The global production of textiles and new clothing has snowballed over the last few decades. Clothing is an essential part of our lives. However, it produces significant amounts of waste throughout its life cycle. The environmental impact of textile waste is too severe on the planet for us to ignore.
We can only create a circular economy with proper waste management systems. This article explores the causes of textile waste. It also discusses the negative impacts of dumping used textiles in landfills.
Textile waste occurs in all stages of the clothes' life cycle, from sourcing natural resources to production and usage. There are various reasons for waste generation in the textile industry. They are:
Back in the day, humans mainly bought clothing items they needed. There wasn’t a high demand for textile production. However, clothing production doubled yearly as the population increased. Manufacturers started using technology to mass-produce clothing items. They reproduced quality, designer items at a cheap rate, facilitating the consumer’s high consumption rates for new styles.
This change in the fashion industry increased the fashion waste we produced. The focus went from producing quality and durable clothes to creating seasonal fashion trends. There is a constant need for people to buy clothes or create new garments. And we usually throw these outfits out after wearing them for a short while.
With the rise of fast fashion, fashion industries do not care about the quality of the fabrics used to produce clothing. Many manufacturers primarily use synthetic materials to make clothes. These clothes are not durable. Consumers wear them a few times before they end up discarded. Sometimes, they throw the clothes away because they get damaged easily.
Also, clothes produced with low-quality materials are often not recyclable. They are a burden because they are not reusable. Also, when it comes to synthetic fabrics, fabric recycling is difficult because of the toxic chemicals used during production.
Another reason we produce so much clothing waste is that we do not know how to maintain our clothes to extend their life. Clothes can easily damage if we don't follow the manufacturer's instructions on washing and drying them.
Sometimes we overwash clothes, and they wear out. Also, we use harsh detergents for our laundry. This causes the clothes to fade, shrink, or tear. We iron and steam them improperly. We let stains sit on our fabrics and ruin them.
Sometimes we can fix the damage to our clothing, but we don't know how. So, we end up throwing them away.
Related read: Our guides to some of the best laundry detergent sheets and soap nuts offer up some excellent alternatives to commercial detergents, better for your wash and without the plastic bottles!
Strict government policies on sustainable textile production practices will go a long way in regulating textile waste. However, most developed countries only focus on the problems of the fashion world. They are slowly releasing the need to set strict policies, but developing countries are far from this.
Developing countries do not enforce their laws properly. Some don’t have policies to prevent fashion manufacturers from dangerous practices. They don’t properly figure out how the thrift clothing trade works. Some are too caught up in international and local war affairs to care about the fashion world.
Related: some of our fast fashion documentaries explore the issues with producing our clothes overseas and the ethical problems that arise.
Another reason for fabric waste is the lack of eco-friendly practices. The industry lacks knowledge on recycling and reusing waste from production. They are also unaware or refuse to use more sustainable fabrics instead of synthetic, low-quality materials.
Manufacturers fill landfills with fabric waste and other materials still useful for production. They use toxic chemicals that contain lead, chlorine, and formaldehyde for production. Also, they do not have or maintain proper waste management systems, leading to textile pollution in the environment.
Now that we know how we contribute to fabric waste, how does it affect the environment? Here are three adverse effects of textile waste on the environment.
Water pollution is a significant problem caused by textile waste. Fast fashion textile production caused 20% of global clean water pollution. The textile sector produces wastewater in all stages of production1. They produce wastewater from agricultural cultivation of natural resources, feeding animals, and cleaning machines used for production.
Also, they produce wastewater during the textile pre-treatment and laundering process. The primary source of wastewater is wet processing. This part of production requires the treatment of fabrics with chemicals. Here, they dye the fabric and stitch it for the next finish.
This process requires a lot of chemicals and dyes. Manufacturers dump untreated water into our waterways, contaminating multiple freshwater sources. Research shows that the fabric industry uses over 8000 chemicals to produce our clothing. So, producing a tonne of dyed fabric requires 200 tons of water5.
This is a problem China, the hub of fast fashion textile production, is facing. According to the documentary, Riverblue, 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater from the fashion sector contaminated 70% of China's freshwater ecosystems.
Consumers also pollute water when they use harsh detergents to do laundry and improperly dispose of used clothing. Polluting water sources with toxic chemicals damages marine ecosystems. Some of these chemicals cause ocean acidification and kill many species of marine animals.
The clothing industry uses tons of energy to make new clothes. They are a major contributor to releasing greenhouse gas emissions into the environment after plastic waste. The textile sector contributed 1.2 million tons of carbon to global carbon emissions4.
This record was more than two major means of transportation; international flights and maritime shipping. Since developed countries set up their factories a long distance away in places like China, delivering the finished products to fast fashion retailers further increases carbon emissions.
Production of clothing also requires thermal heat to heat water and dry fabrics. The spinning and weaving aspect of textiles uses electrical energy to create clothing. To produce 60 billion kg of fabrics, they'd use almost 1 million kilowatts. These high energy usage increases the use of fossil fuels, which increases the risks of climate change.
Polyester is the second most used material, after cotton, for creating clothing. Factories producing polyester fabrics will produce higher greenhouse emissions than cotton. Research shows that a polyester shirt produces 5.5 kg of carbon emissions3, while a cotton t-shirt releases 2.1 kg.
Also, consumers' improper disposal of unwanted clothing releases carbon dioxide into the environment. Dumping used textiles and old garments in landfills also produces greenhouse gas emissions during decomposition.
The clothing industry also produces solid waste. These are the ones we send to various landfills. The solid waste is fiber scraps, trimmings, and fiber lint. It includes unwanted clothing and used textiles rejected by consumers that don’t get recycled correctly. It also includes the containers used for the dying and bleaching processes.
All these solid waste materials go to landfill, and the decomposition process can harm the environment and living organisms. As textile waste breaks down, it releases chemical compounds contaminating the soil and its fauna. It also reduces the underwater ground quality and affects the growth of other plants.
In addition, the synthetic clothing ends up breaking down into microfibers. These fibers do not decay naturally because they are polyester materials2. So, they mix with the food web, and the chemicals in them leach into the soil. Animals eat it, confusing it with actual food. This can cause severe health damage.
Related read: Environmental Impact of Landfills.
Toxic chemicals from textile waste infiltrate the food chain, and other living things consume them, risking their health. For example, many people enjoy eating shellfish. Recently, scientists discovered shellfish could absorb toxic chemicals in the water. The chitin is an organic polymer that attracts and binds other chemicals. People unknowingly consume this toxic shellfish and may start experiencing severe health reactions.
Textile waste is as harmful as plastic waste, but we tend not to pay as much attention to the former. The more clothing we manufacture, the more waste we generate. Textile waste pollutes water and contributes to global warming.
However, we can reduce textile waste by enforcing textile recycling practices. Producers and consumers must consciously decide to practice sustainable fashion to minimize textile waste.
As consumers, we can donate our old clothes to the Salvation Army and choose to shop second-hand at online thrift stores or purchase from sustainable clothing brands. Recycling fabric scraps and old clothes help promote a circular economy.
Bailey, K., Basu, A., & Sharma, S. (2022). The Environmental Impacts of Fast Fashion on Water Quality: A Systematic Review. Water, 14(7), 1073. MDPI AG. Retrieved from
Markandeya, Devendra Mohan, Sheo Prasad Shukla. Hazardous consequences of textile mill effluents on soil and their remediation approaches, Cleaner Engineering and Technology, Volume 7, 2022, 100434, ISSN 2666-7908.
Filho, W. L., Perry, P., Heim, H., Dinis, M. A. P., Moda, H. M., Ebhuoma, E. E., & Paço, A. D. (2022, September 5). An Overview of the Contribution of the Textiles Sector to Climate Change. Frontiers in Environmental Science.
Ütebay, B., Çelik, P., & Çay, A. (2020, September 9). Textile Wastes: Status and Perspectives. IntechOpen eBooks.
WWF Hong Kong. (2015). Water Risk in the Textile Supply Chain.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.