The fashion and textile industry is one of the most wasteful industries in the world. Obviously, individuals generate a lot of their own textile waste - and so do fashion companies of any size. Fashion companies purchase fabrics seasonally; these are often prints or fabrics that are specifically used for that season's collection. They purchase fabric in certain required bulk quantities and produce a certain amount of orders out of it. Naturally there will always be fabric leftover and, more often that not, this is fabric they do not want to repeat again. What happens to this fabric?
As much as I encourage people to shop consciously and treasure the pieces they purchase, I think it's equally important (and interesting!) to find out what happens AFTER clothing or fabrics leave our hands (and by the way, this extends to our non-clothing related waste). With this in mind, I went to visit Fab Scrap, the only textile recycling center of its kind specifically focused on recycling fabric yardage from fashion companies. I met with Annie Keating, a RISD Textiles grad who is Fab Scrap's community coordinator who generously showed me around and answered all my questions!
Bags to the left to be sorted, bags on the right sorted into spandex scraps of different colors
Before Fab Scrap, most of this waste fabric (that only remained in small quantities and couldn't be resold to a fabric resale store) would go towards the landfill, where natural fibers can take hundreds of years to decompose and synthetic textiles never decompose and actually release toxic substances into the environment. Fab Scrap precisely fits into the missing gap between companies that produce too much textile waste to donate to arts/crafts organizations, yet don't produce enough to be handled by industrial fabric recyclers.
Fashion companies who enlist Fab Scrap's services first sort their leftover fabrics (as often as once a week or only twice a year) into proprietary and non proprietary fabrics. Fab Scrap picks up these bags of fabrics and brings them to their warehouse in the Brooklyn Army Terminal (by the way, this place is a historical and architectural gem and definitely worth a visit!).
The Brooklyn Army Terminal opened 100 years ago in 1918.
Here, they are sorted by volunteers who can help out for three hours in exchange for taking home five pounds of fabric. Here's an example of the volunteers' table:
Volunteers remove any paper, staples, glue from the fabrics and then sort them by fibers. 100% cotton and 100% wool fibers can be shredded, broken down, and turned back into fibers to be woven. Fabric scraps containing spandex and lycra cannot be recycled and go to the landfill. Fabrics that are smaller than a yard immediately go to the shredders, while fabrics larger than a yard are resold by Fab Scrap.
The small scraps are shredded by companies that turn them into insulation, carpet padding, furniture lining, moving blankets, etc. Recently, even a punching bag company reached out to use fabrics for stuffing their punching bags. Some brands, such as Zero Waste Daniel use fabric scraps exclusively for their designs and commit to producing zero waste. Eileen Fisher has also been offering a take-back program and either reselling or creating new designs from their old clothes.
Larger scraps of fabric are available for purchase by anyone at $5 a pound in the Fab Scrap Shop:
It was really eye-opening for me to visit Fab Scrap and learn a little more about what happens to fabric waste as well as all the different kinds of companies integrating reuse into their business. To learn more, visit www.fabscrap.org. Thanks for the tour, Annie!