Awareness about whether or not clothes and different textiles can be recycled is probably not where it should be for most of society – particularly in developed, and high consumption countries.
In this guide, we discuss different issues and factors related to clothes/textile recycling, what the current options are.
Understanding these issues can help improve sustainability in the fashion and textile industry, as well as optimize the overall waste management strategy in society
This guide is complementary to our guide on the overall pros and cons of sustainable fashion
Summary – Can Clothes & Textiles Be Recycled?
There’s a difference between re-using textiles or donating to a secondhand/charity store, and recycling (or upcycling) textiles
If clothes and other textiles are in good enough condition, they can be donated, sold and/or used or worn again
However, some textiles can’t be re-used for a number of reasons
In several developed countries, textiles are mainly dumped in land fill at the moment
We know that developed countries tend to have higher consumption rates (for example, according to the guardian.com, Australians consume about 27kg of textiles annually … which is double the global average of 13kg a person),
And, in some developed countries, textiles can make up around 7% of municipal waste (also according to theguardian.com, Australians buy an average of 27kg of textiles each year (including leather and homewares) and then discard 23kg into landfill, mostly synthetic fibres)
Textiles CAN be recycled, but a few of the major current challenges are that it’s not as widespread or as accessible as waste management options like dumping into general waste, different textile items can only be recycled for specific uses, waste usually can’t be recycled at scale yet (for various reasons), collection can be a problem, recycled material can be lower quality than virgin material, it can be challenging to recycle blended fabrics, and there can be economic feasibility issues for recyclers.
These are only a few of the many challenges.
For these reasons and others, textile recycling generally isn’t done at anywhere near a large scale yet, and technology and processes as still at an early stage.
Different technologies, systems and processes are suggested by different countries and companies as the future of textile recycling.
Chemical recycling (to process blended fabrics), and molecular level recycling (to allow textiles to be re-used for a greater range of things other than other textile uses) are just two of several potential solutions for the future.
Many developed countries have drop off points and locations for different types of textiles in cities (such as some retail stores, some recycling program initiatives, some private recycling services, and so on)
Encouragingly, in Australia, the number of products described as “recycled” … almost tripled (up 173 per cent) [from about 2018 to 2019] (smh.com.au).
So, consumers certainly are becoming more sustainability conscious in some ways when it comes to fashion
Aside from recycling, there’s other options for the sustainability conscious consumer to approach fashion – one example being to buy less (buy more slowly instead of over consuming), and buy clothes and textiles to last longer
Dumping Textiles & Clothing To Landfill
This is the approach the average person takes to disposing of used textiles
In Australia for example, textilebeat.com mentions that in 2016, Australians were sending about 85% of textiles to landfill.
For the countries that feature as the the top consumers of textiles per capita, there is obviously significant textile waste end up in landfills.
Re-Using, Selling & Donating Textiles & Clothing
This is usually the first option that sustainability conscious people go with.
This usually involves donating to a thrift shop or charity organisation, who can sell the items secondhand.
Some vets, animal shelters and mechanics may also accept some types of fabrics and textiles (such as rugs/blankets, or old t shirts to be used as rags)
Some people may choose to sell certain items privately to people who can use them again.
Some items like old shirts and pants might be able to be cut up and used as cleaning or painting rags around the house, or be privately re-purposed in another way.
However, some items can’t be re-used, sold or donated. Old underwear, old socks with holes in them, fraying and fragile items, stained items, and faded items are a few examples.
Also, what do you do with parts of some items like for example plastic button, metal zippers, and so on?
Recycling Textiles & Clothing
It is possible to take textiles and clothing to a textile recycler.
farmersalmanac.com estimates that ‘All but about 5% of your old clothes can be completely transformed’
sustainability.vic.gov.au also says ‘over 95% of [fashion clothing] can be recycled and reused’
In some cities and towns, there are programs or initiatives set up to take certain types of textile waste, and find recycled uses for them
Each recycling program might differ in the different items they can take, and what they can do with them.
How To Find A Textile/Clothing Recycler
Do an online search for ‘Textile Recycling [City Name]’, or ‘Textile Recycling Programs’
Common recyclers you may find might be:
Textile Retailers – might have a drop off box or recycling bin at their stores (H&M and Zara might be examples)
Private Recycling Businesses – might have a door to door service, or location you can drop off recycling items to
Recycling Programs – like Planet Ark … can drop textiles off at a specific location
Recycler Plants Who Accept Textiles – can drop textiles off at their business location
Some cities and countries have a recycling locator or recycling directory that may also help you find a textile recycler near you
Unless the recycler specifies on their website what happens to all their textiles, you can’t be 100% sure what happens to it.
What Can Recycled Textiles Be Used For?
Some uses might include:
Processed (some textiles are sent to Asia or other regions, where textiles are upcycled or processed/treated, or redistributed and repurposed, to be used again in another way for profit)
Insulation (when some textiles are shredded)
Rubberized surfaces and items
Filling (for car bodies when it’s felted and compressed
Used and waste for energy (when textiles are burnt)
Sent to labor industries
Cellulose powder (from cotton)
*Note – some recyclers may send a portion of textiles and clothing to landfill as well, such as unusable textile items.
Potential Benefits Of Textile Recycling
According to sustainability.vic.gov.au:
Conserve raw materials and save water and energy
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Provide affordable clothing to needy families and individuals
Challenges With Textile/Clothing Recycling
Some challenges might include:
The textile recycling industry is very small – major recyclers often don’t take textiles. Large scale recycling plants for textiles still haven’t been built, and technology is limited. Additionally, there’s costs to develop technology and machinery to recycle textiles (that someone has to pay for)
Collection of textile waste is almost as much of a challenge, if not more than actually recycling textiles
In regular recycling streams, textiles can slow down the recycling process, and can get caught in or wear down machines
Only some items can be recycled or upcycled for certain uses (some items like some types of underwear and activewear might not be able to be. Some blended fabrics like cotton and polyester for example might be hard to recycle too)
Economic feasibility, competitiveness and lack of a profit incentive for recyclers (due to factors like sorting, cost, technology, not being able to recycle at scale, lack of demand or value in recycled textiles, low quality or fragility of recycled fabrics, and so on)
In the case of weakened recycled textile fibres – virgin/new material usually has to be added to a recycled product to make it of adequate quality
People might not understand how to sort textiles for drop off
People may not have the money or may lack a reason to go out of their way to drop off textiles to a private recycler, or pay more to a retailer who recycled their textiles
Some recyclers only take commercial quantities of textiles
There’s a valid question to be asked about whether some materials and textile items are really more sustainable to recycle. For example, some materials may save more energy and use less resources to make from virgin materials/make from new. Some people forget that recycling has an eco footprint, and not all items can be recycled, or have value once they are recycled. Landfill may be cheaper and more eco friendly in some instances. Additionally, if chemical recycling is used in the future – what happens to the chemicals once they become waste?
Tips On Textile & Clothing Sustainability
Some of the top tips (in order) might include:
– Reduce: Buy to last i.e. buy less, but buy items that are going to last longer
– Repair: Can you fix, mend or repair clothes in anyway so that you can keep them longer?
– Re-Use: Donate unwanted items to secondhand and thrift organisations and stores (or give away to a friend). You can also sell them secondhand
– Re-Fashion: Can you use old clothes for something else around the house? e.g. can you cut up an old shirt and use it as a cleaning rag?
– Recycle: Drop the textile items off at a collector who will reprocess, recycle, upcycle or re-use the material and fibres in some way for another use
– Dump: The last option is to dump in general waste for landfill