Dear Sustainability Sam,
I have attended the last two textile waste-focused virtual events. I noticed that the most common question is “How do I recycle old clothing and textiles that can no longer be worn or used?” I am having a hard time understanding if there are any options at all for textile recycling. And, if not, what should I do with the clothing my kids have worn out?
Thank you for being mindful of the disposal of your kids clothes. The messaging on clothing and textile recycling can be confusing and options are very limited. As you know from attending our events, we are trying to shift the conversation from ‘what to do at the end of life of our clothing and textiles’ to ‘where and how we buy and use these textiles in the first place.’ That being said, there truly are times when clothing is just simply worn out.
At our virtual events, we covered that the City and Hennepin County have stopped collecting textiles for recycling due to market uncertainty. With the rise of fast, cheap fashion and home textiles, demand for lower quality used textiles has dropped, especially if torn or soiled. The company Hennepin County was contracting with for textile recycling could not guarantee that textiles were actually being recycled, and not just landfilled or burned, once they landed overseas. They also did not want to create competition for nonprofits who depend on second hand markets to generate revenue for programming. I recommend reading this MinnPost article from December 2019to learn more.
There are several reasons why it is hard to find options for textile recycling. I mentioned earlier that lower quality textiles—thinner, less durable fabrics, less natural fibers, more fabrics made up of mixed fibers—make recycling difficult. In addition, the sheer quantity of textile waste being generated in the U.S. is an issue. In a 2017 EPA report on solid waste and recycling, textile waste generated in the U.S. had grown 860% since 1960, most of which was landfilled, whereas the U.S. population only grew 80% during this same time(Source: U.S. Census Bureau).
Textile recycling is important, but current availability cannot keep up with current demand and consumption rates in the U.S. Reducing the amount of clothing and textiles we dispose of in the first place—buying less, buying second hand, buying quality items that can be repaired, borrowing or renting for special occasions—will help reduce our growing textile waste problem along with its carbon footprint and impact on climate change.
Here is a list of suggestions for what to do with worn out textiles and clothing:
- Can it be repaired? Zippers can be replaced, holes can be patched or darned, pilling can be removed, ripped seams and linings can be resewn. Consider attending our January 23 event, Clothing Repair: Diagnosing a Mend to learn more.
- Are you sure that stain can’t be removed? Perhaps give stain removal one more try. Search how to do it on YouTube or check out this local laundry expert, the Laundry Evangelist. He also teaches you how to care for your clothing properly so they last longer to begin with. He’ll be teaching us his tips and tricks at our February 24 event on Textile Care and Laundering.
- Can’t get the stain out? Try a decorative visible mending technique to create a design that covers the stain. Visible mending is a fun way to patch holes in clothing, too. Check out this The Spruce Crafts article or the book Mending Matters (available at the library) for ideas. You can also search the hashtag #visiblemending on Instagram for inspiration.
- Hang dry your laundry to extend the life of your clothing.
- Cut up and upcycle the usable parts of your worn out textiles.
- Learn how to make simple fabric gift bags.
- Cut into medium to large squares and use for furoshiki gift wrapping.
- Cut cotton clothing into small squares and use as “unpaper towels.”
- Use old holey socks for dusting and cleaning.
- Get crafty! Make doll clothes, hair scrunchies, face masks, pet bandanas, and more! The internet has a wealth of DIY and How To content.
- Did you know you can compost small squares of all natural fibers? Cut 100% natural fiber textile waste into 4” squares or smaller (remove or cut off any threads as thread is often synthetic) and discard with food waste in your curbside organics.
- Bag damaged clothing and textiles (no small scraps, damp or moldy items) in a separate bag and label the bag as ‘rags’ or ‘damaged textiles’ and bring with you the next time you drop off donations at Arc’s Value Village or Goodwill.
- Look into paid textile recycling options, such as For Days. For $10, they will send you a Take Back Bag for you to ship your textile recycling to them in. We did reach out to them and they claim to repurpose all the items into new fibers (as opposed to dumping in developing countries).
Thank you for being thoughtful about the clothing and textiles you no longer need and for looking for an option other than just throwing them away. I hope you will join us for the rest of our Tangletown Textile Reduce & Reuse Events for more great textile care, reuse, repair, donation, and upcycling resources!