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How to recycle your clothes & make an impact

A step-to-step guide to recycling garments

Globally, fashion has a massive environmental and social footprint, but we individuals can make an impact just by changing our mindset around the lifecycle of our clothes. 

You’re finally fed up with your overstuffed closet — it’s time to downsize and organize. The best way is by ensuring to recycle your clothes when they are no longer good to rewear or repurpose.

You’re pretty sure there’s a way to deal with your old clothes that doesn’t involve throwing them out. Do you swap clothes with your friends? Bring them to a thrift store for some cash? Donate them? The truth is: you have options.

Maybe you don’t know all of them or you just can’t decide which one is right. But I’m here to change that. Because the fashion industry as we know it is unsustainable, and as a conscious consumer, you play a massive role in changing that.

And I don’t say that to overwhelm you. I say that to empower you.

Because if nothing changes soon, by 2050 the textile industry will:

  • Consume over 26% of the global carbon budget.
  • Reach over 300 million tons of nonrenewable raw material used.
  • Surpass 22 million microplastics dumped into the oceans. Source

As you can see, the impacts are massive. Worldwide we produce over 110 million tons of textiles per year. Although technically all textile waste can be recycled, barely 13% of these materials actually are. On top of that, less than 1% of the recycled material is used to produce more clothing. 

All too often, I come across conscious consumers like you who understand the importance of recycling apparel but don’t know exactly how to go about it.

But the reality is: for the fashion industry to continue, things need to change. As consumers, we need to help the industry adopt a circular economy — the ethical alternative to the traditional linear economy that typically goes: produce → consume → dispose. 

In a circular fashion economy, textiles are designed to eliminate waste and pollution from the get-go. Garments should be kept in use for as long as possible, so they achieve their maximum value before they’re recovered, regenerated, or eventually returned to the biosphere. Source

That’s where recycling — and you! — come in. Don’t worry, it’s actually very simple to do your part, it only requires one thing: care.

And we already know you have that, or you wouldn’t be here! Here’s how it goes.

How to recycle your clothes & make an impact
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Photo Credit: Gayle Tiller Photography

Before you recycle your clothes

Consume with conscience

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of textile recycling, we have to cover all our bases. There are so many things you can do to help reduce textile waste before the point of recycling to promote a circular economy within the fashion industry.

The first step is: buy less.

In a world dominated by social media influencers and online shopping, it’s tempting to fall victim to fast, disposable fashion. Let’s face it, it’s easy to feel pressured to buy the latest trend and never repeat an outfit.

This is why the average woman today owns 30 outfits — over 3x more than the average woman in the early 20th century. Source

But as the consumer, you have the power to change that. Use it!

Resell to a thrift store

Earn a few bucks for your old clothes! It’s easy to search for thrift stores in your area and drop off a pile, but don’t forget — you can also take the online route.

Resell your used clothes through online thrift stores like Poshmark, ThreadUP, and Depop. Do a little research online to find the one best suited for your items and style.

And back to the “consume with a conscious” advice, scroll through these online thrift stores the next time you’re tempted to shop online. Buying used clothes is one of the most effective things you can do as a conscious consumer to reduce environmental impacts. Besides, using these sites is like virtually raiding your best friend’s closet!

How to recycle your clothes & make an impact
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Photo Credit: Gayle Tiller Photography

Upcycle your garments

Upcycling is the process of repurposing or revamping your old garments. A few examples include:

  • Making a quilt out of old garment patches.
  • Cutting old fabrics to make decorative dinner napkins.
  • Turning an old tapestry into a skirt.

Anything goes! When you think outside the box like this, you start to realize how many different possibilities there are to repurpose your old clothes.

But, when you finally feel like your clothes are at the point of no return, it’s time to recycle!

Time to recycle your clothes

Maybe you’re thinking your old, worn-out clothes are too far gone to be recycled. Used underwear? Can that really be recycled?

The answer is YES! Nearly 100% of household textiles can be recycled. Source

It’s tempting to just toss them in the trash, but that’s the easy way out. And conscious consumers like you don’t take the easy route at the cost of the environment.

So hopefully by now, you’re committed to recycling your used clothes. But if you’re still unsure about exactly how to do it, today’s your lucky day!

How to recycle your clothes & make an impact
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Photo Credit: Gayle Tiller Photography

Where exactly can you recycle your used clothes?

Option 1

Contact your local council or recycling center to see if they allow textile recycling. But don’t worry if they don’t. You have plenty of other options!

Option 2

If you find that your local recycling center doesn’t handle textile recycling, search for third party textile recycling bins or drop-off points near you.

Many countries and states have specific organizations that specialize in textile recycling. They have recycling centers, provide drop-off boxes in neighborhoods, and often encourage willing participants to host a drop-off box on their property.

Many of these organizations will take your clothes in any condition, as long as they’re clean and dry. Here are just a few examples:

If you’re not in any of these countries, quickly search “textile recycling near me” to find the easiest spot for you to recycle your clothes.

How to recycle your clothes & make an impact
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Photo Credit: Gayle Tiller Photography

Option 3

Another super cool option (but a tad pricey) is TerraCycle — a social enterprise dedicated to eliminating waste. Sounds cool already, right?

TerraCycle operates in 20 countries worldwide, providing resources for “hard-to-recycle” items like textiles. They offer “first-of-their-kind” recycling programs where you can order a Zero Waste Box, fill it with your old stuff, and ship it off to be reused or recycled. 

They also offer a list of Free Recycling Programs by country, so you can easily find free channels to recycle your not-so-mainstream recyclables. Note that some of these programs require a physical drop-off rather than shipping.

Option 4

If there aren’t any drop off points close by, you can donate them at charity collection services like Goodwill or The British Heart Foundation. If your donated clothes cannot be re-worn or repurposed, these organizations will recycle them for you.

Option 5

Compost any clothing made of 100% natural fibers like hemp, organic cotton, and linen. Simply cut the garments into strips and place them in your compost pile. Be sure that the fabric is 100% natural, otherwise, it won’t biodegrade.

Which eco-friendly brands offer incentives for textile recycling?

Keep an eye out for companies that offer an incentive for turning in your used clothing or shoes. Large brands like H&M, The North Face, and Levi’s offer a fixed amount or percentage off your purchase when you send in old clothing to be recycled.

Here are a couple of “smaller” brands that encourage the same:

  • Madewell offers $20 off a pair of jeans when you bring in an old pair to be recycled through their partnership with Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green program. Madewell alone has recycled over 830,000 pairs of jeans — enough to insulate over 1,000 homes. Their denim recycling partnership has saved 415 tons of waste from ending up in landfills. Source
  • Nothing New is an ethical shoe brand that offers a Virtuous Circle Program (hello, circular economy!) that gives you $20 off a new pair of shoes when you turn in an old pair of Nothing New sneakers. Source 

Currently, less than 5% of end-of-life shoes are actually recycled… that’s worse than textile recycling! Source This brand is committed to making sure that none of their products end up in a landfill — with your help.

Don’t forget, it’s a two-way street. These brands offer the incentive, but it’s up to us as conscious consumers to follow through.

What happens to your recycled clothes?

Your recycled clothes are sorted into three categories: Source 

  1. Reuse: if the fabrics can be reused for new clothing, it’s often shipped overseas to developing countries to be sold and redesigned.
  2. Rags: some of your recycled fabrics are used as rags within the recycling facilities.
  3. Fiber: recycled fibers are used in many different ways, including but not limited to:
    • Building insulation: recycled denim is turned into building insulation.
    • Stuffing for furniture: recycled fibers are used to stuff pillows, mattresses, car seats, and other household furniture.
    • Paving materials: shoe soles can be recycled into materials for pavement.
    • Other random uses: fibers can also be recycled to make carpet pads, filling for baseball and softball, paper money, jewelry box lining, automobile insulation, and more. Source 

There are so many awesome uses for your old clothes — so let’s keep them out of landfills! After all, your old outfits served you lots of memories. Don’t you want to give them the long life they deserve?

Are you ready to make an impact?

Changing any old habit is hard. If you’re used to just throwing your old clothes in the trash, it might seem like a burden to challenge your old ways. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember how much easier it is to do something after you’ve done it just one time.

And if that doesn’t ease your mind, I challenge you to think of the impact you can make by committing to recycling your used clothes:

You have the potential to save 70 pounds of textile waste per year — for the rest of your life! Source

Are you ready?

How to recycle your clothes & make an impact
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Photo Credit: Gayle Tiller Photography
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Jordan Horwat

I’m Jordan, a conscious consumer and professional copywriter with a passion for spreading the messages of mission-driven, ethical brands. I live in the Outer Banks of North Carolina on a mile-wide slice of land between two huge bodies of water. Living here has opened my eyes to the insane beauty and total vulnerability of our planet, making me uncomfortably aware of all the ways my choices impact it on a daily basis. I became completely overwhelmed by all the years I spent mindlessly supporting companies that only care about turning a profit, no matter the ethical cost. Now, I’m dedicated to using my writing as a tool to empower others to live a sustainable life and seek out brands that truly deserve our money — brands that risk fortune and popularity to leave the world brighter than they found it. When I’m not busy writing, you can find me reading by the water, snapping pictures of the sunset, or running to the beach to catch a moonrise over the ocean.

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