Reducing Textile Waste

The University and industry address ways to prevent clothes from ending up in the landfill.

The average American disposes around 80 pounds of textile waste per year. With a global shortage of outlets for used clothing, textiles and fibers, most of this material ends up in landfills or incinerated, creating air pollution and contributing to global warming.

In addition, wearing and cleaning textiles creates microscopic fiber fragments that exist in the air and at every level of the marine food web. People may be ingesting microplastics, and scientists warn these fibers could enter the bloodstream, lymphatic system and liver and they may be stored in tissue.

But there’s some good news. More companies are focusing on upcycling and/or recycling used clothing and textiles. For example, REI sells its used gear and clothing online. Patagonia also accepts its used products for recycling or repurposing and repairs damaged or worn products. Likewise, many smaller boutiques and designers upcycle or reuse discarded clothing and textiles in new products.

Closeup shot of colorful textile work
Jefferson students and faculty address sustainability issues head-on in classes and research.

Long criticized for filling up landfills with their fast fashion, H&M now has a program where people can donate used clothing purchased anywhere and the store will recycle and reuse the clothing to produce new merchandise.

Brands such as H&M, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Lee and Reformation have committed to eliminating or minimizing the use of rivets, tacks and trim to make denim recycling quicker and easier. Some designers and manufacturers also have committed to producing longer-lasting textiles and clothing that won’t fall apart right away. (Fast fashion items generally don’t last 10 washings.)

At Jefferson, students and faculty tackle sustainability issues, such as waste management, head-on in classes and through their research.

Wearing and cleaning textiles creates microscopic fiber fragments that exist in the air and at every level of the marine food web.

For example, engineering professor Brian George teaches a textile engineering graduate course on sustainable textiles. The class covers current issues in the textile industry, including fast fashion, disposal of used textile products and the generation of microscopic fiber fragments through washing and wearing, as well as changes in the industry as it becomes more sustainable.

Students work on a semester-long project to find alternative uses for waste produced by different textile manufacturers. They then share their results with the businesses. George also does research on converting waste materials, such as chicken and turkey feathers, into viable nonwoven fabrics and is studying how fabric structure affects the creation and release of microscopic fibers during the laundering process.

closeup shot of textiles
The average American throws out roughly 80 pounds of textile waste each year.

In Jefferson’s School of Business, management professor Cathy Rusinko addresses sustainability and waste management in industry and society by integrating these topics into the undergraduate and MBA management courses. Students learn how to evaluate business decisions in terms of triple bottom line analysis—including financial, environmental and social impacts—which is more sustainable and innovative than focusing exclusively on financial impacts. Students then apply this analysis to address current crises in companies.

Rusinko also researches the relationship between corporate sustainability practices and corporate performance measures, and best practices for integrating sustainability across the curriculum in higher education.

With all these efforts, Jefferson faculty and students look to give a second life to unwanted materials and improve sustainability measures and decision-making around the world.

Cathy A. Rusinko is a professor of management, and Brian George is an associate professor of engineering at Jefferson.

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