Recycling Apparel: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

By Kristina Ang

Photo by Sigmund

Globally, only 20% of discarded textiles are actually reused or recycled, which leaves 80% of discarded textiles doomed for the landfill or incineration. And while recycling plastic bottles and cardboard boxes have become quite commonplace in today’s society, the act of recycling clothing proves a much greater challenge to uphold for the average individual. Much of this challenge could be because of the already existing confusion between what apparel can and cannot be recycled, but despite what you might already think, the process of recycling clothing is a lot more complex than people lead on. This problem falls upon what most of our clothes are made of. Because the process of textile recycling works differently for natural versus synthetic fabrics, apparel made from “mixed” fibers tend to make this process more difficult. Not to mention clothing may contain other elements such as care labels and sewing threads which can make the recycling process even more grueling. 

Alas, all fibers are not created equally and that presents a bit of a challenge when it comes to recycling clothing. It’s important to be able to determine what your clothes are made of and how to recycle accordingly. If you’ve been met with confusion when it comes to doing so, we’ve got just the thing to solve all of your clothing recycling problems. 

Recycle Nation. This website (also available as an app) offers a wide range of tools to help connect you with companies that recycle any kind of items you are looking for. RecycleNation has the world’s largest recycling database with known companies that recycle everything from clothing to technology. Not to mention, it’s free and open to public use. 

Earth911. Another great website to utilize in your search for nearby recycling centers is Earth911. Not only do they offer a great resource for recycling, but their website also has a section with informative recycling guides for everything from auto fluids and car batteries to bathroom products and household cleaners. If you’ve got a question about recycling a certain type of product, they’ve got the answers! 

TerraCycle. TerraCycle offers a range of national, easy-to-use recycling platforms, but one of their most unique platforms is the TerraCycle Zero Waste Box™. This system allows you to recycle almost any type of waste to be repurposed. All you have to do is decide upon the waste you’d like to recycle, purchase your preferred box size, pack up your waste, and send it back to TerraCycle. Also find on their website more information regarding municipal programs, industrial waste solutions, and regulated waste recycling. 

Wearable Collections. My fellow New York City folks, this ones for you! Wearable Collections is a NYC based service that merges convenience and clothing recycling. You can request a bin for your apartment building where residents can come together and recycle clothing or you can schedule home pickups for your clothes to be picked up without having to lug it around the subway. 

Those are just a few options of existing companies that are making a big impact on the clothing recycling predicament. But even before considering recycling your apparel, we suggest taking those items of clothing that are in great or even wearable condition and putting those pieces up for consignment or even donating them to avoid the unnecessary energy of having them recycled. Donation resources like Donation Town, Housing Works, and even your local Goodwill and consignment resources like ThredUp, Poshmark, and Worthy are great options to consider as well. 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva

With all of that being said, clothing recycling is great and all, but if we ever hope to achieve true sustainability in our industry, we have to reconsider the fabrics and fibers that our clothes are made from beginning with the start of the design process. New material innovations are already well underway to achieve this, but when it comes to the clothing that has already been made, let’s do our part in recycling them! 


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