Before we get into how you, a person who cares about reducing waste, can recycle clothes, let’s clear up one thing. Consumers aren’t the biggest problem when it comes to the colossal problem of pollution within the fashion industry.
From reclaiming and recycling textiles to revamping the manufacturing process to eliminate the massive amount of pollution the process creates. Contaminating the waterways with bleaches, solvents, acids, alkalis, dyes, inks, resins, softeners and fluorocarbons.
This doesn’t even touch on the subject of cheap human labor. Sweatshops, modern slavery, still exists, even in 2021.
Fast Fashion, Low Quality
Have you ever noticed that clothing in the early 1900s through about mid 20th century was more fitted and appeared to be higher quality? Perhaps if you’ve noticed costumes in movies or on tv, most of the clothing looked more durable. That was before the invention of polyester.
With polyester, nylon, and other types of plastic clothing, soon came fast fashion. Low-cost clothing, which is mass-produced to meet the demands of the fashion industry, here today, gone tomorrow. But where does all this unwanted clothing go?
Only about 1% of the world’s clothing is recycled.
There are several things you can do with clothing that you no longer want. Begin by sorting these into three separate categories.
How to Sort Old Clothes
When you set about to declutter household items, you likely start with your closet. Spring cleaning always begins with putting away winter sweaters.
The first step is to sort through your clothing into two piles
- Excellent Condition or “like new”
- Good Condition
Like New or Excellent Condition Clothing
Clothing that is in excellent condition can be worn by others who choose to shop second-hand. This clothing can be taken to a consignment shop or thrift store. By doing this you can also get some of your money back out of them. You can also sell them on apps like ThredUp or others.
Have a place in mind to take the rejected clothing. Most items only stay in style for a year or less and second hand shops don’t want a ton of clothing that no one will buy. You can take the rejected items to the suggestions mentioned below, under “good condition” or straight to textile recycling.
Some people don’t want to be bothered with the process of trying to resell clothing, even if it is still in excellent condition. There’s no reason why you can’t donate it and skip the hassle.
If like me, you choose to donate all of your clothing, instead of re-selling, I’d suggest doing just a bit of research in advance to find a non-profit. You can even call to find out what they do with donated items.
For example, in our area, Compassion Closet helps by accepting and providing gently used clothing to foster children. Make note, however, not all of the clothing you donate will end up being worn again. The truth is, here in the US, there’s more second-hand clothing than people who need it.
That means a second hand shop may reuse and repurpose some of your discarded clothes. About 30% will be converted into cleaning cloths, etc., and 20% will be recycled into fiber for things like insulation. (1)
Whether you sell or donate: the main goal is to avoid tons of textiles in the landfill or incinerator.
Some clothing may not be in like-new condition, but good enough for reuse. For clothing that is still in good condition consider donating it to local organizations that give clothing to the needy or homeless.
If you have clothing in good condition, give them a second life by taking them to a consignment shop or a non-profit that accepts clothing donations.
Bra Recycling – You can donate your bra and the recyclers will get it into the hands of another person who needs a bra.
Donate good condition clothing to The Salvation Army, or Thrift Shops that benefit animal shelters, etc. The best thing that can happen to clothing that is still wearable would be that someone else chooses to wear it. Using clothes until they are worn out is an excellent way to “go zero waste.”
Poor Condition – Textile Recycling
Clothing that is unwearable should be taken to a textile recycling center. You can find one using this recycling locator. Alternatively, search “textile recycling program near me” to find out where to take your unwearable clothing.
If you wanted to reuse the clothing at home you can turn old t-shirts into rags, but at some point you’ll still need to do something with the rags. I use old rags to wipe my dogs paws (the material is softer than wash cloths) when she comes in from a romp in the mud.
What to do with Old Clothes That Cannot Be Donated
Clothing donation should always be the first way we dispose of clothes we no longer want.
One of the most asked questions around zero waste is what to do with old clothes that cannot be donated. You know, the items that are stained, ripped or too worn out to continue wearing.
For clothing that still has some wear left in it we suggest donating to thrift stores, goodwill, or other second-hand shops. Donating items that are not in good repair will likely mean your donation ends up in the landfill.
How far will you go to keep something out of the landfill? I remember my grandmother and my mom removing buttons from old clothing to reuse. That makes sense to me, but how many buttons have I taken off old clothing? None that I can remember. But why not give them a new life on a different garment?
My grandmother would also remove old zippers from her dresses and skirts so that she could use them on new ones. I don’t sew, so that’s not something I’ll be doing. However, if I knew someone willing to repurpose my zippers, I’d be glad to remove them from my clothing. It is easy enough to do with a stitch ripper.
A friend of mine from Ukraine told me that she and her friends used to buy sweaters secondhand to unravel and reuse the yarn. They were able to create new clothes from old clothes that were no longer being worn.
Lots of unwanted clothes in good condition are dropped off at places like The Salvation Army or other charity shops and donation bins.
Other Ideas for Clothing
Since your waste management company won’t pick up old clothes, you can’t add them to the recycling bin. You can donate them in several ways or you could try one of the following ideas:
- Organize a clothing swap
- Look for store recollection bins, some places will give you a small store credit.
- Send them to Retold Recycling – they guarantee nothing you donate will end up in landfills.
- Search “textile recycling near me” to see what results you get.
- Use the Council for Textile Recycling locator to find textile recycling near you.
According to the EPA, “the recycling rate for all textiles was 14.7 percent in 2018, with 2.5 million tons recycled.” Don’t forget you can recycle linens, sheets, and other textile waste as well.
You can donate denim to blue jeans go green. The process takes less than five minutes. Just login or create an account, print the label and ship (for free) any blue jeans or other denim that is made with 90% or more cotton material.
Upcycle Worn Out Clothing
Upcycle clothes if you can, there are nearly 14,000 results if you search “upcycled sweater.” Browse through and get an idea of what to do with yours!
Jeans? A quick search of the term “upcycle jeans” will net nearly 3 million results.
Change your mindset with Sustainable Fashion Brands
A sustainable clothing company will manufacture high-quality clothing that lasts longer so you have to buy less of it. Patagonia is an example of this sentiment. Their clothing is built to last; often from recycled fibers as opposed to virgin fiber.
Patagonia sells their “seconds” which have minor flaws, and they offer worn wear for those who want to buy second-hand (previously worn) Patagonia brand.
North Face also has a pre-owned section you can shop from if you want better quality at a discount.
Buying used extends a garment’s life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 73%. Patagonia
Madewell brand uses eco-friendly material and some recycled textiles. They’re known for their denim jeans which are made sustainably (as of 2021, 58% of their denim is Fair Trade). In addition, the factory recycles 98% of its water, uses alternative energy, and air dries its jeans.
Quality Over Quantity
Instead of going for quantity, consider quality first. Choose a few pieces that can be worn in multiple combinations that are timeless. Shop from sustainable brands and go for fewer pieces that you can mix and match. Look for natural fibers. A good pair of jeans might set you back a few extra bucks, but they will hold up much longer than a poorly made, cheap garment. Plus as they age they’ll improve, nothing is more comfortable than old denim!
For bras and other undergarments, again, choose high quality, and instead of washing them in with other clothing items, hand wash and line dry. Your lingerie will last much longer if you care for it well.
Brands to avoid? Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21, Shein, etc. are all fast fashion brands. Instead, shop from small companies turning waste into products, like Jelt.
Shop Second Hand, too
When full-price, high-quality brand shopping isn’t in your budget, turn to second-hand shops. You can do a lot of good when you shop at a non-profit for clothing that would otherwise be thrown away.
However, it’s not only consumers who can have an impact on climate change. In fact, the fashion industry needs to become more sustainable. Manufacturing clothing that never is worn is ridiculous. Yet, according to some reports, clothing manufacturers commonly destroy clothing that is not sold.
Before I even began my journey to reduce waste, I saw this firsthand at a popular clothing store. The returns were being cut by an employee behind the register. When I asked her why she was cutting up perfectly good underwear, she told me it had been returned (the tags were still on) and that was her job.
Since then I began to read articles about clothing waste and it is in fact a common practice by many clothing stores.
I know it’s easy for me to say since I’m not one to wear or care about the latest fashion, but buying second-hand clothing is by far the most sustainable way to buy clothes. It puts zero demand on finite resources.
1 – http://www.weardonaterecycle.org/images/clothing-life-cycle.png