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Every year for the last decade, 10 – 11 million tonnes of textile ends up in the landfill.
This raises many questions; can we reduce this terrible amount of waste and is the landfill the ultimate way to get rid of old clothes? What about recycling –
Are clothes recyclable?
Yes – clothes and textiles are nearly 100% recyclable. Only if the clothes are wet, moldy, or contaminated with solvents are not fit for recycling. Yet, before recycling, it is best to focus your efforts on waste prevention by mindful consumerism and, if possible, to reuse, upcycle, donate, or resell old clothes.
Let’s explore how to prevent creating more textile waste and learn more about clothing recycling.
Let’s take a closer look at the following questions:
- Are clothes recyclable? (A closer look)
- How are clothes recycled?
- What clothes can you recycle?
- What to do with unwearable clothes?
- Clothing waste facts
- Benefits of recycling clothes
- Sum up & Further reading
Are clothes recyclable?
Yes – clothes and textiles are nearly 100% recyclable, yet many fabrics end up in landfills for various reasons.
A downside of clothing recycling is that it can be challenging. This is because end-of-life textiles often consist of multi-material fiber compositions.
The different types of fibers need to be separated first, making the recycling process much harder.
There are two main types of materials – natural fibers, which come from plants or animals, and synthetic fibers (man-made), made from chemical compounds.
Natural plant-based fibers include cotton, linen, and jute. Synthetic ones include polyester, rayon, spandex, and acrylic.
Both natural & synthetic fibers can be recycled. They are usually graded into type and color.
What about clothes with holes – can you still recycle them?
Yes – you can! Only if the clothes are wet, moldy, or contaminated with solvent-type liquid (like gasoline) can’t be recycled.
How are clothes recycled?
Clothing recycling focuses on waste prevention by reusing and recycling old textiles. If clothes can’t be reused or recycled, they are in landfills or incinerated for energy.
The first step of clothing recycling is collecting, inventorying, and separating clothing into a few categories. Then, the clothes are distributed for the following use:
- Suitable for secondhand markets and shops. It is usually for export to developing countries.
- Suitable for commercial or industrial use. Typically, such textiles are cut into wiping rags or polishing cloths.
- Suitable for processing into its primary fiber content. Then, those fibers are remanufactured to create furniture stuffing, home insulation, automobile sound-proofing, carpet padding, building materials, etc. The majority of this category consists of unusable, stained, or torn garments.
The next step will be incineration for energy if the above methods aren’t possible.
If incineration for energy isn’t an option, the textile waste is sent to landfills.
What clothes can you recycle?
You can recycle (almost) anything:
- Household textiles – Curtains, sheets, pillows, pillowcases, blankets, towels, table linens, kitchen cloths, etc.
- Clothing – T-shirts, shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, coats, suits, skirts, dresses, pants, jeans, etc.
- Undergarments – Underwear, socks, bras, pajamas, etc.
- Accessories – Hats, belts, ties, scarves, purses, backpacks, etc.
- Footwear – Shoes, sandals, boots, flip-flops, slippers, etc.
- Others – Halloween costumes, stuffed animals, pet beds, etc.
If the textile is with stains, torn apart, or otherwise unusable, you can still recycle it – find 20 textile recycling drop-off locations here.
What can I do with unwearable clothes?
Never throw any clothing or textile waste in the trash bin! You can instead do the following:
- Try to repurpose. You can reuse and upcycle old clothes in many ways! For example, make dusting clothes from old cotton shirts or socks. You can use old bath towels to line a pet kennel (or donate to an animal sanctuary). Check my article to find many simple & creative ideas on how to upcycle clothes.
- Consider composting. You can compost if your clothes are made with natural plant-based materials (like cotton). Shred the clothing finely, remove any synthetic labels or attachments, and add to your compost pile.
- Find a textile recycling drop-off location. Follow the link to find a list of 20 easily accessible textile recycling locations.
Clothing waste facts:
If you wonder why recycling clothes is essential, check out these facts on clothing waste:
- Worldwide, we consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year.
- In 2017, 85% (13 million tonnes) of all textiles were thrown away in the US – either dumped in a landfill or burned.
- Textile production releases around 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year.
- Most garments are made with synthetic fibers, which release half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers every year, contributing to the increasing ocean pollution.
- Synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic are made from petroleum (a type of plastic) and can biodegrade between 20 and 200 years.
While we can’t eliminate clothing waste completely, we can aim to reduce it as much as possible.
Benefits of recycling clothing:
Recycling clothes is essential since the textile recycling industry can process 93% of the waste without producing new hazardous waste or harmful byproducts.
Furthermore, recycling clothes is crucial because it can:
- Conserve energy, water, and landfill space.
- Lower overall greenhouse gas emissions.
- Reduce the need for new materials.
- Create new things from waste materials.
- Help people in need.
- Restrict unethical business practices.
- Promote a more sustainable fashion industry.
Sum up & Further reading
As consumers continue to buy, waste will continue to be created.
We need to become more mindful about clothing, recycle old textiles, buy secondhand and support sustainable fashion brands.
If you are curious and you want to learn more, consider the further reading:
- Where to recycle old clothes: 20 textile recycling drop off locations
- 23 awesome platforms to sell used clothes for cash
- 17 best places to sell used kids’ & baby clothes
- Guide on how (and why) to organize a clothing swap event
- How to (ruthlessly) declutter your wardrobe (and why you should consider it)
- The 39 best thrift shops for secondhand clothes
- What are the disadvantages of fast fashion?
- Unethical fast fashion brands to avoid
- 26 of the best sustainable & affordable fashion brands