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Worn Out: 5 Ways to Mend Canada’s Growing Textile Waste Crisis

Sustainability is more than a trend in the fashion world – and we’re bringing together a group of local trailblazers during Slow Fashion October to discuss an industry at a turning point, what sustainable fashion actually looks like and how you can get involved. Take a break from all your swapping for new threads the sustainable way at Drop, Swap & Shop on October 14 to join us from 1:00pm-2:00pm to have an in-depth discussion about it!



I’m @itsahashtaglife, a social media manager, storyteller and blogger for non-profits and charities in Toronto. I take the tools and techniques of traditional digital media marketing and apply them to organizations working hard to shift our world into a new story – one that is more sustainable and supportive of people and the planet.


Textile waste has risen dramatically around the world in step with the exponential growth in the production and consumption of clothing – we purchase 400 times more clothing now than we did in 1980 with the number of new garments created every year now exceeding 100 billion. Meanwhile, we’re only holding onto the clothes we purchase for about half as long as we used to.

One would think that the rise in our culture’s addiction to low quality disposable fashion would have been accompanied by an increase in sophisticated, efficient textile recycling services and facilities. But you would be dreaming because unfortunately this has not been the case. Thus, we have created the conditions for a perfect textile waste storm: between 1999 and 2009, the amount of textile waste generated by North America grew by over 40% to 25.46 billion pounds, which is expected to rise to 35.4 billion pounds by 2019. 85% of our used clothing, bed sheets, towels and other textiles goes straight to landfill, with the average North American contributing 81 pounds of textiles to landfill per year.

According to the 2018 State of Reuse Report, most people do not understand the extensive environmental consequences of sending textiles to landfill, which can take over 40 years to break down once there. In the process of breaking down, they release methane gas – a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2 – and toxic leachate. Even during the production process, textiles have a significant impact on the environment: for instance, one cotton t-shirt requires 700 gallons of water to make (the equivalent of 27 bathtubs full) and a pair of jeans requires 1,800 gallons. The textile industry uses one third of the world’s fresh water resources to produce new garments.

It’s easy to see how the fast fashion world has earned it’s reputation as the second dirtiest industry on the planet next to oil. And after several decades of shopping like there’s no tomorrow (because there isn’t one unless we stop this), we’re finally waking up to the fact that the catwalk of our trend-hungry modern life is going to walk us straight over the edge of a cliff. As with plastics, electronics and other waste sore spots in our culture, we are finally looking for solutions. So what are they and how can you get involved? Here are 5 things to get you started:


1) Borrow/Swap/Trade/Thrift

Consumers must recognize that the most sustainable item is the one that already exists. – 2018 State of Reuse Report

The first thing we need to do is recognize that reducing our consumption of new textiles is the most ethical solution to our shopping habits. “But I donate all the clothes I’ve only worn three times and then gotten sick of to charity!” I can hear you mumbling from here. While donating our unwanted textiles to charity is still a good thing to do, our culture has been leaning on that crutch to excuse our voracious appetite for more. While 60-70% of what gets donated is resold, much of that is bundled up in bales, weighed and sold overseas to developing nations where it has begun reeking havoc on local economies (it puts local textile industries and clothing manufacturers out of business, for instance, which is why East-Africa is trying to shut the door to our hand-me-downs).

Instead of buying things new, try finding what you’re looking for second hand in one of the following ways:


  • Do you need a fancy outfit or dress or just something nice for a special occasion? You can borrow fancy outfits and dresses from Rent Frock Repeat and stylish designer clothes through Boro. Toronto is also one step closer to getting a full blown ‘library of clothes’ thanks to FreshRents who has recently set up a clothing lending service pilot project through CSI Toronto. FreshRents will be joining us on October 14 to tell us all about it during our Sustainable Fashion Panel Discussion.


  • Hosting or attending a community swap is an awesome way to scratch that shopping itch the sustainable way. It is particularly effective to host swaps just prior to the changing of seasons so you can get what you need for the change in weather.


  • Trade for new-to-you clothes and other textiles using the popular Toronto-based app Bunz Trading Zone. This is an efficient and easy way to find what you need thanks to the app’s handy search function: if there is something in particular you are looking for, you just plug it into the search bar and any user with that item for trade pops up.


  • Go on a treasure hunt at you’re local second-hand shops! And if you don’t feel like digging through the racks of a thrift store for in-style and trendy pieces, check out the carefully curated consignment inventory at places like Common Sort or Kind Exchange.


2) Creative Reuse/Upcycling

Do you have old bedsheets, 10-year-old event t-shirts you’ll never wear, worn-out jeans or some other hideous item of clothing you wish you’d never laid eyes on let alone worn in public? These are really just upcycling and reuse projects waiting to happen!

Borrow some sewing machines from The Sharing Depot, gather your friends and have an upcycling partay! Here are some other upcycling and creative reuse projects to get you thinking about how to breath new life into unwanted textiles:

  • Take an old pair of jeans that have seen better days and make your own bunting and then use the scraps to make these cute bracelets.
  • Cut up worn-out sheets or clothing into rags to use around the house.
  • Replace paper towels, napkins, cotton facial rounds, etc with reusable alternatives by sewing your own out of used fabric.
  • Make your own reusable beeswax wraps out of scrap fabrics as an alternative to plastic wrap – these are super easy to make and if you burn beeswax candles, all you need to do is save the leftover wax.
  • Old pillow cases can transform into these garment bags or into reusable shopping bags(there’s even a no-sew way to do this).
  • Old t-shirts are actually just no-sew tote bags waiting to happen.

And so on! If you’re looking for further inspiration or want to get involved in the reuse community in Toronto, check out Creative Reuse Toronto – a diverse group of community members, artists, artisans, environmentalists, educators, academics, community arts workers, planners, film and textile workers who are working towards establishing a ‘Creative Reuse Centre’ in the city. Creative Reuse Toronto joins us for our Sustainable Fashion Panel Discussion on October 14.


3) Be Selective When Purchasing New

When you do purchase an item new, be selective about where and what you buy:


  • Look for businesses that are fully realizing what we talked about in point #2 – upcycling fabrics that already exist into new textiles. Zero Waste Daniel, for example, has launched a line of clothing that is made completely from the scraps of other clothing. This is amazing.


  • Quality over quantity – when you can, buy quality, well-made items that aren’t going to fall apart in one wash cycle and will be easier to maintain and repair. Avoid trendy pieces that you’ll get tired of after a few weeks and reach for classic, minimal styles instead. Look for textiles that are made using natural materials as opposed to synthetics (to cut back on microfiber pollution).


  • Support ethical manufacturers – there are a number of companies who are working to make the production of textiles more sustainable. H&M and Patagonia have begun providing some transparency into how their clothing is made and also offer some amount of textile recycling (I’m not sure I’m ready to classify H&M as an ethical manufacturer, but they are trying). Levi’s has begun accepting ANY brand of clothing or shoes in in-store recycling bins in the US and Canada (that’s pretty epic tbh).


  • Handmade clothing and textiles is back, in a big way. Support the #WhoMadeYourClothes movement – hop on Instagram and explore that hashtag (you can also check out #FashionRevolutionDay #FashRev #IMadeYourClothes). Clothing and textiles that are handmade in small batches are typically of a higher quality than something that is mass produced overseas. It’s going to last longer, it’s going to be easier to repair and you’ll be supporting the people who are making the clothing close to you (the average t-shirt travels 35,000 km before landing on your back so when you purchase from local makers, you are cutting down that distance). Makers often stick with minimal, classic styles that don’t go out of style and many are using/exploring the most sustainable ways to produce locally sourced natural fabrics.
Zero Waste Daniel

I think that when you make things, you can actually make change and instead of creating new resources, we’re adding value to them…to breath new life into them. – Zero Waste Daniel


4) Put Everything into Donation Bins

While there are articles out there lamenting that consumers are flooding clothing donation bins with everything (including single socks and worn out sheets), Fashion Takes Action sees it differently and I’m into it:

About 5% of what is collected is truly recycled and turned into new fabric, and eventually into new garments. H&M and Levi’s are two brands that are doing this (and they’re even collecting used textiles in their stores) but there are others doing this now, and I am confident that even more will jump on board in the next one to two years. It is this textile recycling that we need to grow – right here in Canada. It is what will create new jobs and support our country’s climate action plan under the Paris Agreement. So please, donate EVERYTHING and force industry and government to solve this massive issue. We have more power than we think.

We need to create the demand for better textile recycling facilities capable of separating mixed-materials and recycle them into fibres that can be turned into new textiles, such as Evrnu for example. Use donation bins as a way of strategically ‘voting’ for more and better textile recycling facilities. This is a key piece in resolving the textile waste crisis.


5) Advocate for Textile Recycling Services

In the 2018 State of Reuse Report, 44% of respondents said they threw clothing in the garbage because they were not aware of how/where to donate, think it’s too time consuming or find it inconvenient. 31% of respondents said they thought any clothing they put into their garbage or recycling bin was sorted out (false), 35% said they believe textiles decompose naturally (also false) and 64% said they believe it only takes 2 years for a synthetic t-shirt to break down (couldn’t be further from the truth, really).

They also found that 80% of respondents would only travel 15 minutes or less to find a clothing donation location.

These are important statistics as they reveal not only that there is a lack of public education surrounding the problems with textile waste, but also that in order to effectively change people’s behaviour we need to make the process more convenient. One way to solve this would be to offer a curb-side pick-up service for unwanted textiles, which Colchester County, Nova Scotia is testing out now.

Markham, Ontario has launched a textile recycling pilot project funded by a grant from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities: to divert textiles away from its landfill, the city has placed over 100 bins located at city facilities and residential properties with more locations on the way. These ‘smart bins’ track the amount of textiles being donated for data-collection purposes and also send out signals telling the city when they need to be serviced. The wide-range of textiles that are collected – everything from bedding to fabric scraps to shoes to stuffed animals and so on – are sorted for resale at charities (as opposed to for-profit businesses) or repurposed into industrial rags, furniture padding, insulation, car seats and recycled fabrics.

If you feel so inclined, you can contact the our city’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee members to tell them you want better textile-recycling services in Toronto (rather than spending $31 million on new compost bins that our trash pandas can still open, maybe we could spend the money on something more sustainable next time *upside down smiley emoji*)

Christin Carmichael Greb
Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence
Twitter handle: @CarmichaelGreb

Stephen Holyday
Ward 3 Etobicoke Centre
Twitter handle: @stephenholyday

Giorgio Mammoliti
Ward 7 York West
416-395-6401 /
constituency offc 416-395-6401
Twitter handle: @mammolitiward7

Anthony Perruzza
Ward 8 York West
[i.e. around YorkU] 416-338-5335
Twitter handle: @PerruzzaTO

Jaye Robinson (Chair)
Ward 25 Don Valley West
Twitter handle: @JayeRobinson


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2 thoughts

  • My frustration is there is no place to find damaged articles of clothing and bedding that is 100% cotton and can be purchased marked down from the usual thirft store prices. Much of that is donated gets sent to the landfill or sold by weight to places that make rags before I ever see it. The other problem for me is it is getting harder and harder to find good quality cotton articles to cut up. As the clothes people buy are made of poorer and poorer quality cotton so are the things you can find in thrift stores.

    And then there is what I can find and afford from Thrift Stores. Back in the day I could get a big bag full of good fabric articles to repurpose for $20. I used everything! I used or saved buttons, (just like my mother did) and now I have to go and find a button store to find the quirky ones and they are expensive!

    The big thrift stores arrange things for a “shopping experience” and the rise in prices reflects this. I suppose it makes the people who like shopping for fun more comfortable and I hope it allows the stores to pay their employees more but less and less am I finding it a place for me to shop for recycled fabric.

    As for getting to the sewing bags events, I have a sewing machine but it is difficult for me to carry it on the bus and subway and I have a limited income. Bus fare is expensive!

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