The State of Reuse in North America: Perception, Reality and Opportunity

In today's society, as we see more and more people try to find sustainably-sourced materials and live 'green,' one would think that awareness about reuse and what it means as we move toward zero waste and the circular economy would be high. Or, at least, higher than it has been in decades. However, a recent survey found that people underestimate how much they throw out and how important reuse is to reducing their clothing footprint. To better understand why people do and do not reuse and actions we can take to change this behavior, we, Savers, commissioned a survey of 3,000 North Americans.

The survey revealed the public's misconceptions about how much they throw away, but also their misunderstanding of the options available for keeping reusable items out of landfills, especially for clothing and textiles. It also showed that people greatly underestimate the power of reuse, including how it helps support local communities and positively impacts the environment.

On a hopeful note, the study also identified areas of opportunity that the private, public and NGO sectors can take to encourage reuse and decrease the amount of materials heading to landfills across North America.

The survey found:

Perception vs. Reality:

People vastly underestimate the amount of clothing they throw out versus what they think they do. While people in the U.S. believe they got rid of an average of 4.7 trash bags (or about 47 lbs. per person) of clothing and accessories in the previous year, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) nonprofit trade association calculates the average American actually throws away almost twice this amount, 81 lbs. of clothing, (or 8.1 trash bags) every year. That's 81 lbs. of valuable natural resources lost to the economy, multiplied by 323.6 million Americans. Clearly, people still don't quite understand the extent of our waste problem and their role in it.

Reuse Motivators & Barriers:

While it's true that too much clothing ends up in landfills, many North Americans do in fact participate in reuse by donating their unwanted goods. Once people make the decision to donate used goods, helping others outweighs convenience as their main reason for doing it. Sixty-four percent of Canadian respondents and 59 percent of U.S. respondents noted that they donate their unwanted goods to benefit nonprofit organizations. Despite not being as important as wanting to help others when donating goods, convenience is still an important factor, as one in three people who do not donate used goods say it is just easier to throw things out.

The survey highlighted an important emotional and perceptual upside to donating that could help to foster greater adoption of reuse. When people were asked how they feel after removing unwanted items from their home, results were strong for "accomplished" (49 percent) and "productive" (45 percent). People who regularly donate used goods were described as "thoughtful" (68 percent) and "generous" (67 percent). Not surprisingly, people perceive donating as a good thing, and it reflects well on those who do it. That being said, campaigns to increase the rate of donations could capitalize on this "feel good, look good" aspect of donating in which everyone gains.

While a majority of respondents noted that they donate, the survey also found that some people chose not to donate used items at all. Of the 57 percent who threw items away, 54 percent did so because they didn't think any donation center would take their items, and one in four did so because it was simply more convenient.

Opportunities to Educate

While there are misconceptions and barriers, the survey clearly showed there are opportunities to educate people on why reuse is important and how it is easy to reuse. One in three people reported not knowing whether more than 90 percent of textiles could be reused or recycled, and 17 percent believed they could not be. This confusion about what can and cannot be donated is likely one of the contributing factors to the growing clothing and textile waste, resulting in 26 billion pounds of clothing and textiles sent to landfills each year.

This provides us - the private and public sectors - an opportunity to further educate people on their clothing footprint and what can and cannot be reused and/or recycled. The good news is that 74 percent say they are more likely to donate more clothing and textiles if they know that donation centers will take used clothing and textiles regardless of condition (with the exception of items that are wet, mildewed or contaminated with hazardous material).

What we found most promising was that once people learn about the environmental impact of clothing they are more open to reuse. More than half of North Americans surveyed say they are more likely to reuse upon hearing that, for example, each year more than a half trillion gallons of fresh water are used in the dyeing of textiles, and 70 million barrels of oil are used to produce the polyester used in fabrics. And nearly all respondents - 94 percent - agree that the concepts of reuse should be taught in schools to increase sustainability habits.

What's Next?

More people would reuse more goods if the benefits to their local community and environment were communicated clearly, and if donating was more convenient. These findings are a call to action for municipalities, businesses and the nonprofit sector to work together to educate people and put in place policies and approaches that promote wider adoption of reuse.