Fabric Recycling

Fabric Recycling: Everything You Need to Know

Fashion is temporary but style is forever. This paraphrased quote by Coco Chanel aptly describes the problem of fashion; it changes and very quickly at that. This leads to a worldwide problem of enormous fashion waste. It is a good thing that we can recycle fabric, this means you can stay in style and get rid of your fashion waste in ways that help the planet. In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about fabric recycling.

What is textile recycling?

Textile recycling is the process where textile materials that have come to their end-of-use for consumers are reused or processed into new material. It is simply a method of material recovery in the textile industry. Textile recyclers accept clothing items, shoes, and a lot of other items with fabric parts for processing.

The recycling process requires efforts from the government, corporate organizations, and individuals. In America, the Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) coordinates trade within the textile recycling industry. Its members include wiping materials, used clothing, and fiber industry companies. The council for textile recycling (CTR) is the leading awareness agency for textile recycling in the United States.

The textile industry is worth over $1.1 trillion3 and it includes sectors like fashion, furniture, and sanitary fabrics. Recycling textiles is an important step for the fashion industry. It helps to slow down fast fashion and disrupt its linear consumption system. The textiles recycling industry is on the growth path. The industry was worth $5.3 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 5.2% by 2016. Then, it would be worth $8 billion by 20621.

With the technological advancements of the present day, we can recycle almost any kind of fabric. So along with your old t-shirts and jeans, you can send those old cleaning rags, fabric mats, and denim bags to recycling centers. Other recyclable textile items include mattress protectors, window treatments, canvas tents, shoes, burp cloths, diaper bags, and non-plastic bath mats. 

Textile recycling process

All kinds of fabrics are recycled in three basic steps. However, the system may operate uniquely in different areas due to the resources available. The steps involved are listed and explained below.

Collection of fabric waste

Textile waste originates from end-users, clothing production companies, and other industries that use textiles in their products. We call the waste from consumers post-consumer waste, while the waste generated by the textile or textile-based industries is pre-consumer waste.  Textile waste from consumers is usually donated to charities and thrift stores or via corporate recycling programs.

Sorting

The first step in sorting out fabrics is to separate those made from natural fibers and those originating from synthetic fibers. Then sorting the textiles by color and material comes next. The sorting process is where textiles that can be reused are separated from those that will be processed into fiber. 

Processing

Processing textiles for recycling could be as simple as making repairs or upcycling. However, when a piece of fabric has come to its end of life, it is broken down into fibers. These fibers serve as raw materials for new textile products. Sometimes different kinds of fibers are mixed to add unique qualities or increase durability. 

Benefits of recycling fabrics

The importance of the textile recycling industry can not be overemphasized. They have made it possible for people to deal with the trail of fabric waste they accumulate daily in a way that benefits the environment. And this is extremely important because other methods of fabric disposal like incineration and landfilling are not sustainable. Some benefits of recycling textiles are briefly discussed below.

Sustainable resource consumption

Recycling fabric is great for the environment; it reduces the number of textiles in the waste stream, curbing resource waste. Textile production uses extensive areas of land for agriculture, putting ecosystems at risk. It also depends heavily on fossil fuels for synthetic materials and energy used in production. The world’s water supply also suffers from the linear consumption methods of the industry. 

Whether we put old clothing to a new use or reuse fibers, we are cutting back on the demand for virgin resources.

Environmental health

Textile manufacturing and disposal are sources of environmental pollution. The fashion industry alone is responsible for 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions2. Polyester, which accounts for 60% of clothing production, is a significant contributor to ocean plastic pollution. 

Chemical contamination of the water supply of many communities is also a problematic issue.

Recycling has the potential to reduce the negative environmental impact of textile production.

Related: More Fast Fashion Facts & Statistics

Conserve valuable landfill space

The world’s landfills are prime real estate necessary for waste management. In the US, they generated around 17 million tons of textile waste in 2018 alone. This amounted to about 5.8% of total Municipal Solid Waste that year. When we recycle textiles, we keep them out of landfills. This not only reduces pollution but also conserves a vital resource; landfill space. It is important to use these spaces judiciously to avoid fill up and spill out into the environment.

How you can recycle fabrics

Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

In many places, curbside recycling for textiles is not available. People who want to recycle textiles have to put in some extra effort to get it done. So how do you recycle fabric in all its different forms? Take a look at the options listed below to find one that suits you.

  • Reuse
  • Donations
  • Resale
  • Specialist recycling centers
  • Textile recycling programs

Reuse

Before you send a piece of fabric outside your home for recycling, consider repurposing it. There are many simple and creative ways to reuse fabric at home. An old t-shirt, for instance, can serve as a cleaning rag or bed layer for your pet.

Businesses that accumulate large quantities of fabric can reuse the scrap fabrics in the office. They can use it for office furniture and decor or alternative goods.

Donations 

Donating clothing and other textile items lets you help the needy and the environment. Non- profit organizations like Clothes Aid, Oxfam, and the Salvation Army receive clothing donations and sell them, using the profits to help disadvantaged communities. Some charities like clothes aid or FABSCRAP offer pick-up services for large donations. FABSCRAP operates majorly in New York City and has several collections points around the city. 

While most donation beneficiaries will only accept clothing in wearable condition, that is not the case with TerraCycle. Terracycle will take any kind of fabric in whatever condition and recycle it. But they allow you to nominate your favorite charity or school to benefit from their support.

Resale 

One way to recycle clothing is by selling it to other people. You can sell your still-wearable old clothing at an online thrift store or consignment shop. Another option to selling clothes, shoes, and bags is to swap them. A clothing swap allows people to exchange valuable but unwanted clothing items. People received items they want and give out the things they don’t to others who do.

Special recycling centers

Regardless of how well-used burp cloths, breast pads, baby changing pads are, you may not sell or donate them due to hygienic concerns. This is why special recycling centers are important. Because of the existence of specialized textile recycling companies, all kinds of fabric scraps have recycling solutions.

Recycling centers will take fabric scraps from mail bags, privacy wraps, mixed materials canvas bags, patio furniture with old clothing. Some centers may specialize in recycling only one type of textile item or have exceptions to what they will accept. So get all the information before sending your fabrics off.

People in the UK can take their waste textiles to the Household Waste and Recycling Center (HWRC). TerraCycle is a business that specifically works on hard to recycle waste. They are available in about 21 countries spread across Asia and America. A google search or recycling search engine can help you locate recycling centers close to you. 

Textile recycling programs

Sustainable fashion brands sometimes set up recycling programs. They do this to be more eco-friendly and sustainable. Companies that take back discarded materials and fashion them into new goods reduce their carbon footprint significantly. 

Nike’s shoe recycling program is dedicated to recycling athletic shoes that have reached their end of life. They will accept any brand of athletic sneakers but not boots or sandals. And all you need to do is walk into any participating Nike store and drop your old shoes in the collection bin. The top fashion brand H&M has clothing recycling bins for all kinds of textiles, in any condition, at many local stores worldwide.

The American eagle outfitters also set up a textile recycling program in partnership with I:Collect. The program lets customers drop unwanted fabrics in recycling bins at their stores.

Conclusion

Every day, landfills all over the world receive tons of discarded clothing, shoes, and accessories. Most of these items still have some use in them, as upcycled products or new material. Sadly, once in the landfill, they are no longer eligible for material recovery. 

Therefore, it falls to individuals and businesses to change this narrative. And they can do that through active textile recycling.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges. She’s also busy researching and exploring technology applications for product development for a changing world.

Photo by Deepak Rautela on Unsplash
Featured in Sustainable Fashion
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