Circular Economy

Here's how textile recycling can create jobs and reduce pollution

Textile recycling can help to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry.

Textile recycling can help to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Image: Unsplash/Francois Le Nguyen

Linnea Harris
Reporter, EcoWatch
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Circular Economy

  • Globally, 92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced each year.
  • Nearly all clothing, shoes and other fabrics can be recycled in textile recycling operations.
  • Textile recycling can help reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry.

Have you ever found yourself with a bunch of fabric — maybe old clothes, rags, socks, or tablecloths — that you just can’t find a use for, and don’t quite know what to do with? Well, don’t throw it in the trash, since 95% of all clothing, shoes, and other fabrics can be recycled in a textile recycling operation.

A textile recycling and sorting center in Belgium.
A textile recycling and sorting center in Belgium. Image: ERIC LALMAND / BELGA MAG / AFP via Getty Images

Why is textile recycling important?

Globally, 92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced each year. Imagine: that’s a garbage truck’s-worth of textiles being thrown away every second. Americans alone throw away about 70 pounds of textiles each year, amounting to 17 million tons of annual waste, only 2.5 tons of which is recycled.

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Textile waste isn’t just a matter of landfill space, but of social and environmental justice. With the rise of fast fashion in recent decades, clothing goes in and out of style faster than ever. Garments are made cheaply and quickly — often by exploited laborers — and their poor quality means they won’t last long, either. In all, consumers buy about 60% more clothes than they did 15 years ago, and they’re only kept for half as long. Even when clothes are returned to retailers, they end up in landfills most of the time, since it’s less expensive than putting them back into circulation. Fast fashion alone is responsible for about 10% of all global carbon emissions, which is more than the emissions of all international flights and shipping combined. Furthermore, dying fabrics accounts for 20% of all water pollution. With so much fabric being produced, textile recycling can help give a piece of fabric — clothing or not — another life, and limit new fabrics from being produced.

Women search for used clothes amid tons discarded in the Atacama desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile.
Women search for used clothes amid tons discarded in the Atacama desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile. Image: MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP via Getty Images

What about donating?

Donating is certainly a viable option for suitable clothing that is still usable in its current form. However, clothing donation isn’t a silver bullet for our textile waste problem. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, charities that receive clothing donations will often ship a high percentage of it overseas. About 700,000 tons of used clothing gets shipped to other countries each year, and while these resources can be useful, there is also evidence that it harms local economies. For example, an imported secondhand clothing item can cost as much as 95% less than a clothing item produced in Kenya, which makes it hard for local businesses to compete. Goodwill, for one, is only able to sell about 30% of clothing donated in their thrift stores and through e-commerce. The remainder is sent to outlets, then sold in bulk, where a percentage is exported. Clothing that is unsuitable for wearing is also unsellable, but it might be recyclable.

How does textile recycling work?

When brought to a fabric recycler, individual textile items will be evaluated for their usefulness. Sometimes, they will be sold as clothing, or sold to be manufactured into other products. According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) Association, recycled fabrics are often used to make rags/wiping cloths that are needed in many industries, like construction, manufacturing, and custodial work. Or, the fabric is sold to recycling facilities to be dismantled.

Recycled fabrics at Fabscrap’s warehouse in New York. The company provides pickup of fabric scraps from commercial businesses, including fashion brands, interior designers, cutting rooms, tailors, costume and set designers, and schools.
Recycled fabrics at Fabscrap’s warehouse in New York. The company provides pickup of fabric scraps from commercial businesses, including fashion brands, interior designers, cutting rooms, tailors, costume and set designers, and schools. Image: DON EMMERT / AFP via Getty Images

Different mechanical processes are used to recycle different kinds of fabric — especially natural vs. synthetic fabrics — so textiles are sorted by type (clothing, towels, etc.), type of fabric, and color. After being sorted, the fabrics are ready to be disassembled in one of two ways: mechanically or chemically. Since chemical processing is still an emerging and expensive method, mechanical processing is the primary mode of recycling.

During mechanical processing, fabric is either shredded or pulled apart into its individual fibers — this works especially well for cotton and yarn. The machines tear at the fabric to break it down into its component fibers, which are then aligned in a process called “carding” to get them ready for reweaving. The fibers are respun into yarn that can be knitted or woven into new items. When a piece of fabric cannot be respun, it usually becomes filling, or “shoddy,” a product made from low-quality fabrics that’s used as insulation. This process doesn’t require any chemicals, which makes it advantageous, but shredding does impact the quality of the yarn as the fibers get shorter, which makes it harder to make high-quality garments. When respinning, virgin material is usually added to create a more high-quality fabric than if only the recycled fibers were used.

Ecologic yarns made of used clothes, at the Ecotex factory in Santiago, Chile.
Ecologic yarns made of used clothes, at the Ecotex factory in Santiago, Chile. Image: MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP via Getty Images

Check the tags of your clothing, and you’ll probably see some that indicate that the garment was made with recycled polyester. Believe it or not, that likely means it was made from plastic water bottles. Synthetic fabrics that use polyester usually use blends of various materials, which makes them more difficult to recycle — so 95% of recycled polyester actually comes from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. These bottles are sorted, shredded into flakes, cleaned, then melted to make new polyester fibers.

Have you read?

How do you recycle your own fabric?

Now, what about that pile of old fabric you need to get rid of?

First, check the condition of the items. In order to be recycled, they need to be completely clean and dry. Bacteria and moisture can contaminate an entire batch of recycling, leading to the entire bale being thrown away.

There are a few options for recycling your unwanted fabric:

1. Drop-off bins. Research recycling drop-offs in your area. Use Earth911’s free recycling finder to find nearby places to bring your items. These locations will usually be drop-off bins run by fabric recycling organizations, although sometimes they’ll feature local charities.

2. Local charities. Some charities will accept textile recycling, which they’ll then sell to generate revenue for their organization. Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other secondhand retailers will take suitable clothing to sell in their retail stores, but not usually other textiles.

3. Private companies. Just like compost-collection services, private companies will come collect your textile waste for a fee, like CheckSammy and Retold. Always be sure to research a company before using their services to determine whether their recycling methods are legitimate. Some clothing companies will also offer to take your old clothing for free to be recycled, like Patagonia, Pact, and Girlfriend Collective, among many others.

4. Special events. Sustainability fairs, farmers markets, and city-run events might sponsor occasional free textile recycling drop-offs. Green Tree Textiles Recycling, for example, has booths at all of the New York City Down to Earth Farmers Markets to collect textile recycling.

Clothes recycling containers in Queens, New York City.
Clothes recycling containers in Queens, New York City. Image: Zoran Milich / Getty Images

What are the difficulties with textile recycling?

Textile recycling isn’t perfect. Recycling technologies require consistent materials to work, and clothing products are variable. Dyes, finishes, and other chemicals require more steps and specialized processes, and impurities like buttons, zippers, and sequins need to be removed. Some garments also contain multiple different fabrics that need to be processed differently. The quality of fabric does suffer when disassembled, so virgin material usually needs to be incorporated into recycled products in order to make a high-quality garment. However, sometimes lower quality fabrics are “downcycled” and employed for other uses, like mattress stuffing.

Emerging technologies in textile recycling

Emerging technological solutions could make textile recycling more efficient and comprehensive. Re-polymerization — a type of chemical recycling — can break polyethylene terephthalate (PET) down to the molecular level, which is then “polymerized” to make new fibers. BlockTexx is also developing new technology to recycle blended fabrics made with a mixture of natural and synthetic fiber, which is notoriously difficult to recycle.

Le Relais textile recycling center in Bordeaux, western France is a worker cooperative dedicated to collection, re-employment and recycling of textiles.
Le Relais textile recycling center in Bordeaux, western France is a worker cooperative dedicated to collection, re-employment and recycling of textiles. Image: GEORGES GOBET / AFP via Getty Images
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Circular EconomyFuture of WorkEmerging TechnologiesFuture of the Environment
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