Landfill scene with fork lift truck

Things That'll Happen Before Your T-Shirt Degrades

Know how long it takes for a piece of clothing to degrade in landfill? We’ll give you a clue: it’s long. We look at all the global changes and events that will happen before it finally breaks down

If deranged shack-dwelling methamphetamine producer Reggie Ledoux of HBO’s True Detective is to be believed, time is a flat circle. Time can also be a hard thing to mentally quantify. I was recently weirded out at the thought that it’s still another 25 more years until the 100th anniversary of the end of World War II. Now, to you geniuses that may seem like ‘simple maths’, but to a lowly coif-wearing serf like myself, WWII is already an ancient, centuries-old stain. Dame Vera Lynn was a year my senior when it ended. That woman has some staying power. I wonder what her secret is?

Time has taken on horrifying significance in recent years, namely the fact that we’re quickly running out of it. World governments tortoise-walk their way to progress, and right-wing populism threatens to melt things like the Paris Agreement away, just for a laugh. As we get closer to the event horizon of our own existence it’s equal parts comforting and disturbing to consider what will remain unchanged and unmoved. The sun-bleached Temple of Athena Nike, the Coliseum, and, of course, those Primark t-shirts you threw in the bin last week.

Non-biodegradable clothes can take anywhere from 20-200 years to decompose. That means that in the near and distant future, global events and changes will occur while your ill-advised Call of Duty: Black Ops promotional tee sits in a foreign landfill, rotting away at a glacial pace. Here are some of those global events and changes. (Note: these are of course subject to change depending on how much the novel coronavirus COVID-19 buggers up everything on the planet.)

2025 – No More Coal

Back when Theresa May was in charge, which feels like one thousand years ago, the Conservative government made the decision to phase out all coal power stations in the UK. It was one of their flagship green policies.

2026 – Sagrada Familia

Antoni Gaudí’s gigantic, ridiculous hand-made cathedral in Barcelona will finally be finished. The project, which exclusively uses hand-crafted stone masonry, was started in 1882, with generations of families working on its completion. That’s a total of 144 years, which is also how long it takes me to write one of these articles. If they had throwaway polyester clothing when this cathedral started building, it would potentially still be there, degrading under the foundation stone. 

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona has been under construction since 1882

2040 – France Bans Diesel

Back in 2017, French car manufacturer Volvo said that, from 2019 onwards, it would only make hybrid and electric cars. This prompted the Macron government to claim they will be completely phasing out all diesel fuelled vehicles by the year 2040. Nicolas Hulot, the country’s ecology minister, said: “We are announcing an end to the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.” He described it as a “veritable revolution.”

2042 – No More Whites Baby!

It’s predicted that by 2042, white people in the United States will become a minority ethnic group for the first time since they burst onto the scene at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620, and killed everything that moved. This will almost certainly be a big talking point in the inevitable Barron Trump presidential campaign.

 2050 – Deforestation, Mars

By this point it’s predicted that half of the Amazon rainforest will be deforested, which is incredibly depressing. Judging by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s current attitude towards preserving the environment (i.e. doesn’t give a fuck) this is looking more and more likely. It’s also potentially the case that there will be a small colony of people living on Mars, if Elon Musk’s SpaceX program does what it’s setting out to do.

2060 – Asia Takeover

In keeping with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s predictions made way back in the other universe of 2012, the combined economic power of China and India will totally overshadow that of the entire developed world. Make of that what you will, I personally welcome our new Sino-Indian overlords. Better food at the very least. I’m sick of pork pies for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

 2110 – Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid

Japanese architectural firm Shimizu Corporation says it still plans to get going on the ludicrous project of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid by 2030, and have it completed by 2110. It’s basically a gigantic pyramid with a city inside, capable of housing a million people, with stalactite/mite skyscrapers and thousands of moving platforms and pods and stuff. It’s very mental. I hope they make it.

2115 – 100 Years Movie

As part of some bizarre bit of marketing by a cognac brand, John Malkovich and a slew of other international stars made a film that will only be viewed in the year 2115. Made in 2015, it’s meant to showcase how long it takes for a bottle of Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac to be made. Sounds like an epic waste of time to me. Would like to try that cognac though.

See? All that cool shit and your horrible clothes you bought for 12 pence will still be there, sadly sat ruining someone’s eye line. But after that it’s cool cuz it’ll be gone, right?

WRONG.

Carry Somers is the Founder and Global Operations Director of Fashion Revolution, a collective whose aim is to raise awareness of the environmental impact of clothing production in all spheres, from budget to lux. She tells me that these clothes, essentially made from plastics, may appear to be ‘gone’, but they’re never really gone.

“It doesn’t ever degrade into nothing. Plastic degrades, but it degrades into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces, and goes into microfibres and nanofibres—this is never going away,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s on our earth forever.”

“We talk about a faux fur coat taking a thousand years to break down in a landfill but this doesn’t mean it’s disappearing. It’s the same with a pair of tights: how disposable do we think tights are? Tights take 40 years to break down. This idea that it’s disappearing—yes it might not be something that we can physically see but we know it’s there, we know it’s going to be there.”

“Ninety-five per cent of our clothing can be reused, recycled, and we have to really invest in fibre-to-fibre technology, and brands and governments need to be doing more to make new clothing out of the fibres we already have on the planet.”

The impact of fashion on the planet is much worse than you might think. The fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tons of Co2 annually, which is more than international shipping and flights combined. Microfibres don’t just get into our oceans, either; they’re caught up in the air that we breathe.

As Carry says, it’s integral we start to recycle these bits of clothing, and stop encouraging wastefulness, or a miasma of nanofibres will further damage the already fragile planet.