So here’s the deal: the real answer on how to recycle clothes is to not do it at all.
Yes, I said it.
As many green, “eco”-branded websites tell you that recycling clothes through them is totally sustainable, the fact is it takes a ton of resources to recycle clothing – often putting a strain on countries outside of the global West for our convenience.
Just like recycling everything else, the true answer is clear: we’re consuming way too many items of clothing and the demand for recycled textiles simply doesn’t meet the supply.
That being said, once you get a handle on your consumption, there are great ways to give clothes you don’t want a new life.
What's in this post
- The problem with textile recycling
- How to recycle clothes, better: upcycle
- Donate old clothes in the right way
- How to recycle clothes, better: resell
The problem with textile recycling
Answering how to recycle clothes can’t come without a very hard look at our collective problem with clothes – and the massive issues that go along with textile recycling.
Sixty-three percent of textile fibres are derived from petrochemicals whose production and fate give rise to considerable carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The remaining 37% is dominated by cotton (24%), a thirsty plant associated with water depletion – the desiccation of the Aral Sea being the most infamous example – and toxic pollution, due to intensive use of pesticides.source with citations
Because clothing is so resource-intensive, our casual disdain for these items is truly an environmental disaster. Let’s talk more about why we shouldn’t recycle clothes before we talk about how to recycle clothes.
We consume too much
Did you know different forms of “how to recycle clothes” are searched tens of thousands of times each month online? Our desire to purge and buy over and over is too much for our relatively small textile recycling capacities.
As one report notes,
When it comes to disposing of clothing, current technologies cannot reliably turn unwanted apparel into fibers that could be used to make new goods. Recycling methods such as shredding or chemical digestion work poorly. And there are not markets large enough to absorb the volume of material that would come from recycling clothes. As a result, for every 5 garments produced, the equivalent of 3 end up in a landfill or incinerated each year.source
There is simply not a demand for as much textile as we’d like to get rid of. And no wonder, when “more than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year” and “Globally, customers miss out on USD 460 billion of value each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear,9 and some garments are estimated to be discarded after just seven to ten wears” (source).
We’re addicted to consumption and there’s simply no global demand for the amount of recycled textile we could produce.
What happens when the supply vastly outpaces demand? Our “recycled clothes” end up in the landfill. Because…
Many recycling box schemes are more like scams
Likely if you’ve tried to figure out how to recycle clothes before, you’ve heard “take it to H&M!” or “drop it in a recycling box!”. Not so fast – there’s a lot going on behind the scenes of these boxes that’s not so great.
And behemoth fast fashion companies that are quite literally creating the problem, admit it:
Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager, Henrik Lampa… And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.source
None of these fast fashion chains have the ability to radically innovate what is a fundamentally broken system, no matter how much marketing money they throw at it.
And I’m sorry, but if H&M and other large clothing companies were really worried about the environment and textile waste, they’d pay their workers appropriately and spend money on making clothes that would last more than just a wash or two.
Reminder: the climate crisis and social justice are inextricably linked. Companies like H&M where not one single factory worker earned a living wage in 2018… will never be the answer to any sustainability problems. Never.
And even if an organization is trying its best to do right by the clothes you drop off (which, let’s be honest, it probably isn’t), the truth is…
Trash doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else
When we talk about how to recycle clothes, it usually ends up as a “toss it in a box and then – poof – problem solved” kind of discussion. But just because we in the US and EU are able to put those clothes out of mind, old clothing doesn’t just disappear into a black hole when you toss them in a bin.
The clothes are often sent away to massive second-hand markets in developing countries where they may get recycled or resold, but more likely they’ll end up choking local landfills and green spaces.
A significant percentage of the clothing sent to the main market, Kantamanto — one of the largest second-hand clothing markets in the world — is unsaleable. And without the systems in place to recycle it, around 40 per cent of the used clothes imported into the country ends up rotting in landfill sites. More than 50 tonnes a day are being discarded, and many items are being dumped on wasteland and beaches and then finding their way into the sea.source
Knowing that the answer of how to recycle clothes is more nuanced than we though… what can we do instead?
How to recycle clothes, better: upcycle
Rather than embrace the “out of sight, out of mind” concept that leads to massive piles of clothing in the landfill, take ownership of your old clothes and get creative.
Textile and fabric are infinitely useful – let’s explore how we can reuse them. (And remember: the less you buy, the less creative you have to get with all of your leftover fabric.)
Practical uses for old clothes
- Cut them into rags. So simple but so often overlooked. When you get rid of paper towels, you’ll need to replace them with something, right? Old t-shirts or ratty old sweatshirts are great since they don’t fray when you cut them. Just cut them into the size towel you prefer and get to cleaning.
- Make a new tote bag. I’ve taught this workshop several times and it never fails to impress! Recycle old t-shirts by turning them into a tote bag you can bring to the store with you. T-shirt tote bag instructions here.
Crafts with old clothes
Sure there are a million tutorials on how to make things from old clothes on the internet but y’all… here are a few that are actually useful and not just junk to clutter up your house!
- Scrunchies! If you’ve got basic sewing ability and the desire to emulate either your ’90s self or a Gen Z kid, take your old fabric and a bit of elastic and turn it into a cute scrunchie.
- Make a rug or blanket from t-shirt yarn. If you have a lot of t-shirts – or can store some crafting material over time – yarn from old t-shirts is a great idea! Someone even commented on a Pinterest pin I put up and said that her father had recently passed and she was making a blanket out of all of his old t-shirts they couldn’t bear to get rid of. So lovely! Here’s how to make t-shirt yarn.
- Stuffed pillow or pet bed. If you have lots of mismatched fabric you don’t know what to do with, why not recycle clothes by chopping them into small pieces and using it as stuffing. There are plenty of resources on the internet for making an old fabric stuffed dog bed or pillow!
- Hanging plant holder. OK, this idea is lovely and I’m off to try it with one of my partner’s oldest, holiest shirts. It looks just like a macrame hanging plant holder but not so freaking expensive!
Other ways to say goodbye
- Compost old clothes. If your clothes are made out of 100% organic materials, tear them up into small pieces and toss them onto your compost pile. Only do this after you’ve given it another life or two, though!
Donate old clothes in the right way
This does not mean tossing all your old clothing into a box and dropping it off at your closest Goodwill. The truth is those thrift stores are overwhelmed with old clothing and many donated items often just go to waste. It’s difficult to find accurate
Remember: often what’s most convenient for you is the least convenient for the planet. Get ready to put in some sweat equity when it comes to finding places to donate your clothing.
When we talk about how to recycle clothes, it’s important to – whenever possible – let them go in a way that makes it less likely they’ll end up in a landfill.
The key to donating old clothing in a way that ensures it won’t end up in the trash is by finding a willing participant for each item. Don’t leave the work of finding a good home to someone else – do it yourself.
Places to donate old clothes
- Local free sites. Try sites like Freecycle, Craigslist, or a Facebook group where people give and take free stuff. I find it especially helpful to list things in “lots”. People will rarely come to your house for one pair of jeans, but they will come to your house for a box of “casual and workwear clothes L/XL”! This is a great way to find people who will actually use the clothes.
- Women’s or homeless shelters. Be sure to call ahead, though. Many places are inundated with old clothes and they often don’t have the capacity to hold all of them. Look for specific needs they have – like small women’s clothing or kids 3T. The more specific the ask, the more likely there’s an actual person who needs those items.
- Local schools. Many schools have a small closet in the front office for kids who need a change of clothes. If your local schools don’t do this, maybe suggest they start of hand clothes off to a teacher who might be able to use it in their classroom.
- Dress for Success. If you have gently-used business-style clothing, this is a great national organization that helps women achieve economic independence by helping them get ready for interviews with appropriate clothing.
Find out more about mindful decluttering in this post.
How to recycle clothes, better: resell
For the times when you’re just sick of your clothes (which, maybe just keep wearing them a little longer?)…
If your clothes are in OK condition, the question of “how to recycle clothes” might become “how can I make a little extra money?”.
Where to resell your old clothes
- Host a garage sale. For when you’re just ready to get stuff out of the house at bargain bin prices, host a garage sale! Spend a nice day outside getting to know your neighbors, building community, and maybe making a couple bucks and getting rid of your stuff if you’re lucky!
- Facebook marketplace. I’ve found some excellent treasures on Facebook marketplace. It’s a great spot to list stuff when you’re not interested in shipping since you can target it by local markets. Highly recommend for things you could make a few dollars off of.
- eBay. I feel like eBay doesn’t get enough love anymore, but it’s still out there doing its thing! I generally find eBay useful if I have something somewhat pricey, otherwise it’s usually not worth the hassle.
- Poshmark. For the slightly higher-end items you have that might actually make you a bit of money, consider sending your items to Poshmark to list and resell.
- ThredUp. For a slew of items still in good condition but just not right for you, ThredUp will send you a free clean out bag that you can fill with clothes and send out. You’ll either get store credit or cold, hard cash for the items you send back.
No matter how you decide to answer the question of how to recycle clothes, make sure you’re doing it mindfully and not just dropping it into a recycling box, assuming it’ll all be fine.
Just like any other aspect of living a zero waste lifestyle, a few minutes of sacrificed convenience can mean a world of difference to the planet.