Benefits of Cloth Recycling

Cloth recycling isn’t new, but it has only recently begun to attract attention. The sheer volume of clothes being produced and discarded every day is starting to catch up to us, and we’re now left with more textile than we can donate or reuse. And more is being made as we speak. By recycling our old clothes instead of throwing them in the bin, we not only give them a second chance at life—we also keep them out of the landfills.

The term itself is broad—cloth recycling can be as simple as donating your old clothes to a children’s center, or sending them to a processing plant where they can be remade into new clothes and other products. In the strictest sense it’s not even considered recycling, as most textiles are a mix of organic and non-biodegradable materials (e.g. cotton-polyester blends) and therefore will eventually end up as waste. Nevertheless, it’s a step up from putting fabric directly in the bin.

The composition and condition of the textile determines what happens to it at the recycling plant. At most centers they are manually sorted into those that can still be worn and those that are no longer usable. The latter may be cleaned and donated, and the rest processed into new products. There are different ways of doing this—the fibers can be separated and woven into new cloth, or the old cloth itself can be made into industrial rags or used to fill mattresses and furniture. Textiles used for the former are usually sorted by color and material so that they don’t need any additional treatment or coloring, which will cancel out any environmental benefits.

Shoes, leather goods, upholstery, and carpeting can also be recycled, although the processing is different from that used in regular fabric. They are usually a mix of several different materials (i.e. rubber and leather, metal and cloth), so they cannot be recycled right away. If you have such items to discard, make sure your local center accepts them; otherwise they might just end up in the landfill anyway.

Several major cities in the U.S. have cloth recycling programs, although none are as widespread as plastic or paper recycling. A few areas have had curbside pickups for used cloth for the last several decades. However, your best bet if you have clothes to recycle is to contact your local environmental office, or look online for relevant non-profits in your area.

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