Q: How or where can I learn about recycling worn out clothing that is too old for Goodwill?
Just because that old shirt you used to love is too threadbare to wear anymore doesn’t mean it has to end up in a landfill. “Consumers don’t understand that there’s a place for their old clothing even if something is missing a button or torn,” says Jana Hawley, a professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Ninety-nine percent of used textiles are recyclable.”
Non-profits like Goodwill and the Salvation Army play a crucial role in recycling worn out clothing. When they get donations of clothes that are too threadbare to re-sell in one of their shops, they send them to “rag sorters” that specialize in recycling pieces of fabric large and small. Says Hawley, these textile recyclers sell about half the clothing they get back overseas in developing countries, while unusable garments, especially cotton t-shirts, are turned into wiping and polishing clothes used by a variety of industries and sold to consumers. She adds that other textiles are shredded into fibers used to make new products, such as sound-deadening materials for the automotive industry, archival-quality paper, blankets and even plastic fencing.
Outdoor clothing and gear maker Patagonia, which plies a strong environmental mandate in key aspects of its operations (from sourcing of raw materials to managing waste to making grants to environmental nonprofits), in 2005 launched its innovative Common Threads Garment Recycling program. The program was originally begun so customers could return their worn out Capilene long undies for recycling, but has expanded to taking back Patagonia fleece and cotton t-shirts as well as Polartec fleece from other manufacturers. Consumers wanting to unload items that meet the program’s criteria can do so at any Patagonia retail store or by mailing them into the company’s Reno, Nevada service center.
Of course, do-it-yourselfers handy with needle-and-thread or sewing machines can recycle worn out clothing into new creations such as quilts, handbags and smaller items. The website Expert Village, which claims to have the largest online collection of how-to videos, offers a free series called “How to Recycle Old Clothes into New Fashions.” Short step-by-step videos in the series cover such topics as transforming old garments into works of art; sewing patches, buttons and beads onto old clothes; deconstructing a wedding dress; ironing graphics onto old garments, and much more. Another good use for threadbare clothes (as well as sheets and towels) is pet bedding, whether in your own home or donated to a local animal shelter.
According to the non-profit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, textiles make up about four percent of the weight and eight percent of the volume of all municipal solid waste in the U.S. The commercial recycling company US Again – which runs private for-profit recycling services in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Louis and elsewhere – finds that some 85 percent of the 70 pounds of textiles the average American purchases each year ends up landfilled. That means the typical U.S. city with 50,000 residents has to pay (with local tax dollars) for the handling and disposal of some 3,000 tons of textiles every year. The shame of such waste is that textiles are so easy to recycle or otherwise find new uses for.