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Despite Recession, Textile Consumption Up, Recycling Down

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The economy has taken a hit, but that doesn't seem to have stopped Americans from buying new clothes in high volume. In fact, the culture of consumption is still going strong, with Americans hungrier than ever for textiles.

Which might be okay if we were seeing a proportionate rise in textile recycling. But we aren't.
According to data released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, textile consumption (including shoes, clothes, sheets, towels, etc.) increased by 430,000 tons in 2008, bringing the total volume of clothing and other textiles consumed annually to 12,370,000 tons. That's 81 pounds per man, woman and child living in the United States.

As Americans added to their wardrobes, the number of textiles that went to be recycled and reused actually declined by 30,000 tons in 2008. The result? One million more tons of textiles discarded in landfills in 2008 than in 2005.

The EPA breaks down "generation" -- the production of new clothing -- and "recovery" -- the collection of discarded clothing to be recycled or reused -- to confirm this trend.

Discarded clothing, footwear, towels, sheets and pillowcases increased from 7,980,000 tons in 2007 to 8,530,000 tons in 2008. That equals 56 pounds discarded for every man, woman and child in the US in 2008. More than 85% of clothes, shoes and household textiles were discarded and less than 15% were recovered in 2008.

That's a lot of textile waste clogging our landfills -- items that could be put to better use, either resold and reworn or actually physically recycled into new materials.

It's clear that the culture of consumption we have here in America won't die down anytime soon, but we can at least make a more immediate impact on the waste side by encouraging Americans to get in the habit of thinking twice and asking, "Can this have another life?" before tossing out their clothes, shoes, pants, shirts and bedsheets.