Can Waste Be a Resource?
To bring your shoes to life, expert artisans –like Cristian, in the photo above, from our sneakers workshop– have to first assess the leather for any natural skin blemishes, and then figure out how to arrange the different pieces that are sewn together to make your footwear. They do so in an effort to use as much of the leather as possible. But no matter how hard they try, there are always small pieces of the leather that end up on the cutting room floor. These scraps are deemed as waste and thrown away.
Pre-Consumer Waste in Fashion
Such scraps are part of a bigger category of “waste” created before any of your garments get to you: the pre-consumer waste. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, in the US alone, textile waste is estimated to occupy 5% of all landfill space, where it ends up producing greenhouse gasses like CO2 or methane, which contribute to climate change.
Specifically in the leather footwear industry, it is usually expected that there will be anywhere between 20 - 45% of the hide left on the cutting table, depending on the quality of the leather and the expertise of the cutter. This means that roughly 90 g of leather is lost with each pair of shoes made, according to researchers from the Institute of Chemical Technology of Mumbai. Additionally, more than a quarter of the scraps tend to be pieces larger than 18 inches, which can be used on a garment, without recycling, as shown by Reverse Resources in their white paper on the topic.
Throwing scraps into the trash may seem like an unimportant issue, but when you consider that they represent energy, water, cattle raising territory, tannery work, and so much more, you understand that they have value and can be used beyond this stage. In fact, Reverse Resources has stated that by reusing larger scraps, we could reduce at least 20% of production waste and save 3% of virgin fabrics from production.
Waste-led design is a concept coined by systems designer Célinne Semaan, in her lab for environmental and social justice: The Slow Factory. Waste-led design essentially means “looking at the end of life of a project, of a product or process first. We want to see how the system is managing waste at every single level of its creation.”
To put it into practice, we have to start by changing our relationship with surplus: be it of raw materials or people’s work. Because what we consider waste is a construct, as they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” So what if brands and workshops could see scraps not as waste but as a resource?
This is the question that has prompted us, at Beckett Simonon, to start the journey to design waste out, with our artisan partners.
From Waste to Education
In order to design our way out of these issues, we first have to understand where we are at.
At Beckett Simonon, we spoke with our artisan partners to find out what percentage of the leather usually ends up landfilled. In the sneakers workshop, about 80% of the leather is used to make a pair of sneakers. From the 20% leftover, 10% is used in other models. It is this final 10% that ends up in the trash can.
In the accessories workshop, it depends on the leather. For example, of the items we make with Vachetta leather, 80% of the hide is used and 20% would end up wasted. And of the items made with pebbled leather, usually 10-12% of that would end up in the trash.
Seeing that those scraps could have other uses, we started looking for partners who could give them a second life. Finding that there is no textile or leather recycling infrastructure in Bogotá, Colombia, we reached out to two institutions that work towards the preservation and continuance of artisanal crafts in our country: Artesanías de Colombia and the Escuela de Artes y Oficios.
Artesanías de Colombia (Colombian Handicrafts) is an institution that aims to make it economically viable for artisans to live off their craft through design laboratories and market opportunities, among others. The Bogotá laboratory introduced us to a group of regional artisans who will be using scraps from the accessories workshop from now on.
Escuela de Artes y Oficios, which translates as School of Arts and Crafts, has a whole leather crafts program in Bogotá where people learn how to make accessories and other leather products. We reached out to them to see if the scraps from the sneakers workshop could be used for educational purposes. Now, this collaboration will allow students who would have otherwise left the program because of lack of material to continue their education and use the leftovers to make a product for their thesis as well.
With these two new programs, we have been able to divert 97 kg (214 lbs.) of leftover leather from landfills, so far. Thus making sure it doesn’t end up in a dumpster, producing CO2 and methane that would contribute to the rising temperatures that have gotten us where we are: in a climate emergency.
Progress, not Perfection
“Progress, not perfection” is an especially important motto to keep in mind when it comes to social responsibility issues, like waste. The collaborations we have established to divert our scraps from landfills are merely the start of a process to design our waste out.
There’s still the challenge, for example, of reducing the amount of scraps leftover in the first place. Something we will be looking at with our artisan partners who are, after all, the experts.
What can citizens do about waste?
But what can I, a normal individual, do about this issue? You may wonder. There are a few of things:
- Use what you already have, as much as you can. To avoid the usage of virgin resources.
- When you are done with your clothes, accessories or shoes, bring them to the government recycling infrastructure or brand recycling scheme, like the one done by the circular shirt company For Days.
- If you must buy new, look for brands that are aiming to reduce their pre-consumer waste, manage it correctly –when it is not possible to reduce– and have a take-back program. There are also brands that make apparel from scraps, like Zero Waste Daniel, that you can look at.
- Reach out to grassroots organizations tackling the waste problem in your neighborhood, region or country, like GrowNYC or the Sunrise Movement.
If you have seen or heard of any other solutions regarding waste, they are all welcome in the comments below!
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