Fashion is temporary, but style is forever. This paraphrased quote by Coco Chanel aptly describes the problem of fashion; it changes, and very quickly at that. This leads to a global problem of enormous fashion waste. It is a good thing that we can recycle fabric, and this means you can stay in style and get rid of your fashion waste in ways that help the planet. This article discusses everything you need to know about fabric recycling.
What is textile recycling?
Textile recycling is the process where textile materials that have come to their end-of-use for consumers are reused or processed into new material. It is simply a method of material recovery in the textile industry. Textile recyclers accept clothing items, shoes, and many other items with fabric parts for processing.
The recycling process requires efforts from the government, corporate organizations, and individuals. In America, the Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) coordinates trade within the textile recycling industry. Its members include wiping materials, used clothing, and fiber industry companies. The council for textile recycling (CTR) is the leading awareness agency for textile recycling in the United States.
The textile industry is worth over $1.1 trillion3, including sectors like fashion, furniture, and sanitary fabrics.
Recycling textiles is an essential step for the fashion industry. It helps to slow down fast fashion and disrupt its linear consumption system. Further, every wearable item that finds a new home means one less new clothing item using up resources unnecessarily.
The textiles recycling industry is on the growth path. The industry was worth $5.3 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 5.2% by 2016. Then, it would be worth $8 billion by 20621.
With the technological advancements of the present day, we can recycle almost any kind of fabric. So along with your old t-shirts and jeans, you can send those old cleaning rags, fabric mats, and denim bags to recycling centers. Other recyclable textile items include mattress protectors, window treatments, canvas tents, shoes, burp cloths, diaper bags, and non-plastic bath mats.
Textile recycling process
All kinds of unwanted clothing and fabrics are recycled in three basic steps. However, the system may operate uniquely in different areas due to available resources. The steps involved are listed and explained below.
Collection of fabric waste
Textile waste originates from end-users, clothing production companies, and other industries that use textiles in their products. We call the waste from consumers post-consumer waste or, more formally, textile municipal solid waste. In contrast, the waste generated by the textile or textile-based industries is pre-consumer waste.
As much usable clothing as possible from consumers is usually donated to charities and thrift stores or via corporate recycling programs.
The first step in sorting out fabrics is to separate those made from natural fibers from other textiles originating from synthetic fibers. Then sorting the textiles by color and material comes next. The sorting process is where textiles we can reuse are separated from those that will be processed into a fiber.
Processing textiles for recycling could be as simple as making repairs or upcycling. However, when a piece of fabric has come to its end of life, it is broken down into fibers. These fibers serve as raw materials for new textile products. Different kinds of fibers are sometimes mixed to add unique qualities or increase durability.
Benefits of recycling fabrics
The importance of the textile recycling industry can not be overemphasized. They have made it possible for people to deal with the trail of fabric waste they accumulate daily in a way that benefits the environment. And this is extremely important because other methods of fabric disposal, like incineration and landfilling, are not sustainable.
Some benefits of recycling textiles are briefly discussed below.
Sustainable resource consumption
Recycling fabric is excellent for the environment; it reduces the number of textiles in the waste stream, curbing resource waste. Textile production uses extensive areas of land for agriculture, putting ecosystems at risk. It also depends heavily on fossil fuels for synthetic materials and energy used in production. The world's water supply also suffers from the linear consumption methods of the industry.
Whether we put old clothing to a new use or reuse fibers, we are cutting back on demand for virgin resources.
Textile manufacturing and disposal are sources of environmental pollution. The fashion industry alone is responsible for 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions2. Polyester, which accounts for 60% of clothing production, is a significant contributor to ocean plastic pollution.
Chemical contamination of the water supply of many communities is also a problematic issue.
Recycling has the potential to reduce the negative environmental impact of textile production.
Related: More Fast Fashion Facts & Statistics
Conserve valuable landfill space
The world's landfills are prime real estate necessary for waste management. The US generated around 17 million tons of textile waste in 2018 alone. This amounted to about 5.8% of total Municipal Solid Waste that year.
When we recycle clothes and textiles, we keep them out of landfills. This not only reduces pollution but also conserves a vital resource; landfill space. It is important to use these spaces judiciously to avoid filling up and spilling out into the environment.
How you can recycle fabrics
In many places, curbside recycling for textiles is not available. People who want to recycle textiles have to put in some extra effort to get it done. So how do you recycle fabric in all its different forms? Take a look at the options listed below to find one that suits you.
- Specialist recycling centers
- Textile recycling programs
Before you send a piece of fabric outside your home for recycling, consider repurposing it. There are many simple and creative ways to reuse fabric at home. An old t-shirt, for instance, can serve as a cleaning rag or bed layer for your pet.
If your old clothing isn't synthetic, you can also add it to your compost pile. To do so, remove any metal or plastic first, like buttons or zips. Then chop it up nice and small; it may take a while but will biodegrade, providing its organic fiber.
Businesses that accumulate large quantities of fabric can reuse the scrap fabrics in the office. They can use it for office furniture and decor or alternative goods.
Donating clothing and other textile items lets you help the needy and the environment. Non-profit organizations like Clothes Aid, Oxfam, and the Salvation Army receive clothing and textile donations and sell textiles collected, using the profits to help disadvantaged communities.
Some charities like clothes aid or FABSCRAP offer pick-up services for large donations of usable clothing. FABSCRAP operates majorly in New York City and has several collections points around the city.
While most clothing donation beneficiaries will only accept old clothes in wearable condition, that is not the case with TerraCycle. Terracycle will collect textiles, clothing donations, and any kind of fabric in whatever condition and recycle it. But they allow you to nominate your favorite charity or school to benefit from their support.
One way to recycle clothing is by selling it to other people. You can sell your still-wearable old clothing at online thrift stores, secondhand stores, or a consignment shop. Another option for selling clothes, shoes, and bags is to swap them.
A clothing swap allows people to exchange valuable but unwanted, gently used clothing. Various second-hand markets like Facebook enable you to swap clothes, or you can host your own. People receive items they want at a clothing swap and give out the things they don't to others who do.
Special recycling centers
Regardless of how well-used burp cloths, breast pads, and baby changing pads are, you may not sell or donate them due to hygienic concerns. This is why special recycling centers are important. Because of the existence of specialized textile recycling companies, all kinds of fabric scraps have recycling solutions.
Recycling centers will take poor-condition clothing, fabric scraps from mail bags, privacy wraps, wiping rags, mixed materials canvas bags, and patio furniture. Some centers may specialize in recycling only one type of textile item or have exceptions to what they will accept. So get all the information before sending your fabrics off. They process the fabric they receive and turn it into low-grade fiber products like insulation for building work.
People in the UK can take their waste textiles to the Household Waste and Recycling Center (HWRC). TerraCycle is a business that specifically works with hard-to-recycle waste. They are available in about 21 countries spread across Asia and America. A Google search or recycling search engine can help you locate recycling centers nearby.
Textile recycling programs
Sustainable fashion brands sometimes set up recycling programs. They do this to be more eco-friendly and sustainable. Companies that take back discarded materials and fashion them into new goods reduce their carbon footprint significantly.
Nike's shoe recycling program is dedicated to recycling athletic shoes that have reached their end of life. They will accept any brand of athletic sneakers but not boots or sandals. And all you need to do is walk into any participating Nike store and drop your old shoes in the collection bin.
The top fashion brand H&M has clothing recycling bins for all kinds of textiles, like old jeans or coats, in any condition, at many local stores worldwide. With some brands, you can even receive store credit when dropping off clothing.
American eagle outfitters also set up a textile recycling program in partnership with I:Collect. The program lets customers drop unwanted fabrics in recycling bins at their stores.
Every day, landfills worldwide receive tons of discarded clothing, shoes, and accessories. Most of these items still have some use in them, such as upcycled products or new material. Sadly, once in the landfill, they are no longer eligible for material recovery.
Therefore, it falls to individuals and businesses to change this narrative. And they can do that through active textile recycling.
Recycled textile market to reach $8.0 billion by 2026 at 5.2% CAGR: AMR (2020) Globe Newswire.
Morgan McFall-Johnsen (2020) These facts show how unsustainable the fashion industry is. World Economic Forum.