“Old rags, any old rags!” was a call heard on many city streets from the late nineteenth century into the 1960s, as the rag man rumbled by collecting textiles from households. In fact, textile recycling can be traced all the way back to the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) when virgin wool shortages resulted in the requirement that wool fibers be collected and reused. Today, we’re more familiar with the Goodwill drop or USAgain bin. Nonetheless, textile recycling continues to make sense economically, socially and environmentally.
The advent of synthetic fibers and fast fashion clothing trends have made textile recycling more complicated, but technology has risen to the challenge.
Wearable clothing is processed for reuse, non-wearable synthetics are processed into feedstock for engineered plastics, and both natural and synthetic non-wearables can be processed into lower-grade fabrics with myriad end uses. The main objective for textile recycling is the re-use of clothing that would otherwise find its way to the landfill, where natural fibers generate methane and synthetics may leach toxins into the ground. Re-use of clothes can reduce pollution and energy consumption by decreasing new production and the impact of getting products to the end user.
Important U.S. Facts (source: Environmental Protection Agency):
- 2014 produced 16 million tons of textile waste was generated in the US
- 62 Million tons were recycled
- 14 Million tons were combusted for energy recovery
- 46 Million tons were landfilled
- The average American discards 80 pounds of clothes per year
- The average lifetime of a piece of clothing is 3 years
Many Americans consider re-use a top priority and make donations to charities such as Goodwill, ARC, and The Salvation Army. Recently for-profit clothing collection bins such as USAgain have increased in popularity.
The listed charities evaluate and sort clean, desirable clothes and place them for sale in retail stores. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, nearly 50% of used clothing is given to charities by the general public and 61% of reusable textiles are exported to other countries. More than 70% of the world population uses secondhand clothing.
There are many ways to give your used clothing a second life, including clothing swaps, re-fashioning an old item into something fresh, selling to a consignment shop or repurposing at home as cleaning cloths, aprons or art projects.
Covid-19 put a temporary stop to donations, but collections are flowing again. In addition to donating to your favorite charity, EcoCycle’s CHARM center, located at 6400 Arapahoe in Boulder, offers options for clothing and textile recycling.