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Millennials may have no idea how to sew on a button, but they’re also less likely than older adults to throw old clothes and other unwanted textiles into the garbage, according to Pamela Norum, a professor and interim department chair of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri. Norum, who poured over data from a 2012 survey of more than 500 consumers in the United States, observed that younger adults aged between 18 and 34 were more apt to donate their castoffs to secondhand stores such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army.
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It was a correlation that she found surprising. “Baby boomers grew up when the recycling culture was coming of age, so we thought they would be more willing to recycle their used clothes rather than throwing them in the trash,” said Norum, who published her results in the Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. “However, it was gratifying to see that younger Americans are more likely to recycle textiles; hopefully they will carry on that behavior into the future.”
As it turns out, Norum has good reason to be sanguine. Despite a plethora of options for consumers to repurpose or recycle garments, including the growing number of clothing-take-back programs by major retailers, Americans sent more than 14 million tons of textile waste to the landfill in 2012 alone.
Survey data revealed that roughly 40 percent of Americans throw out at least some clothing. Reasons included dwindling storage space, clothes that were the wrong style or size, and garments that were old or damaged.
Norum says it’s vital for consumers to be educated about the myriad avenues for diverting clothes from our already-overflowing trash heaps and put to good use.
“Nearly all textiles can be recycled or reused in some way, even underwear,” Norum said. “Lightly worn clothing can always be donated to charities and secondhand stores; more degraded fabrics can be cut up and made into rags or given to textile recyclers who can break down the materials and use them to manufacture new fabrics or other textile products.”
Whether it’s H&M’s expansive garment-collection initiative, online consignment stores such as ThredUp, freight-prepaid programs such as Give Back Box, or even Ye Olde Goodwill Bin, free and easy choices for responsible disposal abound.
“With all of these easy and free options for recycling, little excuse exists for throwing away clothing, especially if it is simply out of style or the wrong size,” Norum said. “Educating Americans about these options is important to reduce waste and to prevent the needless manufacturing of additional textiles to replace materials thrown away needlessly.”