Why Can't Clothes Just Be Recycled?

Couldn't these clothes get recycled rather than landfilled? It's actually tougher than it seems. . (Photo: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock)

The stats are alarming: Each American, on average, sends almost 65 pounds of clothes to the landfill every year. If you are dropping your used stuff off at Goodwill or selling it on eBay, you are part of the half of us who don't trash clothes. That leaves the other half of us throwing perfectly wearable clothing into the garbage.

That's probably because many people don't understand that clothing can be recycled — or, it should be said, upcycled. Because actually recycling clothing (making new fabric from old fabric) is very difficult, with cotton being the toughest textile to do so with.

Limited Recycling Options

Clothing can be torn apart and remade into other types of clothes, which some fashion designers specialize in — especially when it comes to expensive and particularly destructive fabrics, like leather — but that's a pretty small market. Adam Baruchowitz, the founder of Wearable Collections, collects clothes in New York City, and he told me that 95 percent of what he collects can be reused. Stuff that can't be worn again can be made into industrial rags. He says, "... we hope to raise awareness of the value of items in our waste stream and inspire others to develop efficient solutions to capture other materials."

Other uses for specific materials include ripping denim up and packing it in a certain way makes for a popular green insulating material for homes, and sneakers can be made into sports flooring.

Cotton Conundrum

Cotton can be made into high-quality paper products, but the reason old T-shirts can't be made into more T-shirts is because of the qualities of cotton fabric itself. The very best cotton has fibers with a long staple length. When you process old clothing to create new, you end up with chopped-up cotton fibers — variable and short — which doesn't make for the softer cotton clothing we are used to.

Some companies have found creative ways to use some recycled cotton in new products, by mixing it with new cotton. Levi's collects clothes for recycling and also adds up to 20 percent recycled fibers in some of its clothes, but they can't use any more than that without a decline in quality. SustainU specializes in making T-shirts from recycled cotton, but that fabric comes from the waste that's created by traditional T-shirt manufacture (factory scraps), not your old tees that you've donated. That cotton is then mixed with recycled polyester, which softens it up.

"The magic is in the raw material, in getting the recycled cotton and the recycled polyester. After that, it's a pretty traditional process," Troy Dunham, vice president of corporate communications & marketing of SustainU told Earth911.

But far too much cotton ends up being disposable. How many times have you received an event T-shirt, only to wear it a couple times before it's tossed or sent to Goodwill? That kind of shirt is basically a throwaway product, and considering the energy and water (cotton is a very thirsty crop) that goes into making them, they shouldn't be.

An industry-wide solution is needed. H&M; (which ironically built its business on fast fashion, basically throwaway clothes) thinks that crowdsourcing might be the solution: Their Conscious Foundation is giving away £1 million ($1.5 million) to five groups via their Global Change Award to find solutions to problems like this one.

But so far, the very thing that makes cotton so popular — those long fibers — also makes it nearly impossible to fully recycle.