How to Recycle Textiles and Ideas to Give New Life to Old Clothes

A pile of colorful fabrics.

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The vast majority of textiles are completely recyclable. Textiles include all items made from cloth or artificial fabric, including things like clothing, bed linens, cloth napkins, towels, and more.

After used textiles are given to a recycling company, they are sorted by material and color, processed to pull or shred them into raw fibers, thoroughly cleaned, re-spun into new textiles, and reused to make rags, garments, insulation, and a variety of other products. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 17 million tons of textile municipal solid waste (MSW) was generated in 2018, which represents 5.8% of total MSW generation that year. The recycling rate for textiles was 14.7%, meaning 2.5 million tons of textiles were recycled. The other 14.5 million tons were either combusted or sent to landfills. For reference, the recycling rate for aluminum in 2018 was 34.9%, and the recycling rate for glass was 31.3%.

Textiles placed into landfills are a serious environmental concern. Natural fibers can take years to decompose in landfills and can release greenhouse gases as they do so. Synthetic textiles are designed not to decompose at all and can leach toxic substances into the soil and groundwater while in landfills.

What Types of Textiles Can Be Recycled?

Textiles that can be recycled typically either come from post-consumer or pre-consumer sources. Post-consumer textiles include garments, vehicle upholstery, towels, bedding, purses, and more. Pre-consumer textiles are by-products of yarn and fabric manufacture.

Before You Recycle Textiles

You don’t have to go directly to a textile recycler in order to give your old fabric items second lives. If your textiles are in good shape, you can resell or donate them. If they aren't usable, hand them over to a recycler who can break them down into fibers to create a "new" item.

Resell

If your textiles are in good shape, consider reselling them to secondhand stores to pass them down to be used and loved by another person before being recycled. You can sell your items at your local thrift store or consignment shop. Also consider selling them online through a reputable online reseller like thredUP, Poshmark, or eBay.

A majority of textile waste is clothing, which is becoming easier to resell as secondhand fashion grows in popularity.

Thrift store clothing racks

Jennifer M. Ramos / Getty Images

Donate

Numerous nonprofits have textile donation programs that will accept your used (but still usable) textiles to resell at the organization’s second-hand stores. Goodwill and Salvation Army are popular donation spots, but other nonprofits have similar programs. Check with your favorite charity to see if they can reuse or resell your textiles before you recycle them.

Your local humane society or animal sanctuary may not have a storefront, but they can likely use donations of your old towels and blankets to keep their animals comfortable. Shelters and other organizations that support the homeless population will also typically accept donations of clothes, blankets, and various other textiles.

Brand Take-Back Programs

Some brands, like Nike and Patagonia, have take-back programs that allow customers to send in their used textiles of that brand for recycling or resale, depending on the quality.

After you clean out your closet and linen cabinet, look at the brands of your items and check with them to see if you can send them back. Some companies will send you a prepaid shipping label to make the process even easier.

Exportation Programs

Second-hand clothing is often a much-needed commodity in developing countries, especially after a devastating natural disaster. Many of the organizations that you may donate your used textiles to anyways, including Goodwill and Salvation Army, donate a portion of the textiles they receive to countries in need. 

Other organizations have similar programs but accept specific items, like the organization Free The Girls, which accepts donations of bras for sex trafficking survivors in El Salvador, Mozambique, and Costa Rica to sell themselves at second-hand markets with the goal of becoming financially independent.

Textile Recycling

Recycled Blue Jean Denim Insulation near Wall Frame
Recycled blue jean denim insulation. BanksPhotos / Getty Images

Unfortunately, almost no curbside pick-up recycling programs in the U.S. accept textiles, so you can’t just toss your used fabrics in the recycling bin. Instead, you’ll have to take them directly to a recycler or donation facility that will do the job for you. 

Consider recycling your used textiles if they aren’t in good enough condition to resell or donate. If you aren’t sure, you may still be able to donate them to a thrift store or consignment shop—many will ask for your consent to recycle anything they can’t resell.

Many organizations and recyclers will take your used clothing and textile items to recycle them and turn them into a new item. Examples of items made from recycled textiles are:

  • Automobile cushions
  • Insulation
  • Paper
  • Wiping cloths
  • Carpet padding
  • Baseball filling
  • Pillow stuffing
  • Pet beds

Treehugger Tip

Wash and thoroughly dry your textiles before recycling them, no matter what physical shape they’re in.

Textiles with food waste and other grime on them may contaminate other textiles in the recycling process, which could clog up machinery and render the entire batch useless. Wet textiles can breed bacteria and pose a similar threat.

Ways to Reuse Textiles

There are plenty of ways you can reuse and repurpose your old textiles to give them a second life yourself. It’s advisable to consider options for reuse before recycling your textiles. While better than throwing your textiles in the trash, recycling them isn’t perfect as processing textiles consumes water and energy.

You can either donate your old textiles to an organization that will reuse them (children’s programs, animal rescues, etc.) or reuse them yourself. Your old fabrics make great crafting materials and can even be transformed into another, more functional item. Here are a few examples of projects to reuse your textiles:

A colorful quilt on a country clothesline
Mary Hockenbery / Getty Images

Textile Waste and the Environment

Each year, the average U.S. citizen throws away an estimated 70 pounds of textiles. The EPA estimates that of the 17 million tons of textiles produced each year, nearly 85% ends up as trash.

Fast fashion, a term that describes a business model based on replicating trendy clothing designs and mass-producing them at a low cost, is one of the culprits behind this environmental dilemma. 

Not only does fast fashion contribute to a staggering amount of textile waste, but it also emits greenhouse gases. Carbon emissions result from manufacturing, transporting garments from factories to retail outlets, and then transporting them to the individual consumer. And when the consumer eventually tosses the garment in the trash, the textiles can emit more greenhouse gases while they sit in landfills.

Recycling textiles is extremely important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to cut down on pollutants and waste in the environment. Look into the sustainable options detailed in this article before you get rid of your old textiles. 

Then, when you go shopping for new textiles, consider sustainable alternatives. Look for textiles that are high-quality and can last you a long time. Prioritize companies that use sustainable materials like organic or recycled cotton. When possible, repair any damage to your textiles instead of swapping them for new items and consider shopping second-hand. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why is textile waste a problem?

    In the U.S. alone, 14.5 million tons of textile waste is combusted or sent to landfills every year. While natural fibers may take only six to 12 months to break down in landfills, synthetic fibers—nylon, polyester, etc.—can take hundreds of years.

  • Who accepts clothing donations?

    Countless charities accept gently used clothing, including the Salvation Army, Goodwill, the American Red Cross, Planet Aid, and Dress for Success. If your clothes are ripped or stained and can't be worn again, you may be able to donate them to a local animal shelter or wildlife rehabilitation center.

View Article Sources
  1. "Textiles: Material-Specific Data." Environmental Protection Agency.

  2. "Aluminum: Material-Specific Data." Environmental Protection Agency.

  3. "Glass: Material-Specific Data." Environmental Protection Agency.

  4. "Strategies for End of Life." Close the Loop.

  5. "A Peek Inside a Landfill." Planet Aid.

  6. "The Issue." Council for Textile Recycling.

  7. "How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost to the Environment?" World Bank, 2019.

  8. "Basic Information About Landfill Gas." Environmental Protection Agency.