Recycle Textiles – How Should I Throw Away my Old Clothes

Climate and environment blog

How to throw clothes? Yes, it is a really tricky question – and something that most of us are very confused about. Many of us simply don’t know what to do with the clothes we don’t want or need anymore, and as a result, we leave them in the closet. But eventually, something needs to be done as the closet gets more and more packed. And this is when most people simply throw them in the trash. But is this really the best idea?

Let’s get to the bottom of the question. Here is how you should throw away your old clothes and what you should do with them.

First of all, let’s state the following:

Almost no clothes are recycled today and turned into new clothes. As simple as that. And those who mean something else, they are wrong! Many people will be surprised by this fact, and most importantly, considering how much clothes are thrown away, it would make sense to actually turn them into new clothes. The reason why recycling of clothes is actually not very widespread has to do with the fact that it is difficult, and thus rather cost-ineffective with today’s technology.

Why is it so difficult to recycle clothes?

Textiles are a fairly complex product: often the garments contain several different materials. For example, a regular stocking may consist of 80% cotton, 18% polyamide, and 2% elastane.

Difficult to separate materials

To make a new garment of an old one, the different materials need to be separated and then recycled. And picking out the polyamide and elastane from the cotton in the stocking example goes without saying: it’s quite complex.

Recycling something is about breaking down to fiber level and then rebuilding, which means that that cotton fiber will be a little shorter in the recycled version than it is brand new – and generally one can say that the shorter a fiber, the worse it will last.

An area that is very much researched

However, with that said, textile and fiber recycling is an area that is being researched incredibly well at the moment – and great progress is being made! But to a large extent we can recycle our clothes into new clothes in a cost- and energy-efficient way – yes, that’s a good way to go!

What is the difference between reusing and recycling?

So when the big clothing stores (and everyone else) today talk about “reusing” and “recycling”, they really mean “reuse”. And it is important to keep track of the difference between these words (which unfortunately many easily mix up)

For example, H&M mentions its collection program with the heading “Recycle your clothes” – but it is then very clear that it is just about reusing.

It is said that less than 1% of all collected textile today becomes new textile in the form of recycling (ie where the fabric is broken down to fiber level and then “rebuilt” into a new fabric). Instead, they are just different forms of reuse: second hand or as, for example, insulation materials and padding for the industry.

Recycle as much as you can!

Everything that can be used again should, of course, be so. Give it to second hand so that it can be sold again. If the clothes are still whole but just the wrong size or color for you, exchange clothes with your friends so the garments can actually come to good use.

Stuff that has a stain or just a little broken: Be creative. Repair and sew again!

Extending the life of the garments already produced is by far the most environmentally smart we can do. But of course: sometimes we all have to throw things! Worn out socks or t-shirt that really can not be saved anymore. And how do you do then?

The municipality is responsible for textile waste in some parts

The municipality is the one responsible for collecting textiles in some parts of Europe today. And that means that where you live determines how to throw clothes and fabric. In some municipalities, you are asked to put textiles in a separate bin, and in other municipalities, it is collected separately.

Many municipalities have collections at the Recycling Center, and another part also collaborates with voluntary organizations that collect both textiles and textile waste at the recycling stations.

Ask your municipality to know what applies!

See what applies to your municipality on the municipality’s website with information on waste management. If there is no information on textiles, please ask the question directly to the municipality. It is good to note that there is an interest in the matter. That it is important!

Textile waste – new directives are on the way

A separate collection will be introduced shortly. Namely, the new EU Waste Directive requires a separate collection of textile waste by 2025. So what one can say anyway is: a lot is happening in this area! We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

The big chains

H&M and several other of our largest chains have so-called collection boxes in their stores. What happens to the stuff you submit here?

However, we want to warn you. The stores that collected will usually reimburse you who submit with a discount code on your next purchase. And of course, it’s nice that you get something back for your deed. But never see the bag that you left in the box as an alibi to shop lots of new clothes.






Recycled garments

Go all-in on second hand, vintage, etc.. In order for the garments to last, it is good to think about quality instead of quantity.

Remember that fashion goes into cycles. Therefore, it may be good to save those favorite jeans, favorite shirts, and T-shirts even though they do not feel so fashionable right now. In two months they will be back. Or in two years. The nice thing is that if you have space, you save both the environment and your money by storing them well and reusing them when they become in-fashion again.

And everyone who is creative: creating new from old is fantastic! The jeans can become a bag, the pants become a skirt, there is endless inspiration to download online.

We urge you to reuse garments instead of recycling them. Because it is difficult.

It is absolutely possible to recycle natural fibers (such as cotton) but this is still done by mixing with new fibers. Natural fibers, just like paper fibers, become shorter every time they are used/recycled and therefore they must be mixed with new cotton (or polyester) to keep them together. In 2014, however, there was a breakthrough for natural fiber recycling when Re: newcell manufactured the world’s first dress in 100% recycled cotton.

Synthetic fibers

Recycled polyester is usually not made from old clothes but from plastic bottles. There is technology to recycle old textile polyester but so far this is only done on a very small scale.

Positive initiatives

Much research is being done on textile recycling, and there are examples of successful small-scale recycling projects.

With producer responsibility, companies are forced to either have systems for collecting materials for recycling and reuse or pay a fee to the organizations that do it today. Producer responsibility today exists, for example, in the electronics industry and the packaging industry and has contributed to the existence of recycling systems in these sectors, but is not widespread when it comes to textiles and clothing.

Producer responsibility for textiles would mean that producers would have a greater responsibility for producing resource-efficient textiles, without hazardous substances, that can be easily reused and recycled. And that would be good!

Clothes that cannot be reused or recycled are incinerated together with residual waste and become district heating and electricity.

But more than half of the textiles produced in the world are synthetic, and thus oil-based. This means if we burn them, it is a fossil fuel, that is, non-renewable.

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