EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a monthly five-part series about a group of professors and staff at the University of Maine at Augusta undertaking the Zero-Waste Challenge. Can they live for a semester without generating any trash for the landfill or incinerator?

At the beginning of the semester, when we embarked on our University of Maine at Augusta group project to attempt to generate zero waste, I felt smug about my existing sustainability lifestyle and values.

I’d grown up the sixth child in a family of seven, after all, and learned “waste not, want not” well before it was fashionable to recycle. My mother tended a vegetable garden. She made bread, root beer and put up vegetables and preserves. When it came to clothing, hand-me-downs were the norm. I slept under quilts made from scraps of old aprons and dresses. And shopping happened just once a year – for back-to-school shoes.

After I grew up, that mindset continued to inform my own shopping values. But researching related data this semester did more than confirm of my relative thrift. My field is literature, but I appreciate numbers as much as my social science sisters. When it comes to clothes, I learned, we Americans are wasteful to extreme.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American family spends $1,700 on clothing annually, a relatively small percent of a family’s expenses, but while cheap clothing may be good for our wallets, it’s not so good for the environment.

We’ve all seen the deplorable conditions of sweatshops where much of our clothing is made. When we add to that the expenses of importing and transporting, the real costs soar. Yet clothes are so cheap, many buy more. In 2014, Atlantic Monthly published “Where Does Discarded Clothing Go?” reporting that 10.5 tons of used clothing goes into our landfills each year, Americans, on average, recycle or donate only 15 percent of their used clothing, one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material.


I’m a regular Goodwill shopper, and typically I drop off about the same amount that I pick up. But I didn’t realize until recently that ripped, stained and thread-bare clothing can still be donated. Various companies, I learned, buy it in bulk to use for rags or product fill. So this semester, I began bagging up and recycling my ratty old T-shirts, too – though it does lead me down a questionable aisle: Just because it’s used and half-price today(!), do I need to buy more clothing?

Forbes magazine reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 outfits – one for every day of the month. At least. My closet is so full I forget what I have until the biannual ritual of cleaning out summer to make way for winter. It’s a daunting task, because I have so much stuff.

Managing all this clothing, however previously used or handed down, still takes time. All clothing needs to be washed and dried, sometimes ironed or dry-cleaned, hung up, and put away in the winter or summer. Our house is an old cape with few closets, but deep eaves. That’s where I shove plastic bins (probably made in China and not recyclable) full of off-season clothing. But now the bins have overflowed to bags and piles, and still every time I drop off a load at Goodwill, I come home with another.

Atlantic Monthly reports that the average house has increased from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,478 today, yet we still don’t seem to have enough space for our stuff. As closets and attics fill, we turn to basements and garages. Overflow leads to self-storage units, which are sprouting up across Maine (and beyond) like mushrooms.

The Self-Storage Association reports that we Americans spend $24 billion each year to store our stuff in 2.3 billion square feet of these units, making it the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. At the same time, The National Association of Professional Organizers reports that organizing consultants and products have grown into a $1 billion industry; 54 percent of Americans are overwhelmed by their clutter and 78 percent find it too complicated to deal with.

I don’t use a self-storage unit, but I can’t give myself a pat on the back. My excess is stowed away in those deep eaves as well as in our barn. I’m well aware this is not the ideal way of dealing with it.

So this winter, fresh off the university’s Zero Waste Challenge, I’m taking an oath to save myself time and money by shopping for clothing less. Even if it’s half-price day at Goodwill when I drop off that bag of unraveling sweaters, I’m going to avoid temptation by pulling up to the back instead of walking though the store. I’m going to focus on the second half of my mother’s motto: Want not. I invite you to do the same.

Ellen Taylor is a professor of English at UMA, who specializes in creative writing. She has published two books of poetry and recently returned from a Fulbright semester in Slovenia.

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