Each year, Americans discard millions of tons of textiles, which takes up room in landfills. Worse, many fabrics release methane, dyes, and chemicals into the environment as they decompose.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Sort Clothing According to Quality
- Step 2: Repurpose and Recycle at Home
- Step 3: Find the Right Place to Take Clothing
- Step 4: Learn More About Textile Recycling
Ugh — it gets worse. All of this, in turn, pollutes the air and contaminates groundwater and soil. It’s evident that the fashion industry and consumers both need to do better. Fortunately, some people and organizations have started leading the way, and recyclable fabric is one solution! Learn more about how you can help reduce textile waste.
Step 1: Sort Clothing According to Quality
If you’re cleaning out your own closet or even cleaning out your elderly parent's house, you may want to take clothes in wearable condition to a local thrift store. That’s its own kind of fabric recycling. Your unneeded clothes can find new life in someone else’s closet.
Items that are high-end or in pristine condition could even make you a little money. Take these much nicer items to a consignment shop or sell them online.
You may have other types of items around your home that are also appropriate for donation — sheets, bedding, rugs, or towels. As long as they’re in good condition, these items are appropriate for donation, too. Old towels and blankets are often welcome at animal shelters. Call your local shelter to see if there’s a need for them.
Some items aren’t fit for donation. Clothing and other textiles that are dirty, stained, or full of holes aren’t eligible for thrift store donation. Set them to the side for now. We’ll explore some options for these types of items next.
Step 2: Repurpose and Recycle at Home
Fabric items that aren’t fit to go to the thrift store may find a new purpose in your home. Threadbare dress shirts can get cut up and used as cleaning rags. Pull the buttons off of them and keep them in a sewing box to repair other shirts.
You can also use your old textiles in craft projects. Make a quilt out (or a memorial quilt) of your old T-shirts. Did you inherit a house full of stuff? Take the stuffing out of old, damaged stuffed animals and use it to make pillows. (As you can see, it’s all about flexing your creative muscles.) Here are some other projects you can make from repurposed textiles:
- Monogrammed fabric pencil or makeup cases from patterned fabric and canvas
- Patterned fabric bookmarks
- Accent pillow with 3D fabric flower
- Simple glasses case
- Decorative Mason jar covers
- Stylish fabric wrist cuff with button clasp
- Decorative headbands and bobby pins
The sky’s the limit on crafty DIY projects you can make. The only boundary is your imagination.
Step 3: Find the Right Place to Take Clothing
Because textile recycling is fairly new, it isn’t always readily accessible to everyone. Some cities offer clothing and textile recycling as part of their overall recycling programs.
However, that practice isn’t as widespread as it could be. Thankfully, some companies are stepping up to fill that void. Here are a few.
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Since 2016, FABSCRAP has had a huge impact in New York City. New York is home to a plethora of designers and fashion houses which often end up with leftover fabric. FABSCRAP collects all manner of textiles from design studios and sorts through it at its Brooklyn warehouse:
- Fabric scraps
- Discarded and unwearable garments
- Bolts of fabric from discontinued lines
- Garment prototypes
- Outdated seasonal fabrics
Flexibility is key in the textile recycling industry. FABSCRAP uses the materials it collects in a bunch of ways. Scraps and discarded garments are often shredded so they can be reused as eco-friendly stuffing or insulation. Larger fabric quantities are often resold to fashion students to use in their own designs. FabScrap takes in over 6,000 pounds of textiles per week.
Unlike many recycling plants, there is no automated process in place at FabScrap. The European Union has made efforts to scan fibers using spectroscopic techniques. Since that technology is still limited, FabScrap relies on volunteers to be able to identify different types of fabric. Fabrics like wool, cotton, and polyester can be broken down and transformed into entirely new fibers. Others, like spandex and Lycra, cannot.
Many of FabScrap’s volunteers are fashion students. They can leverage volunteerism and also get first dibs on designer fabrics. They even get to keep up to five pounds of fabric per volunteer shift.
Right now, FABSCRAP is only located in New York City but has plans to expand to the West Coast as early as this year. You can support FABSCRAP’s mission if you’re a designer or crafter and take advantage of its online store. Get scrap packs, yarn packs, leather, buttons, trim, and more.
Proceeds go toward expanding its base of operations. You’ll become an integral part of the recycling process when you reuse these fabrics.
Don’t have any need for fabric scraps? You can still be part of the textile recycling process. You can do this by donating your own clothing. The company I:CO (short for I:Collect) makes it easier for people all over the world to recycle unwanted or unneeded clothing. I:CO has partnered with over 40 retailers around the world, including:
- American Eagle Outfitters
- Kenneth Cole
Shoppers can bring in old clothes and turn them into an I:CO bin in any partner store. Those stores can give shoppers a coupon they can use to purchase new clothing. I:CO has only been established since 2009 but it already collects and processes shoes and clothing in over 60 countries. I:CO is a global innovator in the field of textile recycling.
FABSCRAP targets the fashion industry and I:CO partners with retailers. But there are other smaller-scale organizations you can support:
- The American Textile Recycling Service is the fastest-growing donation bin operator in the United States. You can find thousands of bins placed in neighborhoods throughout the country. Individuals can easily drop off clothing and other textiles. More than 278,000,000 pounds of textiles have been kept out of landfills.
- Terracycle allows you to send in a box with all of your unusable clothing and textiles. There are costs associated with sending in materials so it might not be a feasible option for everyone.
- Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe Program grinds up old donated shoes. Ground-up shoes are then used to create playgrounds, tracks, and sports courts.
Step 4: Learn More About Textile Recycling
Businesses can have an even greater impact on textile recycling than individuals at every level in the fashion industry.
Unfortunately, not all businesses are willing to take on this kind of initiative without a little pressure. For example, in July 2018, the high-end brand Burberry burned 28.6 million pounds of unsold clothing and cosmetics.
When criticized, the company defended itself as maintaining its “brand value.” Other high-end fashion brands do the same — they destroy unsold merchandise because they’d rather waste products than allow them to enter the discount or secondhand market.
Some organizations are committed to raising the profile of textile recycling. The U.S.-based nonprofit group Council for Textile Recycling is one of them. The organization isn’t personally involved in collecting fabric waste. Instead, it seeks to keep textile waste out of landfills by raising awareness. Its mission is to eliminate sending textile waste to landfills altogether by 2037.
The Council works with a variety of stakeholders — retailers, consumers, academics, and nonprofit recycling groups — to achieve this goal. Learn more about fabric recycling efforts in your area and spread the word.
Reduce Waste: Recycle Fabric Scraps and Textiles
End-of-life planning is undoubtedly important. But it’s also important to plan for the lives of your loved ones who will be around even after you’re gone. Recycling fabrics and textiles is one of the ways you can protect the environment for your children and grandchildren for years to come.
- Shen, Lily “Clothing and Textile Recycling in New York City.” Blogs.ei.columbia.edu, Columbia University Earth Institute, 6 June 2012, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/06/06/clothing-and-textile-recycling-in-new-york-city/.
- Choi-Schagrin, Winston “Can Recycled Rags Fix Fashion’s Waste Problem?” Nytimes.com, The New York Times, 21 December 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/21/fashion/fabscrap-fashion-waste-recycyling.html.
- Paton, Elizabeth “Burberry to Stop Burning Clothing and Other Goods It Can’t Sell.” Nytimes.com, The New York Times, 6 September 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/09/06/business/burberry-burning-unsold-stock.html.