The value lurking in your old clothes

Textile recycling triangle. Recycle old fabricWhat do you do with clothing you no longer wear? I hope you donate old clothes to charity. Or perhaps to a clothes recycling business.

What do you do with clothing no longer fit to wear? You can donate that, too!

Too many Americans take the easy way out and simply put unwanted clothes out at the curb. We only donate about 15% of them.

The EPA estimates that Americans discard 2.5 billion pounds of used clothing in the trash every year. It takes up 8% of landfill space.

Poor people who can’t afford to buy new clothes can wear your castoffs. Donating them also creates good jobs, not only in the US, but overseas as well. Recycling old clothes and shoes is so easy.

Recycling used clothes

Goodwill clothing dropoff bin. Recycle old clothingTechnically, donating clothes and shoes for others to wear is not recycling. It’s giving someone else a chance to reuse them.

Reuse outranks recycling in the 3Rs of sustainability (reduce, reuse, recycle). But no one talks about or looks for clothes reuse.

Also, no one wears bedding or towels, but who would exclude them from the idea of clothes recycling? By whatever name, we need to eliminate clothing waste—keep old textiles and shoes out of the landfill entirely.

Numerous well-known charities solicit donations of used clothes, shoes,  and other goods for their thrift stores. These include Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Society of St. Vincent DePaul. Plenty of smaller organizations also operate thrift stores.

Unfortunately, a study by Goodwill Industries has found that Americans will not donate to a thrift store if it means driving ten minutes out of the way.

Several commercial businesses have sprung up to increase donations. They put up collection bins in parking lots. People can conveniently donate old clothes to charity in places they go for other purposes. Look below this post at the list of sources for a sample of clothes recycling businesses.

Some municipalities have started recycling programs for clothes, too.

In no way do commercial business or municipal programs compete with charities. Americans produce more than enough clothing waste and old textiles for every organization that wants it.

What happens to old clothes?

When you see a clothing recycling bin, it might be operated by a charity, a clothes recycling business, or a municipality. Some might limit what they’ll accept to “gently used” clothes someone else can use. Some don’t.

They all want donations to be clean. Launder it one last time.

The process once you drop off your contribution is similar no matter what kind of organization owns the bin. It may do some sorting to select what to sell in its associated thrift ship, if any. It may give some of the donations to local causes like winter coat drives for the homeless.

Much of the contents, however, simply gets baled and sent to a grading company that will sort wearable clothing from unwearable. They will sell good-quality clothing. Most of it goes overseas.

Why not just donate that clothing?

Because selling by the bale it creates jobs and businesses in developing companies. The grader has already ensured that everything is in good condition. A local small business (possibly one individual or family) will buy however many bales it can handle. It will sort it out and assign prices to it. Free clothing in the marketplace would undermine local employment.

Textile recycling: when it’s too tattered to wear

How much of our clothing donations can someone else eventually wear? About 45-50%. The rest must be recycled, in the sense of making it into a different product.

You know you can use that ratty old t-shirt as a rag, but you can only use so many rags. Industry, on the other hand, needs a constant supply of rags or absorbents. It receives about 20-30% of donated clothing for those purposes.

Nearly all the rest gets broken down into individual fibers. Some old textiles can be used to make new fabric, and therefore perhaps new clothes. Or fabric for upholstery. Most reclaimed fiber becomes part of a completely different product, including:

  • Insulation
  • Playground chips
  • Stuffing for pillows, toys, or animal beds

So recycle your clothes with holes. Recycle stained clothing. Recycle damaged clothing and old textiles in general. Remember, a grading company will separate all of it from wearable clothing. It won’t go to the landfill. And lots of people will benefit.

American Textile Recycling Service
Council for Textile Recycling
Gemtext FAQ
Good natured: recycling those old, worn out clothes / Pam Otto, Kane County Chronicle, January 8, 2017
Planet Aid
Recycling and the hidden cost of cheap clothing / this blog. August 1, 2013

Photo credits:
Textile recycling triangle. Some rights reserved by miltedflower.
Goodwill clothing drop-off box. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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