State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Scaling the Mountains of Textile Waste in New York City

As the subway train rumbles through the tunnels, I anticipate my arrival at a textile waste facility in Brooklyn, where I will spend the day volunteering with Columbia University’s Impact Fashion Club. My job is to sort through fabric scraps and textile waste for Fabscrap, a non-profit organization and one-stop textile reuse and recycling resource.

Exiting the station, I am greeted by the industrial hum of the neighborhood. Inside the Fabscrap warehouse within the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the air smells of fabric, and piles and piles of bags and boxes fill the room. Their contents? Nothing but textile waste.

Sorted textile scraps on a table
Sorted textile scraps at the Fabscrap facility. Photo: Mary Austin Harrelson

In 2021, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) reported that the annual textile waste produced in New York City had reached new heights, estimating the 200,000 tons of clothing, shoes and accessories that New Yorkers send to the landfill every year would measure up to the 102 floor of the Empire State Building—a number so outsized, it’s difficult to picture. But inside the Fabscrap facility, it became clear just how big this problem of textile waste is.

And it’s not just about the tons of textile waste produced in New York City; it’s about all the interconnected problems that come with them. From the intricacies of sorting and recycling to the broader environmental and social implications, the textile waste crisis presents a dynamic challenge that requires innovative solutions and collective action.

Bags and boxes of textile waste
Bags and boxes of textile waste to be sorted at the Fabscrap facility. Photo: Mary Austin Harrelson

Since its inception in 2016, Fabscrap has diverted over 1.3 million pounds from the landfill, as stated in their 2022 Impact Report. Surrounded by recycling and waste bins, I meticulously sorted fabric samples, realizing much of what I removed would eventually be shredded and repurposed. As I stood in this sea of discarded textiles, I wondered: how many Empire State Buildings’ worth of waste could be avoided by finding better ways to recycle these mountains of fabric?

The disposal of textile waste through methods such as landfilling and incineration poses significant environmental and social concerns, exacerbating the already pressing challenges faced by New York City. In landfills, textile waste decomposes anaerobically, meaning it breaks down without oxygen, producing methane—a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 30% of the global warming we experience today is driven by methane from human actions. It also poses a direct threat to local air quality and public health. The incineration of textiles releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, further polluting the environment and endangering the health of nearby communities.

The practice of waste colonialism, where developed nations export their waste to less affluent countries, worsens these environmental and social injustices. By offloading their textile waste onto other nations, like Ghana, Kenya and Chile, developed countries not only avoid the responsibility of managing their own waste but also contribute to the degradation of local economies and ecosystems in recipient countries. The dependence on landfilling, incineration and waste colonialism for textile waste disposal harms the environment and perpetuates social inequality and economic exploitation.

Despite the evident environmental and social consequences of textile waste, finding a solution is fraught with challenges. One major obstacle lies in the diversity of textile waste streams, encompassing post-industrial, pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.

Bins of fabric
Bins of fabric waste ready for recycling. Green tress / Wikimedia Commons

Sydney Ellis, a Sustainability Management student at Columbia whose capstone project last semester tackled post-industrial textile waste in a key manufacturing market of the United States, explained, “Many people aren’t aware of the extent of the problem, which is closely linked to both production and consumption practices. Brands often produce too much, too quickly, fueling an unsustainable cycle of constantly buying new items and discarding old ones.” Each step presents unique challenges in terms of recycling and disposal, further complicating efforts to manage textile waste effectively.

Combating this issue is exactly why Fabscrap and other organizations exist, but the complexity of these issues presents challenges for all.

Renewcell was an organization focused on repurposing textile waste using fiber-to-fiber recycling technology. However, its recent bankruptcy highlights the difficulties of integrating such innovations into supply chains. Second-hand retailers and marketplaces, like ThredUp, promote sustainable fashion with easy-to-navigate models for both retailers and consumers.

In New York City, there are also local initiatives and partnerships with the Department of Sanitation, GrowNYC and Housing Works that provide sorting services and promote textile recycling through programs like the RefashionNYC recycling bins.

Clothing on hangers
Clothing at a thrift store. Credit: Carla Burke from Pixabay

Despite the concerted efforts of these various organizations, the challenges of managing textile waste persist, leaving many to question why existing solutions have fallen short.

One significant barrier is the lack of funding and technological advancements necessary to address the complex process of disposing of excess textile waste. While innovative solutions exist, they often lack the scalability needed to make a significant impact on the problem.

Another barrier is lack of policy and regulation. Measures such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and the New York Textile Act hold promise for shifting the burden of waste management onto producers and promoting sustainable practices throughout the supply chain. Yet without proper enforcement and support, these policies have yet to yield significant results.

The landscape of textile waste management initiatives in New York City is as towering as the Empire State Building itself; there is no shortage of efforts aimed at addressing the issue. However, the future of textile waste remains uncertain.

Funding is essential to support innovative solutions, and improved infrastructure is required to manage the immense volume of waste generated each year. Fostering market-level demand for more sustainable practices is vital to driving meaningful change in the fashion industry internationally and locally. As we grapple with these complexities, one thing is abundantly clear: the urgency of the textile waste crisis demands attention and collective action.

Mary Austin Harrelson is an M.S. candidate in Sustainability Management at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies.

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Dan Green
Dan Green
15 days ago

Surprised and disappointed that you didn’t speak with Helpsy, the largest clothing collector in the city.

Claudia Dreifus
14 days ago

Terrific story, Mary. Congrats on your great work.