Back to School or Back to the Landfill?

During most of August and early September the barrage of TV, newspaper, and magazine ads seemed to shout one clear message - It's Back to School Time! While my two teen-age kids didn't need reminding of that fact, especially during the last precious weeks of summer vacation, they were excited about one aspect - new school clothes. Every year in most U.S. households with school-age children, this shopping ritual involves treks to the mall and clicking through online catalogues. Aside from the Christmas shopping frenzy, back-to-school season represents the bulk of new clothes sales for many retailers.

In an image conscious age, kids conform to peer-induced pressure to wear this year's "must-have" skirt or shoes. Kids somehow convince many of us parents that they "can't possibly go to school wearing last year's stuff." In our fast-food age, fast-fashion is the new consumable. Prodded by shorter fashion cycles, clothing has become disposable even quicker. Lower overseas manufacturing costs together with our need to upgrade our look, has increased the size of the "national wardrobe" exponentially.

Consider this, according to Pietra Rivoli, author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, each year Americans purchase one billion garments from China. That's about four new items per person. And that's just from China. But then something even more alarming happens. When we get home, we have to make room in our closets for our shiny new things. In a report titledRecycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste by Oakdene Hollins, only 21% of new clothes purchases stay in the home for any appreciable length of time. The rest make up the nearly 70 pounds of dated fashion we Americans have to unload somewhere. Sadly, we only recycle 15% of what we toss. That means 85% winds up in your landfill or mine. Even more tragic, according to the EPA, nearly 99% of the materials in our clothing can now be recycled.

While the numbers are staggering, what each of us can do is not. Just as we learned to sort our plastic, paper, and aluminum, we can be trained to recycle those favorite jeans that no longer fit, or that tie-dyed shirt your uncle gave you. Make it a point to take a few items out of your closest every month and encourage the rest of the family to do the same. It's either that or you can try convincing your teenage daughter to keep wearing her clothes one more year. Or tell your son to have his shoes resoled. Good luck with that.

~ Ruben Valdillez

Ruben recently joined Planet Aid as Public Relations Manager.