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Fast Fashion: Cheap Clothes = Huge Environmental Cost

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Fast Fashion: Cheap Clothes = Huge Environmental Cost

Fast fashion brands may be killing the planet, a Newsweek investigation revealed earlier this month.

Clothes which are processed to get them on the market as quickly as possible—a model favored by H&M, Zara's, and Forever 21—come at a very high environmental cost, with millions of tons of clothes winding up in trash bins, incinerators and landfills.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of discarded clothes winds up in an incinerator or landfill.

Popular clothing chains are trying to mask the environmental impacts by launching programs that claim to recycle clothes. But Newsweek found that these programs are not helping at all.

In April, H&M announced it is accepting donations of used clothes from customers and recycle them to create a new fiber, and thus new clothes. However, only 0.1 percent of all clothing received by charities and programs that recycle clothes is actually recycled, H&M's Development Sustainability Manager Henrik Lampa admitted.

H&M's program is also remarkably similar to that used by Goodwill, Newsweek noted.

Fast-fashion outlets are exacerbating the problem because very few secondhand stores or websites selling used clothes, such as thredUP, will accept items purchased from Forever 21 and other stores like it due to its poor quality.

This means more unwanted clothing is adding to the national trash pile. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of discarded clothes winds up in an incinerator or landfill.

Fast fashion is the second dirtiest global industry after oil. Since 2011, Greenpeace has been running its Detox campaign to urge global fashion production houses to eliminate hazardous chemicals from clothes.

The problem is further exacerbated by the increased speed of trend turnover. The fast-fashion outlets, due to their quick and voluminous output, are changing trends very quickly to stimulate more sales. However, this means that recent purchases will go out of style sooner than ever before, which means more clothes in the trash bin.

Natural fibers—which include silk, linen, cotton and semi-synthetic fibers (think modal, rayon and Tencel)—have a similar decomposition process to food which yields methane. But it's impossible to compost these clothes.

"They've been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths," Sustainable Apparel Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey said.

The chemicals are likely to seep into groundwater if placed in a landfill or permeate the air if sent to an incinerator. This is only one of seven reasons to hate fast fashion, EcoWatch reported in November 2015.

Other materials like acrylic, nylon and polyester have a petroleum base, which means it could take many hundreds of years to fully decompose.

The problem is further intensified by Americans' growing consumption of clothing, which has doubled to 14 million tons per year in less than two decades.

How damaging is this consumption to the environment? The EPA believes that if Americans were to recycle all of their unwanted clothing, it would have the same environmental impact as removing 7.5 million cars from American highways.

There are organizations that are attempting to put a dent into this clothing waste.

Housing Works, based in New York, has sponsored a clothing recycling program which has kept approximately 6.4 million pounds of clothing out of landfills since 2011. The organization sells these clothes in several secondhand shops. However, 6.4 million pounds is only 0.3 percent of the 200,000 tons of clothes in New York being thrown out each year.

For those living outside New York, the more obvious choice for recycling old clothes is Goodwill or the Salvation Army. However, only 20 percent of clothes donated to these organizations are resold, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. But Salvation Army maintains that it sells between 45 percent and 75 percent of its donations, while Goodwill says it sells 30 percent, and Housing Works claims to sell 40 percent.

"When it doesn't sell in the store, or online, or outlets, we have to do something with it," Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail and marketing for Goodwill Industries International, told Newsweek.

So the clothes are often bundled up and sent off to companies which recycle textiles.

There just isn't adequate demand for clothes in the U.S. to warrant the amount of clothes that are being produced, Georgetown University economics professor Pietra Rivoli said.

"People feel like they are doing something good, and the problem they run into in a country such as the U.S. is that we don't have people who need [clothes] on the scale at which we are producing," Rivoli said.

One solution to the problem may be closed-loop sourcing which Marie-Claire Daveu told Vogue is the "holy grail for sustainability in fashion."

"Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers," Daveu, who works for worldwide luxury holding company Kering, said.

This technology may not be ready for another 10 years, and may only work on textiles which have never been dyed.

Sustainable t-shirts by Allbirds are made from a new, low-carbon material that uses a mineral extract from discarded snow crab shells. Jerry Buttles / Allbirds

In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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