Recycling… Not? | How Our ‘Recycled’ Clothes End Up as Waste Abroad 

Recycling… Not? | How Our ‘Recycled’ Clothes End Up as Waste Abroad 

Back in January 2023, investigative reporters from Aftonbladet put tracking devices on 10 clothing items from a well-known Swedish fast-fashion company. 

The journalists wanted to find out where these clothes eventually end up, as well as to dive deeper into the company’s claims of minimizing textile waste.

It was the year of 2013 when the company started its collection program, encouraging customers to bring their unwanted items to stores. So, customers could reuse, repurpose, or recycle their clothes. In 2020, the company collected more than 18,000 tons of clothing and textiles. 

Although it seemed like a success, recent revelations by Aftonbladet have shown that, instead of being second-hand clothing, the amassed clothes are more likely to end up as a usual waste in many corners of the world. According to the journalists, some clothes they’d tagged have ended up abandoned in locations like northern India and Benin. 

The journalists also utilized customs data to demonstrate how the company’s German partners have “sent” 1 million items to Ghana since the year’s commencement. The ten tracked items journeyed across thousands of kilometers globally, only to end up in remote local markets that lack the necessary infrastructure to manage them. 

Upon this revelation, some industry experts didn’t find it surprising to see clothes from Nordic countries ending up as waste in distant countries, rather than serving as donations. 

Greenwashing done by industry giants?

Danish clothing expert and former designer Laura Lava, the company’s environmental commitments primarily serve as a sales and greenwashing strategy. Achieving the idea of closing the loop, according to Lava, is a thoroughly difficult task, given the industry’s inability to effectively reuse all textile materials. 

Furthermore, Lava stated that even in cases where companies do recycle textiles, the resulting fibers are of inadequate quality for reuse. According to Lava’s estimation, around 670 tons of brand-new clothing are incinerated annually in Denmark alone. 


a textile recycling container in Oldambt. Photo by Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單) – Wikimedia Commons


The ultimate solution to improve global clothing waste problem, Lava said, depends on how or when companies would make fewer products.  

“We have been able to hide this extreme overproduction because worn-out clothes end up in landfills abroad. The textile industry will continue to pollute third world countries,” Lava said. 

Nordic clothing that ends up abroad 

In February 2023, The European Environment Agency reported a tripling of textile exports from Europe since 2000. The agency stated that the clothing industry is now the “fourth-highest source of pressure on the environment and climate change.”  

It then warned that clothing donations don’t necessarily align with the recycling and charitable ideals that the public commonly perceives. 

Søren Zeuth, a Danish photographer specializing in narratives about clothing waste overseas, has directly seen how clothing waste transfers from Scandinavia and Europe to the Global South. Zeuth has also seen the damage of the waste once consumers no longer see it. 

The photographer acknowledged that people of Nordic countries donate clothing with good intentions. However, a significant portion, around 40%, turns out to be entirely useless due to damage, stains, or designs unsuited for the local climate. 

According to Zeuth’s estimation, Nordic countries dispatch approximately 100,000 tons of clothing to the Global South annually. Moreover, he has also observed the migration of clothing production abroad over the decades, first to Southern European countries and later to Asian nations like Bangladesh, where labor costs are comparatively lower. 

“In Bangladesh, women work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week for an hourly salary that is lower than the UN-set minimum standard. We are talking below the poverty line — only so that the textile industry can produce fast collections at low costs,” Zeuth said. 

The European Commission’s 2023 textile strategy aims to curb fast fashion, increase requirements for the quality of fibers and introduce more producer responsibility. But for now, experts and reporters remain dismayed by the way cheap clothes is produced in cheap labor environments, only to return as trash a few short years later. 


burning of waste in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Although in this case, the waste is burned to recover copper. Nevertheless, burning waste is quite common in the country. Photo by Muntaka Chasant Wikimedia Commons


“Waste capitalism” in Ghana 

On this post, I mentioned about how clotting waste problem in Ghana. Well, in this case, there’s barely any difference because clothes from wealthy or developed nations end up here. 

Zeuth’s travels to document clothing waste also included Ghana. When the photographer went there in January 2023, Zeuth discovered an extensive landfill next to a river, spanning six kilometers. 

Based on this experience, Zeuth has likened this situation to the recycling symbol. But rather than reuse, the symbol represents an unending cycle of profit, waste, and low-cost fashion. The locals in Ghana refer to this cycle as “waste capitalism.” 

Accra has the capacity to manage 2,000 metric tons of trash each day, but the Ghanaian capital produces roughly twice that much every day, in part because of the expanding problem of textile waste. Eventually, much of the waste gets burned. 

Now, The World Bank had provided $9.5 million for the Kpone landfill—a project with a specific design to address Accra’s growing waste crisis. It started operations in 2013 and was supposed to operate within 15 years. It reached peak capacity within 5. 

Ghana is a country which population include 30 million people. However, 30 million pieces of clothing arrive every two weeks. 

Solomon Noi, a man who’s trying to address Accra’s waste crisis, has a simple message for the second-hand clothing industry and individual donors. 

“I’m not sure they’ve ever been conscious to ask, where is the final destination of that thing they are discarding. But if they come here… then they will know that, no, we better take care of these things within our country and not ship that problem to other people,” Noi said. 

So… what should we do if we want to get rid of old clothes? 



One thing to know when we donate old clothes is that people who receive them will sort them first, determining which garments that would sell online or in thrift shops.  

Items that are less desirable would undergo a series of steps involving bulk buyers, repurposers, and recyclers in the country and/or abroad. 

Some textiles can find new life as rags for cleaning cars or machinery, become “new” fiber through recycling, or transform into stuffing or insulation, but items of least desirability will most likely end up in landfills.  

There are many reasons to make clothing undesirable, such as mildew or other contaminants. But if they’re still saleable, but low in quality, they will be sold in bulk. 

So, when we have clothes we want to give away, it’s always good to increase the chances of them finding people who want them. So, it’s wise to not wait too long to donate, and, make sure the garments are clean and dry. These minimize the possibility of the clothes becoming waste. 

We can choose to recycle, of course, especially when we have a lot of rags made from old, tattered or ruined clothes. But even though recycling is much better than landfilling, it often involves significant manual labor in low-wage jobs and poor working conditions. It sometimes also needs transportation—and recycling fabrics now still involves the use of chemicals and water.  

It’s also wise to take time to research and find the right organizations which use the clothes well, like charities which sell second-hand items. 

Donating to charitable thrift corporations would help them fund their programs, because they sell clothes that are in good condition, or they sell the remainder to various resellers, recyclers, and salvagers. It’s a lot better than dumping your clothes and hoping for the best. 



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