What to do with Old Clothes that Cannot be Donated

What to do with old clothes

Tidying up at least once a year can be a liberating experience, helping you live a slightly more minimalistic existence. But what are you to do with old clothes that cannot be donated?

Whether you are following the advice of Marie Kondo or simply following your own “spring cleaning” system, a good clearout is good for the soul as it will help you get rid of unwanted baggage.

As you spend a bit of time doing a wardrobe clearout, you’ll likely find a few items that are not exactly right for donation. But throwing textiles in the general waste is not a great idea as it will take ages to break down if it ends up in a landfill.

According to Wrap around £140 million (roughly 350,000 tonnes) of used clothing in the UK ends up in landfills every year. In the US this is much higher, where the EPA  estimates that 17 million tons ended up in a landfill during 2018. 

Sadly these numbers keep growing every year. But there is hope, as even damaged clothing can be recycled, repurposed or upcycled in some way or another if donating is not a viable option. 

Donating Clothing

When it comes to donating, only clean clothing in a resellable condition should be donated. A good rule of thumb is to consider if you’ll be happy to buy the item in a charity shop. If so, then it’s most likely ok to donate, if not, you’ll need to find another solution for your unwanted item.

With that said, even the second-hand clothing market is based on the basic economic principle of supply and demand. This means not all the donated clothing will be resold. This can happen either because charity shops have too much stock or the clothing is not in good enough condition to sell on. 

It’s estimated that as little as 20% of all donated clothing will be resold.

The 80% of donated clothing that is left over is often exported to third world countries to be resold in markets. But even then a large part of the clothing sent to third world countries will end up in a landfill. African countries, like Rowanda, have taken steps to ban the import of used clothing to help protect local production amongst other reasons.

So overall it’s important to re-evaluate our relationship with clothing, buying fewer, better quality, sustainable clothing items that will last longer can help to solve the clothing waste problem.

But even then you may still end up with surplus old clothing that’s not right for donation, so what then?

Here are our 11 Options: What to Do with Old Clothing that Cannot be Donated

1. Repair Old Clothing that Cannot be Donated

We’re not all gifted with expert needling skills, but discarding clothing items because a button has come off or a hem has unravelled is not necessary as these can easily be repaired. You don’t even need a sewing machine to do these basic repairs, a needle and thread will suffice. Even some basic rips and tears can be fixed with a needle and thread. 

Have a look at loveyourclothes.org as they have a few tutorials that will help you with the basics. 

Alternatively, you can reach out to a local seamstress or Dry Cleaner to assist in basic clothing repairs. This way you’re saving your beloved items and supporting a small local business at the same time.

If you’re in a situation where your clothing no longer fits because you’ve lost weight, a local seamstress should be able to help with alterations by taking items in so that you can continue to wear your favourite pieces. This will also be cheaper than buying new. 

Dealing with weight gain is a little harder, but you can save these items for later if you’re hoping to shed the extra pounds when summer comes around. And no we’re not suggesting that you become a hoarder of ill-fitting clothing, this is only an option if you’re happy to make a real commitment to shedding the extra pounds.

2. Upcycling Clothing

If you have a creative streak, upcycling can be very rewarding. As you can turn old items into something new, giving them a completely new lease of life. If you’re very good at upcycling this can even be a viable business idea either as a side hustle or full-time business.

You can find some amazing upcycling tutorials online and Pinterest has great upcycling ideas. Have a look at this board by Jeniffer Maker for a few ideas to get you started.

A few basic ideas that spring to mind are jeans turned into shorts or a skirt, t-shirts made into scarfs, bags or children’s clothing. 

3. Recycle Clothing that Can’t be Donated


Many textiles can be recycled. In most cases pure fibres are much easier to recycle, blends can be tricky. We’ve recently written about the basics of textile recycling if you’d like to learn more about the textile recycling process. 

In short natural fibres can be recycled, but will lose some durability in the process. On the other hand, plastic-based textiles can be melted down in a similar way to how plastic bottles are melted down and recycled. 

In the UK local councils can advise where to send clothing for recycling or you can visit the Recycle Now website to find a drop off point local to you.

In the US have a look at Helpsy, they are the largest textile collector in the Northeast US and have drop-off locations in many areas. If you’ve got old jeans that have come to the end of their usable life, have a look at bluejeansgogreen.org as they can recycle old denim.

Recycled fabric and plastic is used to make a number of things including sustainable swimwear and underwear.

4. Hand-me-Downs

Hand-me-downs are particularly helpful when it comes to children’s clothing. This does not have to be limited to siblings, as clothing can be swapped between parents that have a similar mindset. 

Don’t get me wrong, not all parents will be open to receiving or giving hand-me-downs but considering how quickly children grow this can be a great option. A hand-me-down party sounds like a good excuse for a social and a glass of wine amongst like-minded parents, right? 

Using a hand-me-down system means that you can buy better quality items to hand down/swap with like-minded parents, extending the lifetime of an item. It also means that you don’t have to buy clothing a few sizes too big so that children can grow into clothing.

If you can hand clothing down between siblings, don’t just limit it to the same gender, many items can be used as unisex either with a bit of upcycling or by styling it with other items. T-shirts and jeans can easily be gender-neutral. And gender stereotypes are much less prominent than they used to be, making this process a little easier.

5. Repurpose

Repurposing textiles used to be quite common, but this practice seems to have stopped in recent years. Baby boomers often used old clothing to make into other things such as rags or other household items.

Old formal men’s shirts can be turned into cotton pillowcases or bags. Buttons can be used for beautiful decorative seams and of course, you can make a quirky quilt out of old t-shirts. 

Most old clothing can be turned into bags, the fabric of blue jeans, in particular, is very versatile and can be made into anything from bags and napkins to pillows cases.

Knitted sweaters can be turned into poofs, beanie hats, pillowcases or quilted blankets. Just be mindful to unravel the seams of knits rather than to cut so that the knit does not unravel completely when creating something new. 

6. Use Clothing for Art Projects

If you have school-age children, grandchildren or even nieces and nephews then having a box of old textiles for art projects is a must. There is always a home craft or school project that need making and used textiles can help to add both colour and creativity to any project. 

Repurposing textiles through art projects is a great way to help children build their creative skills. Making sock puppets is a good example of a fun and playful art project. 

Or of course, if you’re looking for a more grown-up art project, old band t-shirts can easily be framed to create an interesting and personalised wall in the home. 

7. Create a Dress-Up Box


If you have young children creating a dress-up box can provide hours of fun. It also means that your kids won’t rummage through your wardrobe looking for clothing to play dress-up with.

Items that work particularly well for this purpose are party dresses, old fancy dress costumes, scarfs, hats, shoes and anything fun that can help build a young imagination. 

8. Composting Textiles

Unfortunately, not all textiles will break down in the compost heap. Especially plastic containing textiles such as polyester, elastane or acrylics so make sure you check the label for hidden plastic fibres before you start. 

Natural fibres such as 100% cotton, linen, silk, and wool are all compostable, but make sure that these textiles have not been blended with synthetic fibres. A common cotton blend will be polycotton, wool can be blended with acrylic polyester and a range of other fabrics. Generally, anything stretchy, including jeans, will be a blended or synthetic fabric so avoid those. 

Once you’ve identified natural fibres for composting, shred them into small pieces and add to your compost using the recommended ratios for brown and green materials. Natural fibres are classed as brown composting material.

9. Retail Take-Back Initiatives

Over the last few years, retailers have started take-back programmes where you can return worn clothing bought from that specific retailer and get store credit. Some of these programmes, like the H&M recycling scheme, has been widely criticised as greenwashing and in essence an environmental failure. 

The North Face has started a Close the Loop programme that allows you to drop unwanted items of any brand and condition at any of their stores for repurposing and recycling. Levi Strauss & Co offer a similar programme.

Eileen Fisher offers a renew programme where they resell lightly warn items and Madewell has partnered with the Blue Jeans Go Green™ program to recycle denim fabric.

10. Give to an Animal Shelter

Animal shelters often use old textiles to make bedding and other items for animals in their care. Consider donating old sweaters or jumpers to help care for a furry friend during their time of need.

11. Clothing Swaps

Clothing swaps have become extremely popular, either at in-person events or online. It can also be a fun activity amongst friends – especially if you have friends with similar tastes who tend to buy stuff they never wear – yes we all have one of those friends right? 

Remember though that swaps are a give and take situation so you’ll all have to bring a few things to the table. Unless you enable the option to purchase as that might be a bit easier. 

Here are a few clothing swap websites and apps that might be helpful: 

  • Vinted, based in the UK allows selling and swapping
  • Swopped is another UK based swapping site worth looking into
  • This for That is a US-based swapping app available for Apple and Android devices

Buy Fewer High-Quality Items

Buying fewer high-quality items will help to reduce the amount of clothing thrown away every year. Cheap fast fashion items don’t stay in season very long and they also don’t tend to be of good quality so will lose it’s lustre more quickly. If you’d like to be more responsible in terms of your environmental impact have a look at our post on building a more sustainable wardrobe

Closing Thoughts

There is a myriad of ways to discard old clothing that does not involve donation. With a little creativity, you can extend the use of textiles beyond their original purpose and in turn, help to reduce the ever-growing landfill problem.

Hopefully, we’ve given you a few ideas on what to do with old clothing that cannot be recycled. Feel free to add any additional creative suggestions for old textiles in the comments below – we’d love to expand our list!

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