Just 15% of textiles are recycled in the US, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency — but this post will share plenty of resources for where to recycle old clothes (and other textiles too!) so that we can transform this statistic.
The Textile Waste Problem
The thing is that to many, tossing out an old shirt or pair of underwear may seem insignificant, but the collective impact is massive. In fact, the EPA estimated that 11.3 million tons of textiles were discarded in 2018, making up nearly 8% of all municipal solid waste in the United States.
And the problem isn’t just in the U.S. either — one study found that the average Briton throws away about 3.1kg of textiles every single year.
Globally, a garbage truck’s worth of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every single second.
Textile waste is a massive problem.
What Can We Do?
Well, we’re going to get to recycling options in a bit, but first let’s talk about what to do before turning to recycling.
The first “R” to implement before recycling is reducing. That means purchasing fewer things in the first place — because the less we have in our closets, the less we’ll have to declutter or re-home.
[Related Read: What is Slow Fashion? Plus, How You Can Join the Movement]
When you do decide to invest in something new to you, consider shopping secondhand first. This will make use of what has already been produced, reducing what ends up in the landfill while also decreasing the demand for new production.
But okay, sometimes you already have clothing in your closet that you need to find a new home for now. Let’s talk about some options for this.
If your clothing is in great condition, but you just don’t like the style anymore or its the wrong size (and beyond being fixable) try selling your clothing through a local consignment shop or one of these online secondhand sites.
Some conscious fashion brands are even offering take-back and resell programs where you can sell or trade in your preowned garments and accessories from that brand!
Or consider swapping the garment on a site like Swap Society. You could also swap them with a family member or friend, or gift it as a “hand-me-over” to a sibling or cousin.
If you happen to have some designer pieces, you could also rent them out for extra cash! Joining community rental platforms like By Rotation, HURR, and Tulerie make this simple.
You might be asking: what about donating them to local chairty shops? Well, due to the declining quality and increasing quantity of discarded clothing, these shops typically only sell 10-20% of donated items on average. (Source) This means that the rest go to rag graders or brokers and much of it is sent to countries in the Global South.
Moral of the story: It’s just as important to look into where our clothing is coming from before we buy, we also must ask questions about where our clothing is going when it leaves our closets.
Alright, now let’s move on to damaged clothing. What could we do with clothes that lead a little love and care?
If your garment has a simple issue with it and you have a bit of free time, see if you can learn a few skills and mend or repair it.
If it’s a more significant issue or you don’t have time to repair the piece, you could take it to a professional tailor or seamster.
Don’t know of any in your area? Maybe you could try a mending & repair app.
When none of the above options work, recycling can be a last resort option. But here are some things to keep in mind:
Considerations Before Recycling Old Clothing
1) Look at WHERE the recycled garments are going.
A lot of “recycled” clothing is actually being dumped on countries in the Global South as part of the unjust secondhand clothing trade. So before sending in your clothing, do a little research and perhaps contact the organization to see how they handle those recycled clothes.
(I’d suggest doing research as well, even if you do get a response from the organization as the customer service representatives may not always have full transparency into the process either.
2) Avoid fast fashion take-back programs.
Related to the first point, the information about where these fast fashion brands are sending these clothes is typically quite opaque and has a high likelihood of being irresponsibly shipped to places without the capacity to handle all of those old clothes. Yup, turns out fast fashion brands have as little transparency about where their clothes are going as where they’re coming from.
3) See if garments are being recycled or downcycled.
Downcycling is when the item is being turned into something of lower value. For instance, if clothes are being turned into rags or housing insulation, that’s downcycling.
If clothes or worn-out textiles are being restored and resold into something of greater value, that’s upcycling.
If they are being turned into something of similar value, that’s recycling.
4) Explore other options first.
As mentioned above, try to explore other avenues before recycling.
See if you can sell, swap, or sew it (i.e. mend it). The most sustainable second home for clothing is about keeping it in its current state!
With all of that in mind, let’s dive into resources for where to recycle old clothing.
Textile Recycling Organizations
Freecycle: The Freecycle Network™ is a global nonprofit that connects people who want to get or give stuff for free to keep it out of the trash! With over 5,000 groups and 9 million members, you’re bound to connect with someone who wants to reuse and rewear your pre-loved clothing or other fashion items.
Trash Nothing: Similar to Freecycle, Trash Nothing lets you give or get stuff for free in your local community. Just create an account and post up a photo and description of what you’d like to give to be reused!
Buy Nothing Facebook Groups: Buy Nothing groups are another great place to exchange used stuff, like clothes! Just go to Facebook and search “Buy Nothing” + your city or broader region. Make sure your stuff is in decent condition, though, with this method.
Local Animal Shelters: Check in with your community’s animal shelter, wildlife rescue organization, or even a veterinarian’s office to see if they could use old worn-out textiles as bedding or blankets for animals.
Local Homeless Shelters, Women’s Centers, and Refugee Agencies: If your clothing is in good condition, consider bringing it to your local shelter or center *IF* they say that they are accepting clothing donations. You can always call or email to inquire.
Clothing Textile Recycling
Helpsy (Northeast): B-Corp certified textile recycling company that diverts used clothing from landfills. 95% of what they collect is reused, upcycled, or recycled. This page has a list of what items Helpsy accepts. You can either find a drop-off location or schedule a pick-up if you live in Westchester County NY.
Wearables Collections (NYC only): Organization that collects clothing in New York City. You can drop off clothing anytime at 180 W. 9th St Brooklyn, NY 11231, in various participating commercial and residential buildings throughout the city, or at one of the 31 GrowNYC’s weekly Greenmarkets the organization is at. You can also schedule a home pick-up for $20.
TerraCycle Fabrics and Clothing Zero Waste Box: You can recycle old clothes or any other textiles without even leaving your home with this box from TerraCycle. Unfortunately, this box does come with a price. ($103 – $313 depending on which size box you need.)
Sharewear Clothing Scheme: (Nottingham and Nottinghamshire in the UK) Sharewear is an organization that accepts clothing donations, but unlike a general charity shop like a Goodwill, they actually ensure clothing goes directly to those in need
Bra and Underwear Recycling
The Bra Recyclers: Bras are difficult to recycle thanks to elastics, underwires, clasps, padding, or even lace and other embellishments. But The Bra Recyclers can give your bras a second life. The organization accepts gently used (washed!) bras and gives them to survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking to support them in their transition back to self-sufficiency. Just simply fill out their form and either drop off or mail in your bras.
Knickey: Worn underwear is a tough thing to sell secondhand, so recycling is probably the best bet here. Organic underwear brand Knickey has partnered with a local New York City-based nonprofit to recycle intimates into insulation, rug pads, and rags.
Note that these programs are actually downcycling programs, as they are not being renewed into new jeans, so it’s best to only use these programs if the denim is in unwearable condition.
If your denim is in good condition, consider selling it through a local consignment shop or through an online secondhand marketplace.
Madewell: Recycle any pair of denim jeans at a Madewell drop-off location and they’ll be recycled (or really downcycled) into housing insulation through a partnership with Blue Jeans Go Green™. In exchange, you’ll get $20 off of a new pair at Madewell. (Though you don’t need to feel life you have to use this card.) The brand has recycled over a million pairs of jeans since starting this project.
American Eagle: Similar to Madwell, AE will take any pair of jeans (doesn’t have to be their brand) and will recycle them into housing insulation thanks to their partnership with Blue Jeans Go Green™. You’ll also receive a $10 credit for a pair of AE jeans. (Again, don’t feel like you have to use that credit.)
You might be asking: but I thought it wasn’t good to send to fast fashion brands? I still very much stand by that, but these two specific programs do name exactly where these clothes are going. This is much different than the programs from Zara or H&M, for example, which don’t give much information at all. Also, I would not recommend these as a place to jeans in good condition. This is ONLY for jeans that cannot be resold.
Brand-Specific Recycling Programs
REI: REI accepts used outdoor gear and apparel in good condition in exchange for an REI gift card. They resell this stuff on their used platform. You can search by brand name here to see if they’ll accept your stuff.
The Renewal Workshop: If you have used clothing from one of the following brands, you can send it to The Renewal Workshop for them to renew and resell: ace&jig, Carhartt, Eagle Creek, Ibex, Indigenous, Lo & Sons, Mara Hoffman, Mountain Khakis, NAU, Osprey, PEARL iZUMi, prAna, Rambler’s Way, Toad&Co, and Vuori.
Here’s the address to send your clothes to (contact them or double check this page to ensure the address has not changed if you are sending in your clothing):
CircleBack @ The Renewal Workshop
180 NE HERMAN CREEK LN STE 101
CASCADE LOCKS OR 97014-6712
Eileen Fisher: The sustainable fashion designer has a take-back program to send your used Eileen Fisher pieces. Wearable pieces are cleaned and resold through EF’s Renew program and unwearable pieces are recycled into other products, like pillows through their Waste No More program.
Patagonia: Trade in your used Patagonia apparel and gear through the brand’s Worn Wear program in-store or through mail-in. In exchange, you’ll get credit for future Patagonia purchases.
For Days also has a “Take Back Bag”, which is a way for their customers to send them their old clothing or textiles from any brand to be recycled responsibly! The bag (which measures 19×24) is $10 to cover the recycling and shipping costs.
Arc’teryx: Trade in your pre-loved Arc’teryx items to be repaired, cleaned, and resold and in exchange, receive credit towards your next Arc’teryx purchase.
Coyuchi: Not fashion, but still textiles. You can send back your old Coyuchi bedding linens to be renewed, recycled, or upcycled and get 15% off your next order.
B2B Textile Recycling
FABCYCLE: A program where fashion designers, manufacturers, and brands in the US and Canada can recycle leftover fabric rolls and scraps. Designers and brands can also purchase excess fabric from FABCYCLE!
Other Miscellaneous Accessories
For Old Glasses: Goodwill has reported that they accept glasses. (New Eyes has in the past accepted used glasses donations via mail; they have paused the program due to COVID, but they may re-open it.)
For Athletic Shoes: Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe Program recycles any brand of athletic shoes and repurposes them through Nike Grind. Just drop off your worn athletic shoes (not footwear like sandals or heels) at a participating Nike retail store.
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