What’s the climate-friendly way to get rid of worn-out clothes and linens?

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This week:

  • Eco-friendly ways to get rid of old clothes
  • Why scientists are warming the tundra
  • Technology can detect wildfires. Do humans still have to?

What’s the climate-friendly way to get rid of worn-out clothes and linens?

Used clothes discarded in the Atacama Desert in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

What On Earth6:07What’s the climate-friendly way to get rid of worn out clothes and linens?

If you’re stressed about the climate cost of the clothes and linens that have reached the end of their life, we have the scoop on what to do with those old jeans and torn bed sheets.

Lindsay Zalot gets as much wear out of her clothes as she can. She’s passed along outfits to friends at clothing swaps, and she donates things she’s finished with to thrift stores. But she wonders what to do with clothing that doesn’t seem to be re-sellable. Like old PJs, for example.

“Pajamas seem to be the thing that gets to the end of the line,” she told the podcast and radio show What On Earth. 

Zalot, who lives in Burlington, Ont., is concerned about her personal carbon footprint, and wants to make sure she’s taking a climate-friendly approach to old clothing and linens that seem worn out or beyond repair.

“What do we do with those? Hopefully the answer’s not landfill,” she said.

According to Sabine Weber, professor of sustainable fashion at Seneca Polytechnic in Toronto, it’s definitely not. Weber has researched textile waste and found that 65 per cent of textiles in Ontario’s residential waste stream were good enough to be reused.

“Twenty-five per cent was really good enough, it could go directly into a store,” she said. “And about 40 per cent would require some kind of a repair.” 

Producing textiles has climate and environmental impacts. The United Nations estimates that clothing and footwear manufacturing make up between two and eight per cent of global carbon emissions. Textile waste in the landfill releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as it decomposes.

Weber said when re-usable textiles go in the garbage, there’s also a lost economic opportunity. The market for second-hand goods in Canada is growing. She said there’s also a market for Canada’s used textiles in other countries, and that even damaged clothing and linens could find a second life.

“The problem is we, as consumers, don’t know what is valuable or what is not valuable,” she said. “[So], I usually advise people that they should donate everything if it is dry, clean and odourless.”

Bales of sorted second-hand clothes are seen being piled up at a facility operated by Zheng-chuan textile recycling factory on July 15, 2022 in New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Bales of sorted second-hand clothes are seen being piled up at a facility operated by Zheng-chuan textile recycling factory in 2022 in New Taipei City, Taiwan. (Annabelle Chih/Getty)

Bales of sorted second-hand clothes are seen being piled up at a facility operated by Zheng-chuan textile recycling factory in 2022, in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Canadians toss nearly 500,000 tonnes of fabric items every year, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo. 

Weber explained that items dropped in charity donation bins are sold by the pound to second-hand stores. Anything that doesn’t sell after it’s been in a store for a few weeks, as well as anything that’s not sellable at all — such as worn-out bed sheets — is sold to a textile broker, who sorts it into categories. 

The best clothing can end up in markets in other countries, such as one that Weber visited in Tanzania last year, where she saw clothes with stains and holes being cleaned and repaired. 

“There was a lot of upcycling,” she said. Fabric items that are very worn out, such as old sheets or clothes that can’t be repaired, might be cut up for cleaning rags, or shredded and turned into a product called shoddy, which can be used to make insulation or carpet underpadding. “So there is a big demand.”

But advocates say the lowest category of textiles — fabric that’s very poor quality, such as thin synthetic fabric used by fast fashion brands, or extremely soiled — should not be sent to other countries. 

“That’s the stuff that they don’t want and we shouldn’t be dumping it there. That really is waste colonialism,” said Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of the advocacy group Fashion Takes Action. 

Drennan said true recycling of textiles is not happening on a large scale. While there are small businesses that make new clothes out of recycled natural fibres like wool and cotton, Drennan said it’s expensive to pay people to sort, shred and process fabric so that it can be made into new products — especially when it’s clothing. 

“Bed sheets are easy, clothing is complicated,” she said. “It’s got buttons and zippers and sequins and three or four different fibres blended together.”

According to the European Parliament, less than one per cent of all textiles worldwide is currently recycled into new products. The EU is working on regulations to address that problem

Drennan said Canada needs to either start recycling textiles or support fabric recycling in other countries. She said that work could be funded by forcing manufacturers to pay for the costs of recycling their products — a policy known as “extended producer responsibility.”

In the meantime, Drennan said, the best way for Canadians to reduce their textile waste is by buying only what they need, investing in good quality, durable goods and taking care of clothing and linens to make them last as long as possible. 

— Rachel Sanders

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. 

Check out our podcast and radio show. This week, how one Indigenous-led organization is trying to make wildfire and flood evacuations less stressful for First Nations. What On Earth drops new podcast episodes every Wednesday and Saturday. You can find them on your favourite podcast app, or on demand at CBC Listen. The radio show airs Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Reader feedback

Last week, Gabrielle Huston wrote about the benefits of growing native plants in your garden. Some readers shared additional resources for those who want to try that. 

Sandra Alves wrote: “The most valuable resource is Lorraine Johnson’s book, A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators: Creating Habitat in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Upper Midwest. Another great resource is ‘Blooming Boulevards’ in Mississauga. Those grass patches owned by the city, but maintained by residents can legally be converted to pollinator gardens. After learning that I was unknowingly purchasing and planting invasive species, this year my city balcony garden will be all native plants.”

Carl Dawson of Ottawa found it tricky to find a local native plant nursery, but says: “There are several amazing online options that would benefit from and deserve coverage. Connaughton nursery in Aylmer [Ontario] is significantly native plants. Native Plants Ontario and a few others operate mail order nurseries within Ontario that only offer native plants. They are more affordable than those box stores to boot.”

Lynn Brooks of Stillwater Lake, N.S., says she thinks non-native plants still have a role to play in gardens: “No argument we need more plantings of native plants and in Ontario especially Toronto. But Ontario is only one region in a very diverse country. Spring does not come early to many of us and we need non-native plants to provide early nectar and pollen for emerging bees and returning hummingbirds. It may not be as good as the native, but trust me — they aren’t as picky as ecologists like to think they are. What I am trying to say is that we need people to grow plants which they are no longer doing. Gardening is no longer one of the most popular activities in Canada. This native/non-native debate is like discussing “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” If nobody is gardening, what’s the point?”

Finally, author Candice Batista has responded to reader Chris Krishnamurthy‘s query about what grocery shopping habits allow her to save more than $3,700 a year by avoiding convenience foods in favour of whole, fresh ingredients. Batista noted that the savings depend on household size, eating habits, and the types of convenience foods previously purchased: “Convenience foods often carry a premium due to processing, packaging, and marketing costs. For example, a single serving of a ready-to-eat meal can cost significantly more than the ingredients for a homemade equivalent, especially when bought in bulk or on sale. Households relying heavily on pre-made meals or high-end processed foods could see substantial savings by switching to fresh ingredients. It’s great to hear that you and your wife, as vegetarians who cook from scratch, have already adopted a cost-effective lifestyle. Your annual food cost around $5K suggests efficient budget management. Therefore, the $3,751.78 figure, representing potential savings for those transitioning from a heavy reliance on convenience foods to a diet primarily based on fresh ingredients, might not fully apply to your already optimized situation.”

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The Big Picture: Scientists warm the tundra

Brown tundra in the foreground, with dozens of little plastic hexagonal domes on top. In the background, you see water, and mountains patchy with snow disappearing into fog.
(Sybryn Maes)

As Earth becomes warmer, climate change could be exacerbated by carbon released by tundras. These hexagonal chambers, dotting the landscape in Latnjajaure, Sweden, were being used to test that theory.  

Tundra ecosystems hold a lot of planet Earth’s organic carbon — that is, carbon released by the decomposition of plants and animals. Over time, tundras slowly release carbon through ecosystem respiration (the sum of all respiration by flora and fauna there) during the summer.

Scientists knew from previous research that, as tundras warmed, they could begin to respire more and consequently release more carbon. 

The open-top chambers (OTCs) analyzed by researchers in Sweden acted as mini greenhouses, simulating an average increase of 1.4 C in air temperature and 0.4 C in soil temperature. Though the results varied across the 28 tundra sites, a new study in Nature found ecosystem respiration increased by 30 percent on average during the summer months.

Sybryn Maes, the study’s lead author and researcher at Umeå University in Sweden, said in a news release that it was “a remarkable increase — nearly four times greater than previously estimated.”

If global warming reached these extremes, the tundra would transform from a carbon sink into a carbon source.

Gabrielle Huston

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Technology can detect wildfires. Do humans still have to?

A woman in a fire tower overlooking a vast green forest. She is looking at something out of frame with binoculars.
Kimberly Jackson gazes through binoculars in this undated photo. She is a wildfire lookout featured in Fire Tower, Tova Krentzman’s documentary. (Submitted by Tova Krentzman)

After seven seasons working as a fire lookout — someone who watches for wildfires from a tower — near Peace River, Alta., Trina Moyles has witnessed some of the worst wildfire seasons Canada has seen.

“It’s especially stressful when communities are threatened by fires and you can visibly see the wall of fire advancing,” said Moyles. She’s a journalist, photographer and creative producer who has published a memoir, Lookout, about her experience there.

Alberta has 100 fire towers manned with lookouts. Yukon has five, the Northwest Territories have three and British Columbia has one.

Between 2006 and 2021, lookouts detected about 30 per cent of the wildfires in Alberta. Ground patrols detected 17 per cent and air patrols detected 11 per cent. The only type that beat lookouts was “unplanned” detection (phone calls from the public, for example), with 42 per cent

In Fire Tower, a documentary that premiered at HotDocs on Monday, director Tova Krentzman follows six lookouts’ experiences in this unique line of work.

Meanwhile, new technologies to combat the blazes have earned renewed, widespread coverage. Alberta and New Brunswick’s work with AI and the Canadian Space Agency’s plan to launch a dedicated fire-monitoring satellite are just a few of the newsworthy plans.

Alberta’s most recent Wildfire Review (2019) recommended searching for alternatives to the lookout network due to cost and safety concerns. 

If it takes humans out of towers, advanced technology like drones could eliminate the risk and cost of the job. But Moyles argues that technology can’t entirely replace human lookouts like her, and the focus on the “sexy” tech means they aren’t getting the support they need.

Drones and sensors detect a wildfire “basically, just like a human,” said Youmin Zhang, an engineering professor at Concordia University researching how to use drones for wildfire management. 

According to Zhang, drones are an appealing solution because they’re mobile, low cost, respond quickly and require no pilot. A human doesn’t even need to control them, Zhang said, because AI can be trained to do it automatically.

Last year, Alberta tested six systems that used a combination of cameras, sensors, AI and machine learning, to detect wildfires. The human lookout beat out all the tech for the highest detection rate.

Read the rest of Gabrielle Huston’s article on fire lookouts here.

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Editors: Emily Chung and Hannah Hoag | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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