The Importance of Recycling Old Clothing

For one reason or another, we are drowning in old clothes. T-shirts from road races, stretched dresses, and even single socks plague our houses and apartments. Up until recently, we believed we have three options: consign higher end or unworn items to stores specializing in secondhand wares, donate gently used and more casual items to charity organizations like Salvation Army or Goodwill, or throw out seemingly useless or highly worn items.

However, there is another, less well-known option available to us: textile recycling. Previously only available in a handful of states, this growing industry allows our clothing to live multiple lives after its time with us. In fact, it can live an entirely different life from the one it seemed destined for. Let’s start, though, with the danger that our clothes can pose when we dispose of them “as normal.”

Languishing in Landfills, Choking Charities

While we may occasionally save t-shirts, worn jeans, and other textiles for art projects or fleeting refurbishment opportunities, most of the time we allow them to follow our other waste into landfills. However, this is proving to be a heavy, costly, and dangerous solution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 85% of textiles taken out of closets end up in landfills: amounting to 3.8 billion pounds of waste each year.

Unlike food waste and other goods designed (naturally or artificially) to biodegrade, our clothing could stick around in these trash heaps for hundreds of years. Elle writer Catherine Straut goes into graphic detail on what these garments are doing to the environment in this time:

When old clothes are buried in a landfill, they not only take up space but also can also contaminate soil and groundwater and emit horrifying odors. If they’re not buried, it’s off to the landfill’s giant incinerator, which releases tons of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming and climate change. What we’re trying to say here, people, is that throwing away clothes is lose-lose.

Again, most people’s default alternative to dumping clothes, as both a sustainable and charitable measure, is to donate items they believe can be salvaged and sold or re-worn. While this is an admirable aim, the supply is outweighing the demand by a significant amount. The nature of fast fashion and a glut of ready-to-wear items means these organizations are accruing donations at a rate that is both unrealistic, given their resources, and impractical, given the quality of the garments.

“People like to feel they are doing something good,” says Georgetown economics professor Pietra Rivoli. “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’re producing.”

The result? Overflowing landfills, which threatens to overwhelm us as fashion seasons shorten and the market is further flooded with clothing.

Recycled Clothing as a Way Out

To put it simply, there is another way. “There’s a perception that you don’t give away stuff that’s lousy; that it’s not charity. And that perception is false,” says Joseph Ferson of Massachusetts’ state Department of Environmental Protection. He said this as he championed for the mass recycling of textile fibers.

We wildly underestimate how much value we can find from those clothes that are too worn to be sold in consignment or secondhand stores. In fact, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), 95% of textiles that we throw away can be recovered and reused in some way. Founded in 1932, this international collaboration spans four continents and works to repurpose textile fibers in a number of different ways.

In an extensive interview with the Boston Globe, past president Larry Groipen broke down just how much fiber can be recovered. Materials in the best condition, roughly 45% of what’s recovered via resale from secondhand overstock as well as from donations to organizations like Planet Aid, are used as apparel in the U.S. and overseas.

Developing countries, in particular, have developed cottage industries that clean, resize, and sell these garments, encouraging additional economic development in these areas. This is the sort of use, charitable or otherwise, that most Americans assume is the end result when clothing is donated.

The next 30% of recovered fabrics can be cut into wiping and polishing cloths. These rags are then sold, in Groipen’s words, to “everybody who doesn’t have a closet but makes a mess.” This often includes factories, schools, repair businesses, contractors, and other largely industrial uses. While these rags may eventually return to landfills at the end of their lives, it’s possible they could be recycled yet again. The only garments ineligible for this process are ones that are wet, mildewed, or loaded with hazardous waste.

Even if fibers are irreparably tattered or worn, they may still have a use beyond their original life. The least appealing of salvaged materials can be shredded into fibers that are used for soundproofing, furniture stuff, carpet padding, or insulation.

In fact, there is a company in Arizona that specializes in making insulation out of recycled denim. Another twenty percent of salvaged fibers are used in this process. If you’ve been following along, you’ll note that those percentages add up to 95%. Of the 3.8 billion pounds of wasted textiles we dispose of per year, 95% of that could be eliminated if it were properly recycled.

It should also be noted that this process isn’t even available exclusively to clothing. Damaged stuffed animals, curtains, bedding, and towels are also potential sources for salvaged fibers. Even the scourge of “single socks” can be solved this way; they can be ground and blended with other fibers to live a new life as yarn.

How to Start

For those wanting to start recycling clothes, but unsure of where to start, we recommend your city or state government. Roughly a dozen states have started textile recycling, whether through a central facility or with special curbside pickup. These states include, but are not limited to, Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington. The city or state’s Department of Environmental Protection is most likely to have the information you seek.

Consider area donation boxes sponsored and provided by companies like Planet Aid or Viltex. These organizations are the fastest way to get your donations to the next step. These companies are dedicated to doing this work while making it convenient for the donor, which has been shown to be a major incentive for participation in these efforts.

And, finally, absent other options, organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army do participate in this process as well. It will strain the manpower of their staffs, but it is far more likely that the surplus will be recycled, versus throwing the goods away and letting them waste away in landfills. We’ve been conditioned to find a safe and sustainable place for our papers, glass, and plastic; from our faded curtains to our frayed jeans, it’s time to add our clothing to that list. 

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