How Long Will Your Clothes Live in a Landfill?


For many of us, our relationship with waste is a short one, lasting as long as it takes to walk to the nearest trashcan. Once we dump our garbage, tie it up, and leave it by the curb, it’s easy to simply forget about it even though we know it’s not disappearing into thin air.

Garbage trucks often haul our waste to landfills, where it must sit until it decomposes. Food and other organic products may take less time to decompose, but some items, like our clothing, can sit there for years. How does this affect the environment?

How Landfills Work

Like it or not, landfills are a necessary part of our lives. Over half of the waste produced in the United States ends up in landfills, according to the EPA, so they play a critical role in how we deal with garbage. They are designed to isolate waste from the surrounding environment through the use of liners and a daily covering of soil. The idea is that burying the trash keeps it separate from groundwater, helping it stay dry and unexposed to air.

Still, landfills remain costly to the environment, with pollution occurring despite waste management crews’ best efforts to contain it. As waste decomposes, it can pollute local environments by releasing methane gas and contaminating the soil and groundwater.

The longer landfills stick around, the more likely it is for these things to happen. And, unfortunately, the very nature of landfills slows down decomposition. Without moisture and oxygen, waste biodegrades at a much slower rate, meaning we’ll be depending on landfills for a long time.

The Lifespan of Clothing in Landfills

Although you may not consider your discarded clothes to be waste, they do their part to contribute to the harmful environmental effects of landfills. The EPA reported that in 2012, rubber, leather, and textiles made up nearly 9 percent of the 251 million tons of waste produced in the U.S.

If banana peels, which usually decompose within a few days, made up 250.5 million tons of that figure, our dependency on landfills might not be so bad. Of course, that isn’t the case. Let’s take a look at how long various clothing items take to biodegrade in landfills:

• Cotton glove: 3 months
• Wool: 1 to 5 years
• Leather shoes: 25 to 40 years
• Nylon: 30 to 40 years
• Rubber boot sole: 50 to 80 years

Alternatives to Throwing Clothes Out

Instead of throwing your unwanted clothes into the garbage, reduce your impact on the environment by donating them or getting creative with reuse.

No matter what kind of clothing you’re getting rid of, someone could certainly use it. For example, your professional attire can go to disadvantaged women looking to make a great first impression at a job interview. Swapping clothes with your friends or family is also a great alternative to simply tossing them in the trash.

You can even repurpose your old clothes into new, useful items. Turn an unwanted T-shirt into a reusable grocery bag or transform ratty sweaters into mittens or pillow cases.

Organic Clothing

If you’re really interested in reducing our planet’s reliance on landfills, consider making the switch to organic clothing. Organic clothes break down much faster than regular clothes, and producing them is less harmful to the environment, making them an eco-friendly choice from start to finish. Bamboo clothing, for example, is made without the use of pesticides or harmful finishes, and it breaks down quickly because it’s plant-based.

Even though landfills may be a necessary evil, it doesn’t hurt to take steps towards phasing them out. By donating or repurposing unwanted clothing and investing in clothes that biodegrade easily, you’ll be on the road to greener living.