The Basics of Textile Recycling

The Basics of Textile Recycling

Textile recycling promises to help reduce waste from the clothing and textile products we discard every year. Second-hand shops can get overwhelmed by the volume of clothing being donated so even with the best intentions these textiles will still end up in landfill or get incinerated. 

According to The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the majority of textiles that end up in municipal waste is discarded clothing. Along with other smaller groups of textiles which includes carpets, tires, footwear, sheets, towels and furniture items.

The EPA estimates that 16.9 million tons of textile waste were produced in the USA in 2017. Making up 6.3% of the total amount of municipal waste. Considering the recycling rate for textiles for the same year was as little as 15.2%, the stats are very worrying. 

The vast quantity of textile waste can be attributed to fast fashion brands. These are brands who are selling more and more garments every year through aggressive marketing campaigns. Often fuelled by unrealistic growth targets.

The issues outlined above is why it is so important that we consider a more sustainable approach to how and when we buy clothing and how diligently we recycle unwanted and old textiles.

Types of Textiles: Pre and Post Consumer

Most textiles that form part of the recycling process can be split into pre-consumer and post-consumer waste

Pre-consumer waste is basically industrial waste not sold to a consumer-like you and I. These textiles will typically include waste produced by the textile, garment, fibre and cotton industries during the manufacturing process. Pre-consumer waste is often repurposed by other industries such as auto manufacturers, home builders, furniture etc. 

Note that not all pre-consumer waste will be recycled. Many deadstock/leftover fabrics generated by the fashion industry will end up in a landfill for example. 

Post-consumer waste refers to the textiles discarded by consumers i.e. the average person. These will be unwanted clothing, some unworn and some worn out or damaged. Post-consumer fabrics are typically sent to municipal collection bins, but the majority here will also end up in landfills. 

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Which Textiles can you Recycle

Technically all fabrics can be recycled, but unfortunately, the reality is a little different. 

Blended fibres are very hard to recycle for e.g. polycotton blends or wool blends. These will generally need to undergo a chemical process to separate the fibres. 

Textiles that contain one type of fibre. Or 99% of one type of fibre is easier to work with and can be recycled using a mechanical process. Pure cotton, for example, is deconstructed and re-spun into new yarn. When it comes to natural textiles their durability will degrade once recycled. For that reason, they will often be blended with other more durable yarns. 

Polyester is made from the same material as plastic water bottles. A plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and can be shredded into chips, melted and re-purposed into new polyester.

Besides shedding microplastics during the washing process circular polyester is a sensible process for old polyester textiles and plastic water bottles.

How Does the Textile Recycling Process Work?

The textile recycling process generally follow these basic steps:

  1. Collection; this can be from clothing pickups, industrial collection or bins placed at supermarkets or public places
  2. Sorting; clothing is sorted through a manual or automatic process once collected. Some sorted items can be re-sold, others will be used for new textile fibres. It is estimated that only about half of donated clothing can be re-sold to thrift stores or third world countries. Natural fibres are often sorted by type and colour so that it does not require further dying.
  3. Processing; processing can start after the textiles have been sorted. The type of fibre will determine the recycling method and end-use of the new textile. Zips and buttons are also removed as part of processing. Textiles will either be pulled into fibres or shredded. From there it is cleaned, mixed and re-spun ready for subsequent weaving or knitting. Some textiles will be used to fill mattresses for e.g. Polyester based textiles are shredded. Then granulated and turned into polyester chips which are melted like any other plastic and re-processed into yarn.

For more info on the recycling process, you can watch the short documentary below.

Unravel The final resting place of your cast-off clothing on YouTube. Note the documentary uses subtitles and not in English.

Why is it Important to Recycle Textiles?

Recycling of clothes and other textiles are an important part of sustainability. Simply dumping items into a landfill that will take many years to decompose is not a solution at all. The most important reasons to recycle textiles are to:

  • Reduce environmental pollution including pesticides during the growing and textile dying process
  • Save natural resources and energy
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The Future of Textile Recycling

As new technology develops and awareness increase the recycling of clothing and other textiles will become more economically viable and widespread. 

Organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has a few incredible ideas for creating a new textile economy. But even though these are innovative initiatives, it’s still a few years before we will see a noticeable impact. 

While we wait for innovation to catch up with our current waste problem there are other options for reducing textile waste in your own home and wardrobe.

Other Ways to Reduce Textile Waste

1. Buy less clothing and textiles

Buying fewer items that last longer helps to reduce waste. The best way is to look at quality, classic styles that will stay in fashion for a few years. Not just one season. Invest in key pieces from sustainable fashion brands. Another great option is to consider a capsule wardrobe. This type of wardobe allows you to focus on what you buy and how it fits into your wardrobe. 

Related: 8 Steps to a More Sustainable Wardrobe

2. Resell or Donate

If you have an item that is near new but no longer fits you, you can sell it on websites such as eBay, Depop or Poshmark. See our list of the best online thrift stores for more info on selling unwanted clothing. Alternatively, you can donate items to local charity shops for resale. Just make sure that these are good quality items that someone else might actually want to wear. Double-check that the store you are approaching needs new items as that might not always be the case. 

3. Upcycle

If you can’t re-sell an item you can always upcycle either as new clothing, bags or cleaning rags.

A quick Pinterest search should give you great ideas and inspiration for upcycling projects, one of my favourite options for jeans that have torn at the knees is to turn it into a skirt.

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