Year in, and year out, you outgrow clothes. They either no longer fit perfectly, are out of style for you, or have aged due to wear and tear. Old clothing items may have outlived their use, but you don’t have to throw them away; you can recycle clothes. There are many ways to recycle clothes, from clothing donations to crafts and textile recycling programs.
Recycling clothes is beneficial to the planet and we who live on it. We not only reduce the number of textiles going to landfills, but we also preserve our resources as well. If you want to live a zero-waste lifestyle, start by recycling your clothes.
Sorting out piles of unwanted clothes every time you declutter your home, maybe overwhelming. It may seem easier to get rid of old clothes, but trashing them is hard on the environment.
The textile industry generates a lot of waste that pollutes the environment. In 2018, the world generated 17 million tonnes of textile waste, which was over 5% of municipal solid waste that year. The industry is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions and is the second-largest polluter of the environment3.
Globally, about 92 million tonnes of textile waste is generated each year; by 2030, the number could increase to 134 million tonnes a year.
Landfills are not magical places where waste goes and disappears from our lives and the planet completely. Improper management of landfills causes air and land pollution that risks our health. Landfills have limited space, and textiles already occupy 5% of their space globally.
We contribute to textile-associated waste not only by throwing away clothes. Packaging and transporting new clothing items usually consume materials like bags, plastic wrap, cardboard, and so on. A study by the World Bank predicts a 70% increase in municipal solid waste2 worldwide. This presents an immense problem, especially for developing countries.
Although we have pre-consumer and post-consumer waste, the primary source of textiles in municipal solid waste is the clothing we discard. About 45% of the clothes we send to the landfill can be worn as second-hand clothing, and we can use 30% as industrial rags. Recycling our clothes keeps them out of landfills and protects our environment.
One of the major principles of waste management is the reduction of the rate at which we consume in the first place. Contrary to fast fashion practices of speedy production and usage, slow fashion operates with slower production schedules and deliberate fashion consumption.
With slow fashion, we buy fewer items, focusing on high quality rather than cheapness. Slow fashion ensures that we have less clothing to recycle, and when we do, the clothes are still in good condition.
One more advantage of slow fashion is that it allows fashion items to render their full value before we dispose of them. Also, it creates an opportunity for transparency and fairness in the fashion business.
Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the EPA labeled many textile manufacturing facilities as generators of hazardous waste1. Washing, dyeing, and bleaching fibers involve chemicals that are synthetic and harmful to humans and animals.
The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of global wastewater. The toxic wastewater is often discharged, untreated, into clean water bodies. Polyester, the most used synthetic fiber, is made from petrochemicals, making it essentially plastic. Manufacturing polyester consumes a lot of energy and results in massive air pollution.
Even as waste clothing, polyester, and other petroleum-based fibers break down into microplastics, a menace to fish and wildlife.
Hydrogen sulfide, chlorine dioxide, nitrous oxides, and sulfur oxide are some air pollutants released in the process of manufacturing textiles. Producing a pair of jeans emits about 33.4 kg of carbon; try to calculate the emissions cost of your wardrobe using that figure. The Ellen McArthur Foundation predicts that the fashion industry will produce 50% more greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Textile recycling might positively impact climate change if we reduce consumption and production, choosing to maximize items already in circulation.
The present system of producing textiles uses a lot of non-renewable resources, and even renewable resources like water are under extreme pressure. To produce 1kg of fabric, about 200 liters of water is used. It takes about 3,781 liters of water to make one pair of jeans.
The fashion industry consumes more energy than aviation and shipping put together. Globally, about 65% of clothing is made polymer-based, and fossil fuel, which is used to make them, is a non-renewable resource. Producing polyester consumes about 70 million barrels of oil per year.
Recycling our clothes can reduce the consumption of land, water, energy, and raw materials that go into textile production.
Read more: Environmental Impact of Textile Waste.
People most often just hand down their old shoes and clothes to friends and family as a way of recycling. This is great, but there is more than one way to recycle clothes. Here’s a guide on other ways to give your unwanted clothing a second life.
If your unwanted outfits are still in good condition, you can give them to charities like the Salvation Army and Goodwill and sell them at thrift stores. Sometimes you can donate directly to a thrift store, and they, in turn, donate the proceeds to charity.
Other than donating to a thrift store, you can get your unwanted clothes directly to those needing them. The homeless, animal shelters, orphanages, and refugees could use old towels, blankets, and t-shirts.
Our guides on how to clean thrifted shoes and how to wash thrifted clothes are also applicable when donating, so they are clean and able to be used by the recipient, as they are when buying second-hand.
Natural disasters like fires and floods often leave people with nothing but clothes on their backs. If you take the time to search, you will find local humanitarian organizations that could use your old shoes and clothes to help people with a fresh start.
When you donate your clothes, you help people in need, and doing something nice makes you feel good.
People who want to live a zero-waste lifestyle understand the importance of buying second-hand. Therefore, you can make some extra money by selling your clothes as second-hand goods.
You can do this online via online thrift store websites like ThredUP, eBay, Poshmark, The RealReal, and Tradesy. You can also hold a garage sale or take your pre-loved old fashion items to a local consignment shop.
Keep in mind that a consignment store only pays you if your clothes get sold. School uniforms are one type of clothing item that seems difficult to recycle, but on this website, residents of Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland can sell their kids' uniforms.
Some companies encourage customers to bring in their old clothing for store credit. Madewell, for instance, uses old jeans to make housing insulation for local communities and gives donors a $20 discount on their next pair. Ethical fashion brand Cuyana gives customers a bag to fill with unwanted clothes, and they get a $10 credit on their next order.
Some companies can take those worn-out clothes the second stores can’t accept. You can use any recycling locator to find a drop-off point in your area, which is usually a Google search away.
Recycling companies like Terracycle will provide you with a ‘Fabrics and Clothing Zero Waste Box’ that you can fill with unwanted clothing items and scraps of fabric. Once this box is filled up, you ship it to them for recycling.
Popular shoe brand Nike has a shoe recycling program where they recycle old athletic shoes into materials for creating playgrounds, courts, tracks, and fields. And if you're wondering what to do with old underwear, your undergarments aren't left out as The Bra Recyclers is an organization that recycles brassieres.
Fashion brands like Patagonia, H&M, The North Face, and Levi’s have special clothing recycling programs. They encourage customers to return old clothes from any brand and in any condition to be recycled for a reward. You can also make inquiries at your local council about recycling drop boxes in the community.
Another option to consider is a clothes swap. Clothing swap allows people to exchange their unwanted but valuable clothes with other people who want them and get clothes that they do want in return.
A swap can be an intimate affair between friends who wear a similar size or a bigger event that brings strangers together. In some places, you can even go to a clothes swap store. Ideally, items to be swapped should be in mint condition. Swaps don’t cost money; you can swap just about anything in your closet, accessories, shoes, and the like. Swapping is a great way to give your designer items a new life.
If you enjoy DIY craft projects, your old clothing and accessories can come in handy as materials. You can upcycle clothing, making toys for your kids, headbands, and tote bags out of jeans or t-shirts. You can also use them to make patches to design other outfits or even alter them to create new outfits. Face masks have become essential because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you make reusable face masks and save some money.
There are so many things that you could make with old outfits, but in the worst case, you can use them as cleaning rags.
Some clothes made completely with natural fiber are compostable. All you need to do is shred them as finely as possible, get them a little wet, and add them to your compost bin. Just make sure you remove things like zips, buttons, tags, and other non-compostable materials. You should also make sure to check if the prints on the clothes are biodegradable; if not, avoid using printed areas.
As time passes, some outfits become irrelevant in our closet, and hoarding clothing is pointless and untidy. Getting rid of your clothes is an action that has serious consequences for the environment, so you want to do it right.
Whatever condition they may be in, fabric recycling is the eco-friendly way to dispose of your unwanted outfits. Through recycling, you can reduce your carbon footprint, do charity, get value for your money, and protect the earth.
|Luz Claudio, 2007, Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry, Environmental Health Perspectives 115:9 CID: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.115-a449|
Ipek Yalcin-Enis et al. (2019) Risks and Management of Textile Waste. Environmental Chemistry for a Sustainable World book series.
Sachidhanandham A., Jaisri J (2020) Harmful Effects of Textile Waste.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.