibit ZERØ Waste: Fashion Re-Patterned, which opened earlier this month. The exhibit attempts to raise awareness about the need to reuse and recycle clothing and textiles and to find solutions for dealing with scraps and other waste produced by the fashion industry.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is an installation by New York City-based artist Derek Melander, who creates all of his pieces using secondhand clothing and textiles. Melander used a whopping 2.5 tons of secondhand clothing to create his sculpture, which features a stunning array of colors and textures. USAgain provided used clothing for the sculpture and also set up their collection bin on campus, where they collected hundreds of pounds of clothing from the Columbia College community for Melander's piece.

"By working with such an enormous amount of clothing I hope that it will get people thinking about how much textile waste there is," Melander told ABC 7 News.

Students who helped to assemble the installation with Melander found it to be an eye-opening experience. "I think it's really clear that it shows waste in the fashion program. Just the amount of clothing we've collected is pretty incredible and his sculpture really visualizes that," said Caroline Ross, a Columbia College student.

When the exhibition ends, all clothing and textiles will be sent to USAgain's warehouses to be recycled and reused.

The exhibition at the College's A + D Gallery runs through April 16. It also showcases eco-friendly designs such as a vest made from recycled sandals. The show is curated by Arti Sandhu, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Columbia College Chicago, and features work from designers and artists including Nick Cave, Padmaja Krishnan, Maison Martin Margiela, Refinity + Berber Soepboer, Holly McQuillan and Timo Rissanen.

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