A lamentation on socks and teeshirts

Posted on September 5, 2010 by Anne Basye

Summer is over, and there is too much stuff in “Potty Patrol,” Holden Village’s used-clothes-and-shoes exchange area.

Turnover in staff is one reason for the high inventory. So is forgetfulness. Socks of all colors, forgotten in dryers, drawers, and on clothes lines. Shoes, sweatshirts with Holden logos that cost $25, shampoo, sunblock, sunglasses, bug spray, toys, swimming suits, all kinds of stuff, left thoughtlessly on shelves, under beds, in shower stalls.

Up here in the Cascades, garbage is expensive. Everything that can’t be burned or composted has to be trucked out to the dock and then barged down Lake Chelan to be recycled or landfilled somewhere else. Generous Holden guests can be convinced to take a box of good stuff to their local Goodwill, or a box of old running shoes to a Nike shoe recycling facility (which grinds up running shoes into playground surfaces). But no Goodwill needs 200 single socks or shredded jeans, so as a dutiful Holden housekeeper, I volunteered to look into alternatives.

Googling “recycling textiles” uncovered discouraging statistics: Per capita, Americans throw away about 68 pounds of clothing and rags each year. New Yorkers alone discard 193,000 tons of textiles annually. (No wonder New York City has the country’s best textile recycling program.) While some clothing is resold locally, about 145 billion pounds of recyclable clothing a year end up in landfills.

It is possible to sort fabrics into different grades (usable/non-usable, cotton scrap, cotton blend scrap and synthetics) and sell it for reuse as clothing, linens, wiping rags, or fiber for car seats and insulation. But this is not a large market. Most “textile recyclers” end up bundling our clothes in containers and shipping them to countries in Africa and Asia.

That’s problematic. Countries like Kenya place tariffs on imported used clothes—and Kenya has considered banning them altogether—because they weaken the local clothing industry. (For similar reasons, NGOs like Lutheran World Relief won’t take clothing donations. After a disaster, it’s fairer and more efficient to connect affected people with in-country folks making and selling clothes for their own country and culture than it is to flood a local economy with teeshirts we’ve grown tired of!)

And what about the carbon footprint of sending those containers across the ocean?

Sit tight. Here comes my usual refrain about our incredibly debilitating and unsustainable addiction to stuff. If our system for recycling fabrics is dumping them in another country, then isn’t our best option to own fewer clothes, wear them to the end of their lives, and try to turn them into rags or rag rugs?

One of the nine steps to financial integrity recommended in the classic text Your Money or Your Life is to take an inventory of every single item you own. Most people who do this are surprised to find out what’s lurking in their closet.

Have you counted your clothes lately? Give it a try. See how many teeshirts you own. How many socks, coats, and pairs of shoes. And figure out how you feel about your wardrobe.

From energy to waste to water to justice to your bank account, consuming less is the first step to real change. It will take years to ramp up alternative energy sources to the same level as gas, coal, and nuclear power. Cutting way back on power use can lower carbon emissions until the grid catches up. Gutting your clothing budget can lower the demand for landfill…and maybe reduce the pile of socks at Holden.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal

Share