Recycling – clothes recycling in particular – has been on my mind recently. We’re moving out of our house of 15 years and it’s shocking to visualize the accumulated mountain of stuff, including piles of unwanted clothes.
Instead of throwing everything in the dumpster, after a little research, I’ve learned that there’s a place for even the most soiled, unwearable clothing items. While we all know about plastics and metal recycling, textile and clothes recycling can be just as environmentally beneficial by diverting reusable items from the landfill or incinerator.
That said, clothes recycling, like other types of recycling, has its problems and pitfalls, so it’s important to know how to recycle right!
Table of Contents
- Why the Need for Clothes Recycling?
- Does Clothes Recycling Work?
- Clothes in Good Condition
- Soiled, Unwearable Clothing
- Sell Your Threads
- Upcycle and Re-Purpose
Why the Need for Clothes Recycling?
The Growth of Cheap, Fast Fashion
Americans love clothes … I love clothes! With a family of five, we’ve amassed an enormous quantity of clothing over the years. We’re not unique: According to a recent McKinsey report, consumers “keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago,” treating cheap clothes as virtually disposable items. In fact, the amount of clothing purchased each year from 2000 – 2014 increased by 60%!
Where Does it All Go?
Most of the clothing we’re done with either gets incinerated or landfilled. How much is that? According to the EPA, it’s a lot: In 2015, 16 million tons of textiles were thrown out, but only 2.45 million tons (15%) were recycled.
The World Resources Institute put together this eye-opening info-graphic showing how much clothing we waste.
Does Clothes Recycling Work?
Clothing’s Carbon Footprint
Clothing’s environmental impact extends beyond proper disposal. The carbon footprint of making, transporting, selling, and disposing of used clothing is significant. A recent report concludes that the apparel industry’s carbon impact is greater than the airline industry’s!
Think Before You Buy
By donating, reselling, or disposing of textiles with reputable private recycling companies, clothes recycling is definitely better than simply throwing away unwanted items. Still, the main thing we all can do is consume less.
Think before you buy: Do you really need that shirt, even if it’s on sale? Or what about those pants you’re eyeing online that look just like the three you have at home? A quick inventory of your closet will help curb those impulse buys.
A new and promising way of “owning” clothes is to sign up for a clothing subscription service. For those special or dressy events where you buy and wear an item once, renting an outfit is the perfect solution. I love Rent the Runway, but there are several subscription fashion services to suit every need.
For the clothing that you already have and need to shed, here are some “green” ways to dispose of them responsibly.
Clothes in Good Condition
The best way to recycle clothes that are in good, clean condition is to donate them. Here are some places to bring those unwanted items.
Places of worship typically have thrift shops that accept donations.
Local community centers, such as homeless shelters and thrift stores.
Zero Waste Days are usually organized by a municipality. They bring together in one location a variety of organizations that take donations, including clothing. Residents drive up and drop off their donations. So convenient!
Charitable organizations that accept gently used clothing include:
Retail Clothing Companies
- Levi Strauss accepts denim from any brand. You’ll receive a 20% discount off a single item when you bring your denim in for recycling.
- Eileen Fisher RENEW takeback program accepts old Eileen Fisher clothing. Bring clothes to any Eileen Fisher store and receive a $5 gift card per item. EF either finds them a new home or turns them into entirely new designs.
- North Face Clothes the Loop program accepts any clothing or shoe brand.
- Patagonia’s Worn Wear program accepts used Patagonia clothing in good condition. You’ll get a credit for future Patagonia purchases.
- American Eagle Outfitters has two initiatives for garment collection and recycling: 1) a bra give-back program in all stores, where you’ll receive 15% off future bra purchases, and 2) “Blue Jeans Go Green” to collect jeans in AE stores. You’ll get $10 off new AE jeans. Jeans collected through this program are turned into home insulation.
- Brides Across America accepts donations for military brides.
- Operation Prom for dresses and tuxedos.
- Dress for Success accepts women’s workwear.
- Soles 4 Souls accepts gently used shoes and clothes and sends them to entrepreneurs and those in need who lived in impoverished countries.
Donation Town. A nationwide directory of charities that accept clothing donations.
Earth911. Search the directory by zip code.
New York State residents: NY State Association for Reduction, Reuse & Recycling has a searchable directory of NY organizations.
Soiled, Unwearable Clothing
What about those torn, stained, unwearable clothes? This is where clothes recycling with a reputable organization can be a good option.
A Note about Clothes Recycling
Recycling Companies and Drop Boxes
You may have spotted clothes recycling drop boxes in your community. It seems like a really convenient way to dispose of your unwearable clothes and have an organization re-purpose them into a useful product. Right? In some cases that’s true. I list some organizations below, but it’s very important to conduct your own background check since many of these companies engage in less than reputable practices.
- Goodwill accepts all textile donations, in any condition (except wet or contaminated with hazardous materials) so they can be reused or recycled into new products.
- TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes allow you to recycle almost every type of waste. Collected fabrics are reused, upcycled, or recycled.
- H&M accepts any brand, any condition – even odd socks, worn-out T-shirts, and old sheets.
- Nike’s Regrind program grinds old shoes into sports courts and tracks.
- The Bra Recyclers‘ mission is to ignite a ‘Bravolution’ to divert bras from landfills. Mail-in or drop off items at designated locations.
- Knickey underwear brand will recycle your old underwear. Simply mail your unwanted undies using their downloaded shipping label and they’ll add a free pair of their organic underwear with your next order.
Council for Textile Recycling. A non-profit devoted to raising awareness about clothes recycling. It includes a directory of clothing donations and recycling centers.
Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART). A trade association that includes resources for clothes recycling.
Sell Your Threads
Recycle your clothes and make some money in the process! Try your local consignment store or a national resale site, but do the necessary prep work beforehand to ensure a successful sale(s).
For a complete guide to selling used clothing and accessories, see Green That Life’s post on the Best Places to Sell Used Clothing, but here’s a quick peek at the list.
Social Media Platforms
Luxury/Designer Clothing and Accessories
Upcycle and Re-Purpose
If you’re trying to get rid of excess clothing, this isn’t the best solution, but those old clothes can be re-purposed into rags for all your cleaning needs!
The ultimate in clothes recycling: composting! Yes, you can compost your used clothes, but it takes a bit of planning and a bit of detective work to determine which articles of clothing are truly compostable. In general, only biodegradable natural fibers can be composted: cotton, linen, wool, hemp, bamboo, silk. Make sure to remove non-biodegradable items (wire, synthetic tags, buttons, zippers) before shredding the material and scattering in your compost pile.