A brief guide to textile recycling: the many paths a donated t-shirt can take

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“Recycle” seems to be the verb of the 21st century. Although it is not as popular as recycling plastic, paper or glass, textile recycling is on its way to becoming the norm. But what happens to clothes after they go into recycling bin?

By the rate textile consumption and landfill dumping is going, if not already, then very soon textile will be the new plastic. Not only are fashionistas with closets bigger than bedrooms in need of a reality check, most millennials swap jeans faster than smartphones.

Recycling textile is as urgent as recycling other matter like plastic because most textiles are not organic, they do not decompose in a landfill. The amount of water and resources it takes to produce textiles is also enormous (water footprint of a pair of jeans is 7,980 litres.) Recycling textile saves resources by creating less demand for new textile production and reduces landfill pollution.

Bear in mind that any textile, such as carpets, curtains, and couches, can be recycled, not only clothes.  


The clothing donation bin is probably the oldest known form of recycling textiles. There is a lot of controversy regarding these bins in different parts of the world. In various states of the US, there was a surge of "fake donation bins" claiming to "collect items for charity," but in truth selling the clothes for profit. Since the distribution of bins was not regulated, parking lots “rented” space for fake bins. Misleading donors is not right, so choose your bin wisely before you dump your textiles.

If recycling is your goal and you don’t care if profit is made, then any donation bin will do. Many bins are under social enterprises, giving a percentage of their profits to charity and investing in development projects. Humana is one of these well-known chains that make a profit, but it also creates jobs, provides a platform to reuse clothes, and contributes to projects that better the world.

But if the idea of an organisation making “riches” off your rags bothers you, then look for donation bins that collect clothing specifically for charity and are not for profit. It is important to note that due to excess clothing production and very cheap prices, used clothing that is not “trendy” is not as wanted as before. Perhaps do a clothing swap with your friends to find better and more loving owners of your old clothes.

It’s also interesting to know what happens to clothes and textiles that can’t be reworn, how they are recycled. Just pull the threads out of a dress and convert it into a blouse? Not that easy. A small fraction of textiles actually go through this type of transformation process. There are many technical barriers and fashion trends change too fast to keep the recycled clothing relevant. Most textiles are converted to industrial textiles and fibers, such as home insulation, carpet padding, and material for automotive production.

Part of being a more “caring” industry, retail stores accept textile donations and get sustainability marketing points. Some give a discount for your next purchase if you bring in used textiles. Yes, it is a contradiction to recycle textile and immediately buy new clothes, and H&M’s “own development sustainability manager admitted that only 0.1 percent of returned clothing was reused for new textiles.”

Still, H&M retailers find a way to put textile to use. They produce so much clothing in excess that “a power and heating station in the town of Vasteras, northwest of Stockholm, reportedly burns defective H&M garments donated by the company instead of coal in an effort to reduce fossil fuels.” In less developed countries like Kenya, old clothes are simply burned in open air, without using the energy.

These days clothing is made of much poorer quality than what it used to be and fashion trends are changing faster than ever before. The real way to combat this emergent rival of plastic is to boycott it. Buy high quality clothing that will last decades and forego being a hip dandy. Consumers have to show producers what they want and by the laws of demand and supply, the scales should be tipped.

So we don’t have a perfect model of recycling textile yet. Just do not throw that old sock in a normal bin, and be more creative with the clothes that you already have.

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