Clothing is a resource that is present almost in all human communities. When we’re done with clothing, it doesn’t need to go landfills though, it can be recycled, reused and/or repurposed. We discuss small and large-scale approaches to both processes here and with the following sections:
Clothing recycling is part of textile recycling. It involves recovering old clothing and shoes for sorting and processing to eventually create clothing suitable for reuse, cloth scraps, rags, or other repurposed fibrous materials. To successfully recycle-textiles, the materials must be collected and sorted before being processed for reuse.
The complete clothing/textile recycling process can be summarized with the following steps:
Here’s a summary of the process used by martexfiber:
Here is another illustration of the process:
We are facing an unprecedented need for clothing recycling because of the global population increase and the rise of rapid consumption and fast fashion. These trends are causing more and more clothing items to be discarded. As an example, data from the United States EPA showed around 16 million tons of textile municipal solid waste was generated just in 2015. All of this waste ends up in landfills, where it can take many years to decompose and can release carbon dioxide and other harmful gases into the atmosphere. Other synthetic textiles do not decompose at all, releasing harmful chemicals into the soil and groundwater.
An open source solution for communities can assist in addressing this serious issue. Through more effective, environmentally-friendly solutions, we can reduce the amount of clothing that is going to waste and ending up in landfills. The more communities implement solutions, the more people can actively participate in recycling their clothing. People-driven solutions like this are globally applicable, cost-effective, and can be profitable too.
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Angela Mao: Sustainability Researcher
There are many, many options for recycling your clothing. To begin with, we’ll review existing options on both the individual and community level. Then, we will highlight strategies for starting your own textile recycling business in your local community. Strategies covered include clothing recycling strategies for large cities, suburban towns, rural areas, and more.
We discuss this with the following sections:
The first step in preventing large amounts of clothing from going to waste is to shop sustainably. There has been a rise in eco-friendly clothing that uses materials that are biodegradable or recycled. Materials like this reduce the volume of textiles going to landfills, textiles that can take a very long time to degrade.
There are websites that “grade” the sustainability of certain brands. They thoroughly research their sourcing, transparency, and business practices. Here are two reliable resources for your sustainable fashion research!
There are also many lists of sustainable brands online. Here are some of the best ones we found.
Here is a sample of some of the many, many sustainable brands that use recycled fabrics.
Large cities need to be able to provide a streamlined service for their many residents. Many big cities have the advantage of having large-scale recycling programs already in place, so adding a textile recycling portion is much easier. They also usually have access more to funding and labor. We’ll look at several examples of recycling programs in cities that are pretty effective already.
To illustrate how clothing recycling works in large cities, here are 3 big clothing recycling programs from New York City.
Another successful textile recycling program used in US towns and cities is Simple Recycling. Some of the Cities That Currently Partake in Simple Recycling are Stamford, Somerville, Medford, Cincinnati, and Durham. Read on to learn how it works.
Residents are provided with pink bags that they can fill with unwanted clothing, drapes, bedspreads, blankets, and other textiles. Shoes, sneakers, belts, handbags, and similar items are also accepted. Simply Recycling then collects them for free. When a bag is picked up, residents receive a replacement bag in exchange.
To maximize efficiency, the operation depends on electronic tablets equipped with GPS that Simple Recycling installed in eight city recycling trucks. When city drivers are out collecting recyclables from the green bins, they tap a button on the tablet each time they spot a pink bag. This sends GPS coordinates for that address to Simple Recycling. Drivers for Simple Recycling then pick up the bags at the identified addresses.
The pink bags are delivered to a facility Simple Recycling operates, where they are weighed and then trucked out to be sorted and sold to thrift stores for resale or companies that make rags or convert textiles into insulation, carpet padding, and other products. As part of the contract, Simple Recycling will pay the city one cent for each pound of material collected. As an indicator of the program’s success, the city of Cincinnati estimates this program is diverting at least 1,000 tons of material from landfills each year, which also results in an estimated $70,000 of revenue per year for the cit.
If your city doesn’t offer a general recycling plan, consider these small-scale options that any individual can use. These independent solutions can be effective for someone living in most any suburban or rural area.
Repurposing your old clothing is another great option. Old clothing can be used as rags around the house and even for compost if it is a biodegradable fabric. A stained, oversized shirt is handy when doing any sort of painting or other messy activities. If you own a sewing machine, you can create a variety of different items with something like an old t-shirt: tote bags, quilts, and blankets to sell on Etsy, a bag, or a stuffed animal, etc.
Here’s a list of some fun ideas!
Some companies will accept their clothing items back for recycling and even accept clothing from any brand. Here is a list of some of the biggest names.
Zara allows customers to drop off clothing that they no longer use in containers found in their stores. They deliver your items to a non-profit organization that manages the textiles and developed projects in the community (available at select stores).
Patagonia accepts its own clothing for recycling. After washing the items, you simply have to mail them to the Patagonia Service Center or drop them off at the Patagonia Retail Store or a participating Patagonia dealer.
H&M allows you to drop off a bag of unwanted clothing in the recycling box at your local H&M. All textiles are welcome (brand and condition do not matter) and are sent to the nearest recycling plant.
American Eagle is partnered with Cotton Inc.’s Blue Jeans Go Green program, so the jeans you drop off are converted into home insulation. Aerie also works with NGO “Free the Girls” to start a bra give-back program in all stores.
Levi’s is partnered with Cotton Inc.’s Blue Jeans Go Green Program, so you can drop off your jeans at any Levi’s store and they will recycle them for you.
The North Face’s Our Clothes the Loop program allows customers to drop off unwanted clothing and footwear at The North Face retail stores and outlet stores. They accept apparel and footwear under any condition and from any brand.
Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe Program allows you to drop off any brand of athletic sneakers at a participating Nike retail store in North America or Europe. They take these old athletic shoes, grind them up, and use them to create courts, fields, tracks, and playgrounds.
Vans has a program where customers can drop off old or unwearable shoes. These shoes are converted into park benches, phone cases, skateboard decks and more through a partnership with the recycling company TerraCycle.
Columbia has a ReThreads Program, which allows customers to bring in their used clothing and shoes in clean, dry conditions, at participating retail stores in the United States. The garments and footwear are sent to a textiles processing facility through I:CO
There are many textile recycling programs communities can partner with. These are medium-scale options, not meant for the individual person. Through research, Simple Recycling has been identified as one of the most reliable, popular, and affordable options.
Simple Recycling collaborates with various cities for their recycling program and handles all aspects of the program, including launch, collection, processing, and management. Simple Recycling trucks follow the existing trash or recycling collection schedule. The municipality will be compensated on a “per pound” basis for the material collected by Simple Recycling. Here’s a video illustrating the process:
We also found several other clothing recycling options, but we aren’t as confident about their reliability/availability due to lack of information and/or bad online ratings. You may want to Google them for your specific area though to see if they are available and, if they are, offer more area-specific reviews: Terracycle, I: CO City Program, Green City Recycler, Recycling Partnership, and American Textile Recycling Service
Here is a cost and labor comparison for all the options discussed on this page.
Now let’s explore starting your own clothing recycling business. This could be a great way to make money while also doing something good for the environment. The first thing you have to consider with a venture like this is how you are going to collect all of the clothing/fabric you need. For your local community and depending on size and density, there are several methods you can consider.
For collection, consider setting up bins in town centers or schools – any area that the people in your community tend to congregate is a great choice. If your area has low population density, consider driving around your town and asking for old clothing from your neighbors. Make sure that you make it clear what you plan to do with their old clothes.
The next step is to decide what to do with the clothing. First, separate the clothing by quality and fabric type. Separate clothes into resellable and non-resellable, and the non-resellable into organic fabrics and synthetic fabrics.
You now have several options. For high-quality clothing, consider either setting up a garage sale or driving to the nearest thrift store. For the clothing that is of lesser quality, consider repurposing. You can make creations for family, your community, or to sell on Etsy. Some potential creations include flower accessories, sleeping bags, quilts, stuffed animals, etc. Some especially creative ideas are to convert old socks into sock monkeys for children, create new scarves from old flannels, and/or turn your old button-ups into pillow covers. You can also compost organic cloth for your garden or use old pieces of fabric as rags, a great way to also avoid using so many paper towels! Even if the textile is stained or torn, it can be cut up into strips and used to stuff pillows or stuffed animals or provide insulation. If you want a more comprehensive list of project ideas, check out these articles and their ideas
If it is your own local “business”, you will not have the machinery to process synthetic fabrics that you haven’t repurposed. For whatever fabric is leftover you can research the closest large-scale textile recycling facility and drop it off.
If you are going to start your own clothing recycling business, here’s a list of important considerations:
Recycling is a growing industry and creating your own for-profit textile recycling program might be worth exploring. There are plenty of businesses out there to take inspiration from. Here are 3 successful examples:
USAgain is a for-profit company that collects discarded, used or unwanted clothing items through boxes located outside municipalities and schools. USAgain generates its profits by selling its collected items to wholesalers, resale shops, and companies that break down the materials to make other items such as car fibers and mattress padding. USAgain sells approximately 80 percent of its collections to resale stores and wholesalers, while about 20 percent is recycled into new materials.
Ecosmith Recyclers is a sustainable, family owned and operated, for-profit clothing and shoe recycling business. People place their unwanted clothing and textiles in Echosmith bins and their team members drive around and collect the recycled clothing. They then work with various groups to coordinate the sale and transport of the recycled clothing and shoes.
Chicago Textile Recycling provides textile recycling outlets and fundraising opportunities for area organizations, businesses, and municipalities. It is a family-run business in Hillside that sells items for reuse or to be recycled into new products.
Many situations benefit from different clothing recycling/repurposing options. We discuss here what we consider to be the best recycling/repurposing options for the three main living situations people find themselves in.
Many large cities already have some form of textile recycling in place. If you’re looking to recycle in a large city, you should have access to many thrift stores where you can donate clothing you have that is in good condition. You’ll also have access to stores like H&M where you can discard clothing that’s not in great shape. There are often also bins that nonprofits will place around the city. In a densely populated city like New York City, programs similar to refashionNYC seem to be conducive to the type of housing many city residents live in. Contact your local city government to see if such a program exists or if one could be implemented. Another popular option is the Simple Recycling Program, which could be fairly easily implemented in most large cities. Not only does it come at no cost for the citizens, but it also provides a convenient method for recycling.
There are many, many options for suburban towns to implement textile recycling initiatives. For town-wide recycling, Simple Recycling is definitely an option for medium-sized towns who already run regular trash pick up days. For the individual, there are plenty of options for textile recycling too. Thrift stores are the best first destination to drop off the unwanted items that are of the best quality, and thrift stores in suburban areas are probably also just a short drive away. Additionally, large textile recycling charities and organizations may have bins set up either in a suburb or another town close by. Large shopping malls often have stores like Zara and H&M that accept clothing to be recycled too.
A big issue with recycling services in small and rural towns is that they do not have the same volume of recovered material that big cities do, which make curbside programs less economically viable. Small towns also lack alternative service options if they lose a recycling contractor. Transportation costs are also substantially higher because the population is so spread-out, making curbside programs less feasible. If you live in a rural area, you can help address this by coming up with a feasible way to collect clothing. As mentioned earlier in the Starting a Clothing Recycling Business section, one person can make a difference by driving around and collecting old clothing for the entire community. After you collect the clothing, you can drop it all off at a thrift store or, if you would like to convert the operation into you own “recycling business”, you can engage in the process of sorting, selling, and repurposing the clothing.
Moving forward, One Community has developed a plan to recycle all textile and clothing items. The first step in our textile recycling operation will be to organize the clothing by quality and type. Durable clothing that is in good shape will be shared with other community members, donated to thrift stores, or possibly even sold. As for clothing that is unfit to be worn again, we will seek to repurpose it through composting (organic fibers only), arts and crafts, etc. or drop it off at select retail stores like the ones listed above. Repurposing will also be applied in the form of converting old socks into sock monkeys or other animals, creating scarves out of old flannels, and converting old t-shirts into quilts, bags, etc. DIY projects like these will be kept for the community or possibly offered for sale online through sites like Etsy.
One Community will open source here our complete process as we grow our community to 1000+ residents and host over 100,000 overnight visitations annually. Our goal in doing this is to provide an open source example for other communities/organizations that want to take textile recycling into their own hands, especially in situations where local recycling services aren’t available.
Here are the resources referenced above:
Here are some other resources we found useful:
One Community has invested extensive time and research into the best small and large-scale recycling, repurposing, and reuse options for clothing (and plastic, glass, polystyrene/styrofoam, paper, food and other perishable items, and even non-recyclables). Categorizing the clothes looks to be the easiest and most sustainable option. High-quality reusable clothing will be shared, donated, repurposed, or sold. Non-reusable clothing will be composted (if it isn’t synthetic fibers), used for rags, insulation, or handled as a non-recyclable. We will open source share here our group’s experience with all of this as part of the development of the Earthbag Village and Duplicable City Center. We will evolve this page with videos and other data from this process as we use what we learn to help us improve our recycling, repurposing, and reuse strategies as we build each of the next 6 sustainable village models and grow to a community of hundreds.
Q: How do I implement these recycling plans into my own city?
A lot of options for larger cities and suburbs were listed above. You should contact your local city leadership to see what is available and what they might be open to if you are looking to implement something citywide. Or could take the initiative yourself, ask your neighbors and community to pitch in by donating or recycling their clothing.
Q: My town doesn’t offer a municipal textile recycling program, what are the best options to recycle my old clothing?
Look for non-profits that might have bins in your areas, local thrift stores, and the other options that were listed above.
Q: How do I start my own clothing recycling business?
Check out the guide above!
Q: How do I make sure that my clothing is recycled properly and doesn’t just end up in landfills?
This will require you to do your own research, specific to where you live, and what method you wish to use. We suggest reading reviews of the organizations and see if there have been negative comments or articles about them online.
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