Note: this blog post was updated on 4/9/17.
My 9 year old says that by the time I’m 40 there won’t be anything left in our house. I love getting rid of stuff. My favorite thing to do is pack up boxes and send them off to Goodwill. However, since I got married almost 12 years ago, I’ve thrown out 100% of our unwearable clothing (e.g. with holes, stains, stretched out elastic, etc.) because I assumed that’s what Goodwill would do.
You can imagine my shock when I learned that nearly 100% of textiles are recyclable. There’s an entire industry around textile recycling.
I assumed at the time that all the charities were in on it and whatever was unwearable would get shipped off to your friendly neighborhood textile recycler. The original blog post was super chipper about how great this thing was and how anyone could recycle their textiles. Since then, I’ve gotten a little more jaded about the whole issue because I can’t seem to get a straight answer. Even the Monroe County Department of Environmental Services gives a really evasive, easily misunderstood statement on their website that’s straight up greenwashing.
So who actually recycles textiles?
I assumed that Goodwill would recycle clothing but according to their call center on 2/8/2016 they do not solicit or accept unwearable clothing. However, a friend of mine used to work for Goodwill and messaged me to ask me to look into this further because she knew that at one point Goodwill of the Fingerlakes was recycling everything they could. I spoke to someone working in the warehouse who said that unwearable clothing is in fact recycled in our region.
Similarly I got all excited when the Savers website said that if you send them unwearable clothing, it will be recycled into insulation. But when I called Savers another time about something else an employee said, “that might represent what can be done with it, but in our store it’s all baled and shipped to the third world.”
So Goodwill says they don’t recycle it, but apparently they do and Savers says they do, but they don’t?
Then I came across the Vietnam Veterans of America’s donation page. I couldn’t find information about unwearable clothing on their website either, so I called on 2/8/2016 and according to their call center “we accept clothing items in any condition because they can be recycled.” But does that mean they do actually recycle it, or are leading me to believe they do by saying it can be? I’m skeptical.
PlanetAid has a similar issue. According to their website, a major goal of Planet Aid is to recycle clothing so that it stays out of landfills. But some argue that we’re just dumping 1st world trash on the 3rd world and that they’re drowning in our garbage. To read more click here.
Another option would be H&M, which has a recycling program in all their stores, but the chain has also been criticized heavily for greenwashing. According to this article, “Lucy Siegle, a journalist at The Guardian who writes on sustainability, is one of those who has expressed skepticism about H&M’s recycling campaigns and “Conscious” clothing lines. She has pointed out that given the limitations of current technology, it would likely take H&M up to 12 years to use just 1,000 tons of clothing waste. Meanwhile, it produces that same volume of new clothes in a matter of days.”
At this point I’ve more or less lost faith in the accessibility of verifiable textile recycling.
So what’s a zero waster to do? Here are some options in no particular order.
1. Buy only natural fibers, if possible
A key mindset of zero waste is buying items with the end result in mind. So honestly, the very best thing you can do is only purchase natural fibers (e.g. cotton, wool, etc.). I realize this isn’t always possible, but if your cotton shirt ends up on a beach in Haiti that’s a-okay because it will decompose like a boss (unlike polyester, elastic or other synthetic fibers which will not).
2. Reuse (then later compost, for natural fibers only)
Another key zero waste concept is that recycling is not an ideal solution because you lose control over what actually happens. It seems like a lot of companies that claim to be doing good things are more in the business of making us feel good about ourselves than concern over what actually happens.
If you’re 100% certain that something will be recycled then I say go for it, but if you’re in an area where textile recycling seems iffy, consider turning those holey shirts into something else. My favorite use for shirts right now is reusable toilet paper and reusable paper towels (aka rags). These are fantastic because they require about 2 minutes of time and you only need to know how to use scissors.
Then, if your rags are made of out natural fibers, you can compost them once they’re threadbare.
You can also skip the toilet paper/paper towel step and go straight composting for natural fibers.
3. Use Terracycle
A company that for sure recycles clothing anywhere in the US is Terracycle, but it costs money. I may resort to that with the synthetic clothing we already had or I may work on setting up a recycling collector in Rochester…
Hopefully the textile recycling will become more available nationwide, but in the meantime these are some ways to avoid landfilling and 3rd world dumping.