Curious to find out if recycling can be the solution for your old clothes?
This guide reviews the state of textile recycling, its challenges, and what the future might look like. In addition, you'll learn how to recycle your own garments and prevent textile waste.
If clothes were able to talk, they would tell amazing stories about the places we visited, the people we met, and the experiences we had. Given how well they served us, landfilling is certainly not the best way to treat them. Many of us see recycling as a way to give our clothes a chance to be remade and enjoyed again, but...
Are Clothes Recycled?
Some clothes can be recycled, but most aren't because a lot of consumers are not aware of textile recycling. Other fabrics are not eligible because they contain finishes or blends of different fibers that can't be separated. In fact, only 13% of textiles get a second life and just 1% are reused to make new garments. Recycling also tends to degrade the quality of textiles, so they often find application in upholstery, carpentry, household goods like wiping cloths, mops, etc. This is widely known as downcycling - reusing materials to create lower-value products.
That's not the reality we hoped for, but it's probably the one we deserve. Textile recycling has failed to keep up with the rate of consumption. Meanwhile, fast fashion caused clothing production and sales to nearly double since the year 2000, and garments are disposed of quicker than ever. This sort of behavior is responsible for nearly 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year.
How to Recycle Clothes?
- Make sure that they can't be repaired, sold second-hand, gifted, or donated locally - that's always a better way to deal with unwanted clothes.
- Blends can't be recycled, so check the labels and set apart the fabrics composed of one material type. For example, 100% cotton is good to go, 50% cotton / 50% poly is not.
- Check with the facility if rigid parts such as buttons, zippers, and logos should be removed before handover. However, make sure to keep the labels so they know what is contained in the fabric.
- Locate a textile drop-off point near you (earth911) and say goodbye to your loved outfits.
- Finally, try to be creative about the garments that can't be recycled. Repurposing those into cleaning rags, a blanket for your pet, or a personal art project will keep them away from landfills for longer.
The development of technologies to reuse natural resources and materials is critical for the future of industries, our livelihood, and the planet. Creating a circular economy by "reduce, reuse, and recycle" is one of the best ways to preserve value and limit our impact over the long term. To put it into perspective, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calculated that customers globally miss out on $460 billion (£360 billion) of value in clothes each year.
Highly efficient recycling is one of the few things that has the potential to further scale the economy without compromising our future on Earth. Nowadays everyone is excited about colonizing Mars, but we would argue that the next stage in our development is the continuous utilization of resources on our own planet.
As exciting as it sounds, we are still faced with a rather primitive way of doing things. Before we dive into the challenges ahead, let's define the three main methods for textile recycling.
Mechanical methods rely on shredding, tearing, or carding to separate the fibers that can be spun into a new yarn or used to make nonwoven fabrics. The benefit is that the structural integrity of the fiber is preserved, but its length is reduced which affects the quality of the recycled fabric. For this reason, recycled and virgin fibers are usually mixed to make a stronger textile. As a general rule, mechanical recycling is cheaper and has a low footprint. It is by far the most commonly used method, especially for cellulose fibers like cotton and wool. Unfortunately, the approach is very limited because batches are susceptible to contamination and quality drops with every cycle, leading to downcycling.
Physical recycling works by melting or dissolving fibers to make them easier to process into new materials. The structure of the fiber changes from solid to liquid and then back to solid, but the chemical bonds of the polymer remain intact. Unlike mechanical recycling, this method allows recovering materials with near virgin quality, but it doesn't solve the problem with contamination and requires a lot of thermal energy.
- Dissolving cotton to create regenerated cellulose fibers - viscose, modal, lyocell
- PET bottles melted and spun into a new polyester filament (not really textile recycling)
⚠️ Note that most sources don't distinguish between mechanical and physical recycling and use the term "mechanical" for both.
These methods use chemicals or enzymes to break down the fiber in its monomers. After purification from contaminants such as dyes, these monomers are used to recover the polymer and make new fibers with virgin quality. Alternatively, the building elements can be used as fuel for power generation or feedstock for making chemicals. These methods are much better at handling contamination and in theory, allow infinite recycling. Yet chemical recycling is expensive, requires a lot of external energy (fossil fuels), and thus has a large carbon footprint. The technology is still in its infancy and for most fiber types it only exists on a small scale.
Dealing With Blended Fabrics
For example, polycotton is a common blend that commercial recycling still doesn't have an answer to. Here's how physical and chemical methods can address the issue by working selectively on individual fibers to separate them.
- Dissolve cotton, maintain polyester
- Degrade cotton, maintain polyester
- Maintain cotton, dissolve polyester
- Maintain cotton, degrade polyester
Solvent-based methods a.k.a solvolysis can selectively dissolve or degrade either material while the other remains intact. After separation, each fiber can be further processed on its own.
Source: Anna Palme 2016
The Problems With Textile Recycling
Clearly, no single textile recycling method has completely figured it out yet. Garment-to-garment recycling is basically non-existent (<1%). We either downcycle or dispose which is everything but circular.
Why are fabrics harder to recycle than other consumer goods?
See, fabrics come in all shapes and forms, with complex blends and finishes. That creates a wide range of problems that traditional recycling facilities have not been built to address.
Recycling is not one-size-fits-all. Plants target specific types of waste, so extensive sorting is required to ensure contamination is as low as possible. That's not trivial to do with fabrics, especially because a lot of them are mixed - polycotton, cotton/elastane, etc. There's no market for blends, so they usually end up in landfills. Though some new initiatives are trying to deal with them, they haven't managed to scale yet.
Fabrics that are heavily finished - dyes, prints, labels, threads, and rigid parts also present a contamination problem. This is why manufacturers prefer to make recycled polyester from used PET bottles instead of old polyester garments.
But wait, chemical recycling could potentially solve a lot of these challenges, no? Surely, it has been proven capable of dealing with contamination, it can recover fibers with virgin quality and even recycle mixed fabric. However, we still don't know how to reduce its cost and environmental footprint.
At the moment virgin fabrics are dirt cheap which hits the break on the development of recovered textiles. Humanity is great at problem-solving when the stakes are high or when big money is involved. Unfortunately, in this case, money bets against the planet. Circular fashion won't take off until there's either a strong financial incentive or social pressure for it.
How To Fix Recycling Problems?
Understanding the problem is the first step in solving it, but it doesn't mean it is going to be easy. If we get to the root of it, we'll see that it's not simply a matter of human evolution, it's rather a conflict between opposing forces. It is a clash similar to fossil fuels vs renewable energy - one that involves corporations, politics, and lobbies.
Scale "garment-to-garment" recycling with minimal impact on the environment.
Where to start?
Cotton and polyester present the biggest opportunity as the two fibers make ~90% of the global market. Clearly, they will move the needle the most. Given that polycotton and elastane blends (esp. in underwear and activewear) are extremely common, we have to develop technologies that address both monofabrics and blends. Prioritizing synthetic/plastic materials such as polyester and nylon will be critical to improve the circularity of non-renewables and prevent waste.
What needs to change?
Design for circularity.
That means brands should focus on monofabrics with fewer finishes whenever possible. Natural materials should be preferred unless synthetics are required for functional reasons - e.g. activewear, outdoor. This way more fabrics will be recycled and we'll be able to achieve circularity through other means such as composting.
Make recycled fabrics attractive to fashion companies.
Virgin materials are still cheaper and easier to source so moving to recycled fabrics wouldn't directly improve the business outcomes for brands. Creating incentives for them to invest in recycling is a powerful catalyst that can disrupt the industry and foster innovation across the value chain. However, it is unlikely that we'll be able to reduce the costs before a critical mass subscribes for it. It's a chicken-and-egg type of problem, that should be solved from the outside. It can be done through pressure from consumers, NGOs, and federal legislation regulating virgin plastics.
Develop and scale recycling technologies.
The circular design will allow using less aggressive recycling methods that are also cheaper and eco-friendly. Yet for complex fabrics advanced technologies like chemical recycling have to be deployed. Sadly, chemical processes often use fossil fuels to generate heat and pressure. They can only be sustainable if the underlying energy sources are sustainable as well. In fact, making the switch from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewable energy can enable many other industries to reduce their impact. It is a bigger discussion that we need to have in the world with the potential to unlock many opportunities in the future.
Our Role As Consumers
If the ideas in the previous section seemed a little far-fetched, here we talk about specific things we can do. As consumers, we have the ability to vote with our money and thus support the initiatives we believe in. To slow down the negative effects of overconsumption and give recycling time to catch up, we try to...
- Avoid buying items we don't need
- Keep items in use as long as possible
- Invest in quality timeless pieces over fast fashion
- Prefer clothes designed for circularity
- Avoid plastics in clothes unless they carry a desired function - activewear, outdoor
- Choose organic, recycled, or zero-waste fashion over conventional
- Shop from conscious brands or second-hand
- Recycle when it's the only way
Textile recycling is still not where it needs to be to offset the damage of the fashion industry. Its limited scope suggests that it shouldn't be an excuse for fast consumption. What is more, knowing the constraints of recycling can help us make choices that are better for the planet. We can buy extra time by preferring quality fabrics designed for circularity, following zero-waste or second-hand fashion, and generally caring more for our clothes.
In not so distant future we see great opportunities in advanced recycling methods that will eventually allow infinite recycling of materials with low environmental impact. However, getting there will likely require social pressure, federal legislation, and moving away from fossil fuels as a primary energy source for industries.