Clothing, such as old employee uniforms, overalls, or outdated promotional T-shirts all need to go somewhere after they are no longer needed. How should you reuse, recycle, or properly dispose of clothing and other textiles?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 17 million tons of textiles were generated in 2018, and not all of it was for clothing. Per the EPA, “Smaller sources include furniture, carpets, tires, footwear, and other nondurable goods such as sheets and towels.”

Donating clothing, sheets and towels to secondhand stores is a great way to keep these items out of landfills, but unfortunately, many of them don’t end up on store shelves. The Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles international trade association reports that 85% of clothing and textiles end up in a landfill, even though 95% can be reused and recycled.

This guide to textile recycling will cover garment materials, textile recycling methods, and the benefits of recycling textiles.

The Negative Effects of Textile Manufacturing and Waste

Today’s clothes are made from a number of different materials including cotton, leather, linen, and even plastic. The UN Environment Programme estimates that approximately 60% of all clothing contains some form of plastic such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, polypropylene, and elastane. This plastic is derived from fossil fuel sources, the same sources that create plastic bottles and gas for cars.

While these fabrics are lightweight, durable, and easy to access, they also shed billions of microfibers each year. Microfibers are a form of microplastic—tiny pieces up to five millimeters in size. There have been many recent studies regarding the harmful effects of microplastics on the environment, animals, and even our own bodies. In addition, plastics used in clothing can leach chemicals into the ground and air and cause fires to break out at landfills.

Another common fabric is cotton. Cotton has been around for millions of years, and 27 million tons of cotton is produced globally each year.

Textile Recycling Barriers and Solutions

In addition to mitigating the negative environmental effects of disposal, textile recycling could be a potential economic boon as the US spends a lot of money to collect and dispose of textile waste. Green America reports “It typically costs $45 per ton to dispose of textiles, equaling hundreds of millions of dollars per year, showing a clear economic case to reduce waste.”

Despite its apparent benefits, textile recycling has yet to fully take off for a number of reasons. Textiles are considered difficult to manage because of the high volume, material complexity, and lack of innovative material recovery opportunities. Many garments are made from multiple types of textiles, which make them more difficult to recycle.

How to Recycle Textiles

In most circumstances, clothing cannot be recycled curbside. Luckily, unless your clothing is worn out or there is another reason why it shouldn’t be worn again as-is, clothing can be easily donated to help those in need.

Clothing should be washed before it is donated. While some donation centers have the resources, space, and equipment available to wash donated clothing before it is given to those in need or put out for sale in an affiliated thrift store, many do not, and can often not accept unwashed clothing due to hygiene restrictions.

If your business has uniforms, overalls, or outdated promotional T-shirts that you don’t want to be worn by people who don’t work at your company, search online for a clothing/textile recycling program in your local area that will break down and recycle your clothing to turn it into rags, insulation, and other lower-grade fiber products.

Textile recycling may be the common term, but most textile waste is simply reused or refabricated for a different purpose. This is the most common path for textiles after donation:

  1. Consumer drops off textiles at their local thrift store. These stores are inundated with material, most of which is unfit to sell due to the nature of creation: cheap material and bad assembly techniques. Less than 20% ends up on stores shelves; some bags aren’t even opened.
  2. Discarded material is sold for pennies on the pound to the collector/sorter/grader/exporter where it is hand sorted into different categories including reuse, industrial rags, stuffing, and waste. This material is commonly destined for international markets.
  3. Textiles that are reused are typically not recycled in the traditional sense of the word. Clothes are classified into three groups: reuse, rags, and fiber. Natural textiles that are identified for recycling are sorted by color and material. By segregating colors, the need for re-dying can be eliminated, which reduces the need for polluting chemicals. Textiles are pulled into fibers or shredded and the yarn is cleaned and spun. Not all fibers will be spun—some are compressed to be used for fillings, such as in mattresses.

Tips for Reducing Textile Waste

The number one tip we can give you to help you reduce your textile waste is to reduce the amount of textiles you buy in the first place, and to buy secondhand whenever possible.

Don’t buy into “micro-seasons” and fast fashion trends. Buy timeless pieces that will last a lifetime. Care for your clothes and linens. Learn how to mend or take your garments to a tailor. Wash clothes and linens on their recommended setting or dry clean when necessary.

And don’t forget to donate your clothes and linens after use!

Reusing or recycling textiles is a great example of the economic benefits of the circular economy. To learn more about how Rubicon can help your business improve your waste management processes, reach out to our Technical Advisory Services (TAS) team today.

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