Four reasons to burn your unwanted clothes. And four not to.
What’s wrong with burning unwanted clothes?
Surely this is a quicker route to circularity than trying to unpick and recycle modern, blended fabrics? Chuck the stuff in an incinerator, capture the energy and make sure you catch the toxic fumes too. Job done?
Fashion and cosmetics companies have been burning their excess stock for years. It’s the most efficient way to get rid of items that would otherwise harm your brand if they flooded the market at low prices. And you can claim you’re recovering valuable energy that would otherwise be lost to landfill.
But as with every issue in the sustainability debate, there is no right answer when it comes to managing the 39 million tonnes of clothes we throw out every year.
Here are four reasons to keep burning:
Lots of jobs. Fashion employs an estimated 430 million people worldwide offering a way out of poverty. Most of these people are women who have little or no real job opportunities. Covid has been a disaster for millions of people who are now without jobs as the fashion industry has cancelled orders as it fights for its own survival. Sustainability arguments are predicated on fewer pieces being made. After Covid, that means even fewer jobs in the industry. And that means continued poverty for millions, especially in Asia.
Incineration is better than landfill. While some old clothes are re-sold, re-used and go to good causes, the bulk end up in in a hole in the ground. There the natural fabrics contribute to methane production which is a powerful greenhouse gas. The synthetics contribute to plastics pollution: fashion accounts for up to 35 per cent of microplastic flows into the ocean
Incineration is clean. Modern, well-managed incinerators are clean-burning and state of the art pollution control equipment prevents toxic emissions (such as dioxins).
Burning gives back. All the energy in fabrics is captured and can be used for district heating and/or electricity generation. Ask the citizens of Copenhagen who have an incinerator in the city with a roof designed to be used as a dry ski slope (but unused for years for safety reasons).
And here are four reasons to stop burning:
Incineration produces waste, some quite nasty. While it is technically possible to scrub the emissions free of toxins, nothing runs that efficiently and even the best incinerators pollute while producing potentially dangerous ash. How much air pollution, and how dangerous the ash, is open to debate but the negatives must be balanced with the downsides of other forms of waste disposal.
Principles 1. Using incineration as an excuse for over-production undermines efficiency and is, well, wilfully wasteful. Using incineration as a get-out-of-jail card defeats the principles behind the efficient use of the planet’s resources.
Principles 2. The world has (largely) accepted the waste hierarchy: reduce, re-use, repair, recycle, recover, dispose. Using incineration as the first, not the last resort, contradicts good planetary practice.
Circularity killer. Creating a waste-free circular economy is deemed to be a good thing. Easy access to incineration kills the idea. Dead.
The way forward is predictably complicated. All the arguments being used to plunge a knife into the heart of fast fashion are perfectly sensible and valid. But only if – and this is a very big if – only if ways are found to provide fair jobs for the bulk of the 430 million unfairly facing destitution.