The situation is more complicated than most people imagine.
As apparel brands face pressure to curb fashion’s enormous waste problem, many are turning to resale programs that let consumers cash in on used duds. But companies that make intimates don’t typically have that option: When underwear is past its prime, the obvious solution is to toss it, adding up to billions of pounds of textile waste over time...For two years, [Los-Angeles-based Kent] has been selling a line of “fully compostable” underwear made from 100% pima cotton, which has longer fibers and is known to last longer than traditional cotton blends. Customers can buy Kent undies for about $25 apiece... When a pair of Kent undies are ready for decommissioning, they can be dropped into a regular compost bin or mailed back to the company...While Kent’s secret is using 100% cotton — with zero other materials, synthetic dyes or softeners — customers tend to prefer underwear that’s also stretchy, which requires the use of spandex or elastane. Neither is compostable or recyclable, and both have a low melting point that makes it difficult for the shredders used in textile-recycling plants to process in any large quantity... The problem is particularly acute for women’s underwear, which usually has elastic fibers throughout, whereas men’s boxers often have an elastic band that’s easier to remove...Underwear and other stretchy garments that arrive at textile-recycling facilities are thus rarely shredded; instead they’re repurposed into padding in products like car seats, punching bags and pet beds...Spandex isn’t the only culprit. Most women’s underwear also contains polyester and nylon — increasingly prevalent in textile production as a cheap alternative to natural fibers like cotton. Some intimates have also been found to contain high levels of BPA and PFAS chemicals..“Another ancillary consequence of [materials like polyester and nylon] is they release microfibers into natural environments, both when you produce them in upstream production along with washing,” says Kibbe. “As they decompose, they release tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions like methane into our ecosystems.”..But would-be buyers may still feel weird about dropping their underwear in a compost bin alongside banana peels and coffee grounds, and there’s an understandable discomfort baked into the idea of mailing back used underwear. ..Even harder than recycling underwear: recycling a bra. That’s because bras contain tiny pieces of plastic and metal that have to be removed piece by piece, a labor-intensive and expensive process. Their padding is also typically made from polyurethane, which can’t be recycled.
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