Cleanup Your Closet with Clothing Recycling 101

These days, we tend to wear an article of clothing a few times before banishing it to the back of the closet or throwing it away. According to the U.S. EPA, textile waste takes up approximately 5% of landfill space. In addition, the EPA estimates that 3.8 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste (PCTW) is recycled each year, which accounts for about 15% of all PCTW, and that means 85% ends up in landfills.

When you see the enormity of the numbers, it is easy to think the problem is unsolvable. However, big problems are often solved by the small actions of many. If you are looking to lessen your PCTW contribution to landfills, there are a few things you can do.

First, consider buying fewer clothes to begin with. The three Rs -- reduce, reuse, recycle – apply to clothing consumption as well. Especially when you realize how few clothes you really wear. And if you do have old clothes you don't wear anymore, sending them to the landfill should be the last option.

Although recycling used clothing is still in its infancy, almost 100% of clothing is recyclable, so there's no reason not to find ways to do so.

So, the next time you clean out your closet or decide to get rid of some of your used clothing, follow our clothing recycling 101 guide.

What to Can You Do with Your Old Clothes

Although it's easier to drag your bag of old clothes to the curb and put it into the trashcan, sorting through your clothes before you do that will make sure each piece goes to the right place to be reused or recycled. Some of your clothes may still be in good enough condition to sell, some you may want to donate, and the others you may want to recycle or throw away.

Here are some tips on how to figure out what goes in each pile:

What to sell or give away: if it has a tag, hasn't been worn, has been barely worn, is in good condition, and still in-style, you may be able to sell it online or in a consignment shop. Alternatively, you could give it to a friend or family member. When you send clothes to the secondhand platform ThredUP, they'll also recycle any items they don't resell.

What to donate: if you don't think it has resale value, consider donating it. Even if you are donating them, they still need to be in good condition and something you think people will wear. If they are ripped or unwearable, they will probably end up in landfills, as thrift stores and other donation sites don't have the capacity for clothing they can't resell or reuse. Here's an easy way to decide if you should donate or move on to recycle a piece of clothing: If you are getting rid of it because it's condition is so bad you can't wear it, then chances are no one else can or will want to either.

What to recycle: If the clothing is stained, tattered, and otherwise raggedy, it is past the donation phase. It may, however, be suitable for recycling. There are many recycling programs for clothing, and some of them will take shoes, purses, and accessories as well.

What to send to the landfill: If it is moldy or wet, it can't be recycled, so send it to the landfill.

How Are Clothes Recycled?

We're all used to curbside recycling that turns aluminum cans into new aluminum cans, glass bottles into new glass items, and plastic bottles and other plastics into new plastic items. Textile recycling is the process of taking old clothing and textiles and repurposing them into something else.

Recycled clothes rarely become new clothes but recycling them does keep them out of landfills. As clothing is broken down, their fibers become shorter, making it hard to turn them into another piece of clothing. They are usually "downcycled" into different items of lesser value, like rags, insulation, and mattress stuffing.

Not even 1% of textiles are recycled back into the fashion industry, and the majority of that 1% is scraps from factories. And a dismal 0.1% of clothes are upcycled or recycled after being worn.

Is Recycling Textiles Beneficial?

Recycling offers many environmental benefits, including repurposing materials into new items, reducing pollution, and reducing solid waste, especially in bigger cities. And recycling clothing keeps textiles out of landfills, which prevents the release of harmful gases into the water, soil, and air we breathe. It also keeps synthetic fibers that don't decompose and that emit toxic greenhouse gases out of landfills. By recycling textiles, you can help reduce the use of virgin fibers as well as reduce the consumption of water and energy.

Despite the benefits of textile recycling for the environment, it faces a number of challenges to become more commonplace.

Brands Begin to Step Up

To increase these recycling numbers, some brands are working on a circular model in which clothes can be broken down and turned into new clothes.

Although this is rare, some companies are attempting it at scale. Some companies take back their own clothing for recycling, and some retailers offer in-store recycling bins to collect clothing from any brand, which makes it easier to find ways to recycle clothing.

At Fair Harbor, we have a swimwear recycling program, the Round Trip Initiative, that lets you send in your old swimwear from any brand, and we'll recycle it and give it new life, thus closing its lifecycle loop.

In addition, an increasing number of brands are partnering with recycling companies to either recycle or downcycle used clothes. Some brands give their customers store credit if they bring in their old clothes to be recycled.

Brands are in the perfect position to offer incentives that encourage their customers to recycle, and they also have the logistical framework and marketplace to ensure items are recycled and not sent to landfills. Brands benefit by expressing their environmental values and, in many cases, attract more customers.

Some clothing recycling centers also operate collections sites in many major cities throughout the U.S. Once they receive used clothing, they decide whether it should be upcycled, recycled, downcycled, or thrown away.

Where Can I Recycle Clothing Near Me?

Recycling old clothes and textiles gives them at least one more useful life before they end up in a landfill. To do so, you can either return them to the store where you bought them, a store that collects clothing from any band or find a textile recycling drop-off center.

If you do a quick Google search, you can find a clothing or textile recycler near you and information about what they collect. They are often located outside shopping centers, weekly or monthly farmers markets, or in or near large apartment buildings. Some textile recyclers will pick up your old clothes and cart them away for a fee.

Recycling your old clothes is better for the environment than throwing them away, but it isn't a perfect solution, since used clothes generally can't be turned into new clothes. That is until technology catches up with consumer demand and develops better ways to recycle used fabrics.