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Recycling gives old clothes, shoes, linens and other textiles a second life and reduces the amount of waste going into landfills. “Textiles are 100 percent recyclable,” says Jana Hawley, a University of Missouri faculty member who studies the industry.
How to recycle old clothes
Textile recycling is as close as your local charity, says Jana Hawley. Old clothes, shoes and other textiles that are too stained or damaged for resale are sold to recyclers, also called rag dealers.
“We strongly encourage consumers to find a local charity or drop box where they can donate their old clothing,” she said.
Hawley frequently gets questions from people who want to deal with recyclers directly. “Recyclers only deal in 600- to 1,000-pound bales. Most of their operations are not set up to receive what they would consider small donations from individual consumers. Doing business that way simply isn’t cost-effective.”
Because recyclers pay about 5 cents per pound, direct sales are not advantageous for consumers either.
“If you live in a metropolitan area, you should be able to find a drop box or a favorite charity that will send the goods through the pipeline if they are unable to use them in their own retail operation,” Hawley says.
However, most old clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the 12.5 billion pounds of textiles diverted from the waste stream account for just 30 percent of what people throw away.
Recyclers sort textiles by color before processing them for other uses.
“Consumers may not realize that there’s a place for their old clothing, even if something is missing a button or torn,” says Hawley, professor and chair of the textile and apparel management department.
Recycled textiles have many uses and can be found in everyday items, like dollar bills, which are made from 80 percent recycled cotton. Denim can be shredded and used to insulate homes. Cotton T-shirts are used as polishing cloths. Wool clothing can become blankets. Mixed fiber can be used to stuff pet beds. Even old sneakers have a second life; the soles can be shredded and used to create athletic surfaces.
The recycling processes themselves are green, Hawley says. Recyclers process 93 percent of the materials they handle without creating hazardous waste or other byproducts. Developing more markets for reclaimed fibers, Hawley says, will make textile recycling more desirable, reducing the waste going to landfills.
Recycling textiles has significant economic benefits as well. Most of the 500 U.S. companies are small businesses with 35 to 50 workers, 37 times the number of jobs at landfills or waste incinerators. These businesses contribute to the local tax base and generate $700 million in annual gross revenue. Hawley says, “In some municipalities, textile recycling brought in almost enough money to cover all of the city’s recycling costs.”