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The Growing Issue of Textile Waste Sent to the Continent

Updated: Mar 25, 2023


Think for a second about the amount of clothing you’ve worn in your lifetime. Now think about how many of those clothes you still own. Do you ever wonder what happened to all of the clothes that you’ve thrown away? Even if you didn’t throw them away and you recycled them, what recycling facility are they in now? If you are from the Global North (U.S., Canada, Europe, parts of East Asia, etc.), then chances are most of your unused clothing has found its way to various parts of the Global South (Africa, Latin America, South America, parts of South Asia, etc.). For years, the Global North has taken the liberty of shipping off its textile waste to the Global South to deal with the ramifications of fast fashion and unsustainable production.

A 2022 Greenpeace report entitled "Poisoned Gifts" explored the problem of textile waste disguised as second-hand clothes exported to East Africa. It found that 40% of the secondhand clothes that are imported into the two East African countries of Tanzania and Kenya are "of such deplorable quality" that they can't be sold anymore. This is not only thrown-away or recycled clothes but also unsold clothes. In the Global North, only a small amount of used clothes is resold in the country where they were collected. " It is estimated that more than 70% of all UK repurposed clothing heads overseas."

The issue with the textile waste landing in these regions is not just the fact that these textiles end up in landfills. Due to infrastructure issues, textile waste is scattered throughout these countries. Some of the textiles are burned, which creates air quality issues, and much of it is dumped in rivers and drains, leading to plumbing and water-related issues. According to the Greenpeace report, the decomposing clothes release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change; synthetic fabrics like polyester and lycra can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. These aftereffects are not only detrimental to the environment, but they can also cause serious adverse health effects for those living nearby.

Global legislators need to continue to advocate for producer responsibility legislation, such as the New York Fashion Sustainability Act (see our recent article https://www.tflas.com/post/new-york-fashion-sustainability-and-social-accountability-act), which aims to hold fashion producers accountable for their contributions to environmental issues and prevent the spread of waste. Many African countries, such as those in the East African Community (EAC), are taking a stand and calling for bans against the import of unused clothes. In order to protect the environment and ultimately human life, we must find ways to properly dispose of textile waste and end the practice of shipping it away to be someone else's problem.

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