Dear Umbra,

I promise that I searched the archives before emailing you, so hopefully you haven’t already answered this question. I’m wondering about the best way to dispose of old clothes and shoes — the tired, well-loved, and much-worn items that thrift shops really don’t want. I wear my clothes until the bitter end, and then I just don’t know what to do with them. Old T-shirts make great rags, but then what?

Carrie Doring
Seattle, Wash.

Dearest Carrie,

I’m holding you up as an example of proper Umbra-writing etiquette. You searched the archives. Thank you.

I feel very sad about the piles of persons who write me and become frustrated that I never answer their question. Here are four reasons I may not answer a question: 1) I answered it already; 2) it has to do with trash, recycling, and/or plastic, which I’m currently trying to de-emphasize; 3) it is too specific to be interesting to most people; or 4) I haven’t gotten around to it, and may never. I get a lot of mail. In fact, I’ll tell you a little secret: I’m currently deleting emails if the question is answered in the FAQs. Helps me blow off steam. Plus, we just moved, and I didn’t have room to pack all of your emails.

Where will they go when they’re old
and gray?

Photo: iStockphoto.

So your archivalicious (and very popular) question gets answered today despite having to do with trash. I haven’t tried this, but the first idea that springs to mind is using natural fabric in the garden, either composting it or using it for mulch as one would use a burlap sack. Another idea I found on the worldwide webaroo is to call around to animal shelters to see if they could use your large rags for bedding or cleanup. (Shoes are a no-go for animals, though, just so’s you know.)

It seems we have been ignorant about the true nature of textile recycling in the United States. I thought, and you thought, rags were landfilled in the modern throwaway society. Nope. There are domestic and foreign markets for our discards, to be reworn by people, or used as rags, or formed into recycled-content textiles. We don’t get to these markets through our curbside recycling, but through donation sites which — on the surface — appear to take only our usable clothing. Goodwill, for instance, bales unusable clothing and sends it for recycling and reuse, which helps support their programs. Other similar organizations in your area may also do this. I recommend calling before assuming that they are prepared to take your discards, in case a local business is too small to broker them.

Your discards will either be reused by poor people in faraway countries, or shredded to fill car seats, or used as industrial-type wipes, or reworked into textiles. By the way, shredded used textile material that’s ready to be integrated into a new item is called shoddy. Almost as good as cullet!

So, hurrah for our used clothes. It’s not as desperate a trash situation as it would seem.

Shoddily (of course),
Umbra