It’s easy not to think of what happens to our waste once we put it in the trash. From used clothing to uneaten food, humanity's disconnection from the systems that allow it to function in its current uninterrupted state has created an out of sight, out of mind mentality. That’s probably why we’re getting it so wrong; putting plastic bags in recycling as a form of “wish-cycling” (the phenomenon of people putting items in the recycling bin in the hope they can be recycled) and throwing out around 80 pounds of textile waste a year per person — and that's just in America.

To bridge this gap and increase the awareness of what happens to our clothing and other articles of trash, social and environmental justice non-profit Slow Factory Foundation is working with Waste Management to give landfill tours to Fashion Institute of Technology students and emerging designers. Powered by adidas, their visit last week to the Fairless Landfill in Morrisville, Pennsylvania reframed landfills as museums, encouraging designers to reconsider them as a resource and a valuable opportunity to divert materials before they end up there.

We joined the class on a bus to Pennsylvania to visit the site, get our boots dirty, and learn about how it operates. Here are six things it taught us about waste-led design.

1. Fashion Has a Waste Problem

Not only does the fashion industry account for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, it also makes up 6.3% of the waste found in landfills. Of this, the main culprit is discarded clothing, something the Fairless Landfill staff say they see often. In fact, because of the rubber they contain, shoes often get pushed up to the top of the landfill pile.

With social media pushing us towards wear-once-then-throwaway culture, this is indicative of a much larger fast-fashion mindset. It’s clear that moving to a more sustainable fashion industry involves a shift in mindset toward making more meaningful purchase decisions, as well as re-wearing and re-using what we have already.

2. We’re All Responsible

The Fairless Landfill collects waste from New York to Pennsylvania. At roughly 200 acres, the Fairless Landfill collects four million tons of waste annually. Last month, the plant was averaging around 15,000 trash trucks a day—just for the one site. At this volume, it will be full in around 10 years and join the numerous other sites that have been closed up due to being at full capacity.

The workers haven’t seen any signs of slowdown in the last 30 years, making it an issue that belongs to all of us. Wherever you’re based, there’s a landfill like this one piling up every day with waste that everyone is contributing to.

3. Relying on Mainstream Recycling Isn't the Solution

Fairless Landfill staff say that recycling had a major moment around seven years ago when it started to cut into waste volumes. Now, with increasing instances of contamination, it’s coming back into the regular waste piles. Part of this, they explain, is laziness, recalling seeing bowling balls, car seats and dirty diapers in recycling bags. There was even a live lizard thrown in a trash bag that previously arrived at the landfill.

For textiles, the recycling rate sat at just 15.2% in 2017, with 2.6 million tons recycled. With that in mind, we need to look to other alternatives for the 75% of textile waste that’s not making it through the U.S.’s current recycling system.

4. There's No More Room for Plastic Packaging

Plastic bags are the biggest pain point for landfill workers. In the wind, they blow all over the landfill facility and are hard to contain. While many people view these types of "soft plastics" as recyclable, they are not. Instead, the landfill workers recommend that "if you’re in doubt, throw it out."

Fairless Landfill workers recall brand new packaging being thrown out because of the fast-paced nature of our current consumer model.

Plastic overall had only an 8.4% recycling rate in 2017, making no packaging or more thoughtful packaging solutions, like non-coated paper or cardboard, the key to a more sustainable fashion industry.

5. Creating a Circular Economy Is Important

From visiting the Fairless Landfill, it’s clear that the workers are doing a great job of managing our waste and capturing the methane (and even converting it to bioelectricity). However, we don’t want our landscape to be filled with landfills packed to capacity. Instead, designers need to adopt a circular mindset and create a regenerative system for used items.

With a model like this, products are designed with the entire life-cycle in mind and incentives can be created for customers who return a used product back to the brand or manufacturer so that it can be incorporated into a new product.

6. Avoiding Creating New Products Is Even Better

We already have enough clothing items in existence. This means that new designers are presented with the hard task of justifying their new designs and products in a world where fashion production is projected to rise 81% by 2030, according to the 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report. Recognizing that the world needs fewer designers and fewer new items for the sake of our climate crisis is a great first step to designing with waste and the planet in mind.

However, this shouldn’t deter all creatives from figuring out a way to repurpose old products or explore new material technology. As a consumer, this also means opting for a second-hand option or supporting an emerging sustainable designer rather than hitting the closest fast-fashion outlet.

Now read about 10 things we learned about the state of sustainable fashion.

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