Ask Umbra on turning threadbare clothing into recycled textiles
Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Dear Umbra,
I wear my clothes until they are no longer functional, which means I periodically end up with socks that are more hole than sock and other such non-donate-able articles of “clothing.” I’m sure the fibers that remain could be used for something, but I can’t find any info on how I can recycle fabric (only articles saying that fabric recycling exists). What can I do?
Photo: striped-socksA. Dearest Mary,
You are one mighty hole-y roller. And you’ll be glad to know the fibers you’ve worn so lovingly and held on to for so long can be used for the greater good. Fabric recycling indeed does exist.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 500 textile recycling companies are in the business of repurposing fibers in the U.S. The Council for Textile Recycling says this industry keeps 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste out of landfills each year. Of clothes that are given away, it’s estimated 48 percent get reused as secondhand clothes. The remaining used fabric, threadbare with holes and possibly stains, like your duds, get sold and sent to textile recovery facilities. There your Swiss cheese-looking socks are processed for their raw material. About 26 percent are converted into fiber for new products like wiping and polishing cloths.
For every fiber of fabric, there’s a repurpose. Cotton gets a second shot as rags or high-quality paper. Leftover cotton can be composted. Wool becomes car insulation and seat stuffers. Other fibers get transformed into upholstery and building materials like insulation. “Very little is left over at the end of the recycling process,” says the EPA, which estimates that only about 5 percent of discarded textiles are not reusable.
Much like recycling a soda can, you don’t actually have to recycle it yourself, dear Mary. You just have to get your finished finery to the right people who will see it on to its next incarnation. Finding those people, as you point out, can be a challenge. Here’s some tips on where to start.
Check with your town or city to see if they have a textile recycling program. Your local government recycling coordinator is a good place to start. Some municipalities even offer weekly curbside pick-up, or occasional recycling events to take tired threads. Your town dump may also have a collection area designated for former clothes.
Call your favorite local charity and ask if they have a relationship with a textile recycler. If they don’t and you donate, your unwearables might just end up in the trash. You can find suitable local charities and even some drop-off bins for textile recycling at Earth911. And be sure to read my column on donating clothing for the best donating options.
Remember that most places will accept used clothes with tears, holes, and stains, but they want them clean. Be sure to give your well-worns a good washing before you hand them over.
And protect your donations by putting them in a dry, plastic bag.
Well, Mary, I think we’ve about thread-bared it all here. Thanks for taking a stance and recycling your bottomless pants.
Get Grist in your inbox