The reduce-reuse-recycle philosophy of my youth evoked images of bottles, cans, and paper. My friends and I lamented the poor animals with necks caught in plastic rings from six-packs of cans. To this day, I diligently seek out recycling bins everywhere I go, from restaurants to house parties.
But what to do with my old clothes?
There have always been options for the lightly used clothes I don’t wear anymore. They can be donated: to a thrift store, to a friend with similar taste, to a local free store. But then there are those clothes that are too ancient, damaged, and useless for donation. They get worn for painting projects and camping trips until they’re literally falling apart. And then they get thrown away.
There are lots of consumers like me, and there are some who are worse: people who throw away perfectly good clothing to save the inconvenience of a donation drop-off trip. But even people who keep the ethics of recycling close to our hearts often fail to keep our old clothing out of the landfill.
As it turns out, only 15 percent of the clothes we discard actually get reused. Americans, on average, throw out 70 pounds of clothing each year. According to the EPA, the 15 percent that gets reused is tantamount to having a million fewer cars on the road, in terms of environmental impact.
We need to find out how to make that percentage bigger. How can we keep our textiles out of the landfill? Let’s take a look at some of the top ways to start saving the world by recycling clothes.
At-Home Reuse Options
As with most recycling issues, one solution is to get creative at home. The clothes may no longer be useful, but the fabric still is. You can use old clothing at home for all kinds of crafty or practical projects.
One of the most obvious things to do with old clothing items is to turn them into rags for cleaning. If there’s still enough fabric to make a rag, use it. This lets you step away from using wasteful paper towels to clean your home. With a stack of rags on hand, you can keep things clean, wash your rags, and use them again.
You can also use old fabric to make simple, fun crafts. Stuff old fabric scraps into a pillowcase, sew it shut, and you’ve got a homemade pet bed. Cut a piece of pretty fabric into a strip that you can wear as a headband, choker, or hair tie. Glue fabric to a plain picture frame to dress it up. Ideas like this don’t require much time or effort, but can be a lot of fun.
If you want to get fancier with your old clothes, use them to create new designs.
Making new things from old fabric doesn’t have to mean sewing a whole quilt. With a bit of amateur sewing knowledge, you can sew the fabric from old clothes into a simple tote bag. Or, add fabric patches to give a shabby-chic feel to jeans or a jacket.
Repurposing your old clothes can be more stylish than you might think—even fashion designers are getting in on it. Melissa Gumley, creator of the ADHD Driven fashion line, prides herself on being a zero-waste designer. She weaves rugs and tapestries from leftover scraps of fabric. Other scraps get used to make pillows and decorative wall hangings. Who’s to say you can’t do the same with your old clothes?
Away-From-Home Donation Options
You’ve applied your old clothes to as many creative household projects as possible. However, you’re still left with a few things you can’t use, or worn-out fabric scraps that have served their last possible purpose. What next? There are recycling programs of all kinds for old clothes and textiles—here’s how to find them.
Of course, donating to a thrift or consignment store is the obvious choice. However, you might not have a store like that nearby, or your old clothes might be too worn out to donate. Fortunately, textile recycling companies can take care of almost anything you’ve got.
You may have seen clothing donation bins in your apartment complex or a nearby parking lot. These can be a great resource, but research what the company does with the used clothes before putting them in the bin. Some, like USAgain, save even the scraps to sell for insulation and other purposes. If the company doesn’t say what it does with the scraps, it’s safe to assume they get thrown away.
Can’t find anywhere to recycle your stuff? Head over to Earth911.com to find out how to keep textiles and anything else out of the landfill. This site curates all kinds of information about recycling based on location. Just enter your zip code and what you’re hoping to recycle to get started.
A city near you might have a new innovative way of dealing with old clothes.
In Seattle, EVRNU was launched to help combat the rising pile of textiles in our landfills. Starting with major thrift stores like Goodwill, the company uses chemicals to deconstruct unsellable clothing back into fiber. That fiber is then used to make everything from new fabric to cars.
As environmental concerns become more pressing, people are looking for new ways to reuse old materials. Organizations like EVRNU offer creative solutions—keep an eye out for revolutionary recycling concepts near you.
Can Clothes Recycling Really Save the Planet?
The problem with environmental issues is that they’re complex. Individual recycling efforts can’t be counted on to halt global warming and clean up the world’s oceans. But those individual efforts can slowly add up to major impacts.
When we work together, we can find new ways to change the negative impact fashion and textile production has had on the environment.
Recycle your clothes—but don’t do it alone. Recruit friends for clothing swaps, donation trips, and fabric craft days. Look for innovative recycling options near you. Don’t see any? Maybe it’s time to start the next big clothes recycling project yourself.