Having a surplus of unwanted clothing is a common dilemma for many people in first world countries, and it can be difficult to figure out how to dispose of it all. This is often because we accumulate clothing that we don’t need and then procrastinate in cleaning out our closets. An easy solution to this problem would be to throw out the clothing that is unwanted or damaged. You can do this, but textiles sent to landfills take a long time to decompose which releases toxic chemicals into the air.
You may be wondering if there are better alternatives to dispose of used textiles so they can be reused or recycled. The answer is yes, but most of the alternatives are imperfect solutions that don’t fully resolve the environmental issues caused by the excess clothing in first world countries.
If you’re trying to get rid of piles of clothing in ways that are better for the environment (as opposed to directly sending them to landfills), then this post will help you do so. I will analyze the alternative textile disposal services that claim to recycle and reuse clothing. You can decide which textile disposal service best reuses old clothes.
But before I compare the different textile recycling services and organizations, I want to go over the three common methods that are used for repurposing large quantities of old clothing.
How Clothing is Repurposed
Method #1: Clothes are sold to second-hand markets in third world countries.
This is the most common method of giving old clothing a second life. The idea of selling bulks of used clothing to developing countries has much appeal. First off, it gives less fortunate people access to a variety of affordable clothing. People in East African countries often adopt western-style and culture because of this. Secondly, clothing imports create small business opportunities. There are lots of individuals in struggling countries who take part in selling second-hand clothing on a micro-level. These people are often considered “middlemen” because they buy clothes in bulk for cheap, from developed countries, and then resell them in their communities. The imported clothing fuels second-hand markets, which creates jobs in third world countries.
Even with taking these positives into consideration, selling bulks of clothing so they can be resold in developing countries has been criticized. One reason is that the second-hand clothing markets undermine local textile industries. Struggling countries can never develop their own economies if they are always dependent on imports from first world countries. Another major downside is that third world countries often get too many clothing imports. This is bad because third world countries don’t have large textile recycling services. Oftentimes clothes end up in fire pits, the ocean, and landfills. Because of these reasons many consider this method for reusing clothing counterproductive to reducing textile waste.
Method #2: Clothes are downcycled as rags or used in other industries.
Another way clothing is repurposed is through downcycling. Dowcycling is the process of breaking down clothing into weaker materials, then reusing that material for lower value products. Clothing can be recreated into wiping rags, home/auto insulation, carpet padding, upholstery, and many other things.
This method is great for reusing large quantities of clothing that may not be in wearable condition. The only fault to downcycling is that the material can only be reused once because the fibers weaken after you breakdown the clothing. If we could maintain the quality of the fibers then they could be reused over and over again.
Method #3: Clothes are broken down into fibers and recycled into new virgin materials or upcycled into new products.
Recycling fibers from old clothing is the most complicated of the repurposing methods. This is because a lot of clothes today contain plastic synthetic fibers like polyester instead of being made of 100% natural cellulose fibers like cotton. Recycling synthetic/cellulose blends of clothing is predicated on an elaborate process of sorting, separating, and breaking down the fibers. Here’s a video that demonstrates this process.
If you are interested in blended textile separation check out hkrita.com.
As you can see, a lot of technology is required for recycling the fibers in our clothes. Even though the technology is impressive, this process is hard to commercialize. Most of the clothes with mixed blends of fibers still never get recycled. If we are able to sort, separate, and reuse different fibers in an efficient and profitable way there would be no need for waste. We could just keep reusing old fibers to make new products.
What about textiles made from 100% cotton?
Textiles made from 100% cotton are much easier to repurpose. This is because cotton textiles can now be broken down mechanically without losing the quality of the natural fibers. The fibers can then be upcycled into new textiles. Here’s a video that demonstrates this process.
Reviewing Textile Recycling Services and Organizations
Before putting your clothes in the hands of big organizations and recycling services, you can take some steps to find uses for clothes by yourself.
- Clothing Swaps
You can participate in a clothing swap and exchange clothes with other people, or host one with your friends.
- Clothing Resell apps
- Upcycle clothing
- Give away
If you want to give your clothes to a homeless shelter make sure they actually want your clothing.
Now let’s review the alternative textile disposal options. *Ranked in no particular order*
- Donating to The Salvation Army or Goodwill
Charitable organizations like The Salvation Army and Goodwill have thrift stores to sell the clothing that gets donated to them. The money they make off of their thrift stores funds their charitable programs.
These organizations receive bulks of clothing every day. So much, in fact, only a minority of the clothing gets sold at the thrift stores. The question is, what happens with all the leftover clothing?
Keep in mind The Salvation Army and Goodwill want to make money in order to fund their programs. Meaning, they always want to find the easiest way to get rid of the clothing, while still bringing in money. So if the clothes don’t sell at the thrift stores, they will try online auctions or big sale events to get rid of the clothes. The best example of this is the “buy by the pound sales”. This is an event where customers can buy a pound of clothing for less than a dollar. Even with people buying multiple pounds of clothing at various locations, there is still a surplus. This is when The Salvation Army and Goodwill start using some of the methods I’ve mentioned previously.
The clothing that is still wearable is sold in bulk to secondhand markets in third world countries. You already know that these second-hand markets are oversaturated and not necessarily helpful in reducing waste. But at least these charitable organizations take steps to get rid of the clothing in their local communities before shipping them overseas.
The clothing that is unwanted or in poor condition is downcycled into lower-value products and used in other industries. Like I said before, this method only allows the materials from old clothing to be reused once.
Unfortunately, the process of blended textile separation is not efficient enough to handle the amounts of undesirable clothing that these charities receive. And upcycling 100% cotton textiles does not bring in money yet. So as of right now, method 3 is off the table for The Salvation Army and Goodwill.
- I:CO (I:Collect)
I:CO is a textile recycling company that partners with retailers in order to collect used clothes and shoes. Stores like H&M and The North Face offer discount incentives for donating used clothing and shoes (any brand, dry condition). The clothing that is collected is sent to I:CO for sorting and reuse. The clothing that is in good condition is sold second hand around the world. I:CO does its best to make sure there is a market for all the clothes they send. Different locations will receive different types of clothing depending on the demand in a particular area. Both climate and local styles are taken into consideration.
I:CO has a lot of options for clothing and shoes that are in poor condition.
I:CO uses both method 2 (downcycling) and method 3 (recycling/upcycling). I:CO refers to this as open-loop and closed-loop recycling.
- Open Loop (method 2)
The majority of the unwearable textiles go through the open-loop. The open-loop process involves breaking down the materials of clothing and shoes to create lower value products. For clothing, I:CO uses the fibers as insulation for the construction and auto industries. Shoes go through I:CO’s shoe plant in Germany. A mechanically automized system breaks down the shoes into different components. These components can be used to create secondary raw materials that lead to products in different industries.
- Closed Loop (method 3)
The closed-loop process involves using materials from old clothing and shoes to make new clothing and shoes. This is the most ideal way to recycle because the materials can forever be reused in the fashion industry. The only problem is that the process of sorting and separating different materials is not efficent enough for the large amounts of clothes. So only a small minority of clothes can be created into new clothes.
Fortunately I:CO has other closed-loop cycles. Some fibers can be spun into yarn and utilized in other supply chains. I:CO also has a plant for recycling shoes. Rubber granules can create new shoe soles.
Soles4Souls is an organization that collects “gently used” shoes and clothes for impoverished people. To collect the clothing and shoes, Soles4Souls has many partnerships including companies like The North Face and Zappos. The North Face offers discount incentives if you drop off clothing and shoes at their stores. Zappos is a company that will help ship your clothes/shoes to Soles4Souls.
Remember that S4S is not a recycler, the only thing they do is distribute the donations. The clothes and shoes are distributed in two different ways: free distribution (charity) and micro enterprise (Method 1).
- Free distribution (charity)
Soles4Souls plays the role of a typical charity with free distribution. They look for people and families who need clothing in the United States and around the world. They also give clothes and shoes to schools, churches, homeless shelters, and other non-profits. Free distribution only accounts for about 10% of the shoes and clothes that are donated to S4S.
- Micro Enterprise (Method 1)
A large majority of the shoes and clothes that get donated to S4S are sold around the world to resellers. S4S sells one pair of shoes (1 piece of clothing) for an average of one dollar. The shoes and clothing create small businesses aka micro-enterprise in struggling communities. S4S provides training for the people who resell the shoes and clothing in these communities. This ensures that the second-hand shoe/clothing markets will create sustainable jobs in developing countries.
Source: Soles4Souls 2019 Annual Report
- Blue Jeans Go Green
Blue Jeans Go Green is a program that collects and downcycles denim made from cotton material.
Blue Jeans Go Green is also partnered with Zappos a company that will help ship your jeans.
The denim that is collected will be reduced back into natural cotton and downcycled as insulation for the building of homes around the world.
Terracycle is a recycling company that takes waste from people’s homes for recycling. They take pride in finding innovative ways to recycle waste, in this case, textiles. Terracycle will send you a box specifically meant for your old textiles. This box costs at least $100. They will pick up the box with your old textiles and bring it to one of their facilities.
Terracycle takes a no-waste approach with everything including tecxtiles. They first sort the textiles into categories. Clothes with plastic synthetic material like nylon, polyester, etc vs clothes with 100% natural cellulose material like cotton. After sorting the textiles they figure out how to break down the fibers to create new products.
The process of recycling synthetic fibers and cellulose fibers can best be demonstrated by how Terracycle recycles diapers.
Ok, that concludes this post.
If you want to search for textile recycling services that are local to you then click here.
Thanks for reading.
The Salvation Army Donations Guy