In the guide below, we discuss whether clothes and textiles can be recycled.
We also consider the different issues related to clothes and textiles recycling.
Understanding these issues might help in improving sustainability in the overall fashion and textile industry.
This guide is complementary to our separate guide on the overall pros and cons of sustainable fashion
Summary – Can Clothes & Textiles Be Recycled?
What Currently Happens To Majority Of Textile Waste?
Currently, majority of textile waste is dumped to landfill
Different countries may also have different waste rates for the amount of textiles going to landfill
Using Pre-Owned Textiles vs Recycling Textiles
There’s a difference between using textiles that are pre-worn, and sending textiles specifically to be recycled (or upcycled)
If clothes and other textiles are in good enough condition, they can be donated, sold, and/or used or worn again secondhand by another owner
However, some textiles can’t be used secondhand for a number of reasons, and some of these textiles may be able to be recycled, whilst others may not be able to be recycled
Potential Challenges When Recycling Textiles
Some of the major current challenges that currently face textile recycling include but aren’t limited to:
Textile recycling programs can be more niche/specialized, and tend not to be as widespread (or as widely accessible) as general waste streams
Collection can be a problem
Recycled material can be lower quality than virgin material
Blended fabrics can be challenging to recycle
Economic feasibility can be an issues for textile recyclers
There can be limitations on what recycled uses different textile items can have
Textile recycling technology and processes are at an early stage may not have the capabilities of other recycling technology yet (i.e. there can be limitations in what textile recycling can do)
For these reasons and others, textile recycling isn’t carried out on a large scale yet.
Current Textile Recycling Programs & Initiatives
Several developed countries already have textile recycling drop off points and locations for different types of textiles in cities (such as at some retail stores, and some centralized locations)
Different recycling program initiatives and private recycling services are currently offered
How To Improve Textile Recycling
Different technologies, systems and processes might be used in different countries to improv textile recycling
Different companies also suggest different solutions 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.
Additionally, there may be a focus on improving textile recycling in specific countries with higher textile consumption rates. As one example, according to the guardian.com, Australians consume about 27kg of textiles annually … which is double the global average of 13kg a person
We’ve previously written about how to improve recycling in general in this guide, and some of these principles might be applied to textile recycling
Textile Recycling Trends
According to smh.com.au, ‘… in Australia, the number of products described as “recycled” … almost tripled (up 173 per cent) [from about 2018 to 2019]’
So, there may be some progress happening for recycled textiles on a year to year basis in some countries.
Sustainability For Fashion & Textiles Outside Of Recycling
Aside from recycling, there might be other sustainability options in fashion and textiles for the sustainability minded consumer
A few examples are to buy less (buy more slowly instead of over consuming), and buy clothes and textiles to last longer
Where Majority Of Textile & Clothing Waste Currently Ends Up
Landfill is the main way to manage textile waste for several developed countries worldwide
Where Majority Of Textile Waste Currently Ends Up
In several developed countries, majority of textiles are currently dumped in land fill
According to some figures, in some developed countries, textiles can make up around 7% of total municipal waste in landfills
Textile Waste To Landfill Rates Of Different Countries
Different countries may have different rates for textile waste that ends up in landfills
According to theguardian.com, Australians buy an average of 27kg of textiles each year (including leather and homewares) and then discard 23kg into landfill [… which are] mostly synthetic fibres
textilebeat.com mentions that in 2016, Australians were sending about 85% of textiles to landfill
It might be accurate to say that the countries that are the top consumers of textiles per capita might send more textile waste to landfills.
Pre-Owned & Secondhand Textiles & Clothing
What Are Pre-Owned & Secondhand Textiles & Clothing?
Pre-worn or pre-owned textiles can be re-used by a second owner after being passed on by their initial owner
Re-used textiles can be gifted, sold, or donated
Pre-owned textiles and clothing can be gifted from one individual to another
Pre-owned textiles and clothing can be sold privately to another owner
Pre-owned textiles and clothing can be donated to a thrift shop or charity organisation
Pre-owned textiles and clothing can be donated to some vets, animal shelters and mechanics, who may accept some types of fabrics and textiles (such as rugs/blankets, or old t shirts to be used as rags)
Some Items Can’t Be Re-Used By A Second Owner
However, some items can’t be re-used because they aren’t in a suitable condition, or they don’t meet a certain quality
Old underwear, old socks with holes in them, fraying and fragile items, stained items, and faded items are a few examples
Repurposing Used Textiles & Clothing
Items that can’t be worn or used again for their intended uses, may be able to be repurposed instead
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.
Recycling Textiles & Clothing
What % Of Textiles & Clothing Can Be Recycled (Or Re-Used)?
farmersalmanac.com estimates that ‘All but about 5% of your old clothes can be completely transformed’
sustainability.vic.gov.au says ‘over 95% of [fashion clothing] can be recycled and reused’
What To Do With Textiles & Clothing To Recycle Them
It is possible to take textiles and clothing to a textile recycler drop off point.
In some cities and towns, there are specialized 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’
Some cities and countries have a recycling locator or recycling directory that may also help you find a textile recycler near you
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
What Can Recycled Textiles Be Used For?
Unless the recycler specifies in some way what happens to all their textiles, you can’t be 100% sure what happens to it.
So, look for a description of what each individual recycled does with the materials and items they receive.
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
Potential 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)
Parts of some items like for example plastic buttons, metal zippers, etc. may be hard or time consuming to separate from some textiles
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 i.e. there are quantity thresholds
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?