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How Fabric Gets Recycled?

Ever wondered how fabric gets recycled? Well, it's a fairly complicated process. Fabric is made from many different materials, some of which are easier to recycle than others. All fabrics have a natural life cycle and eventually they will decompose into the earth. With that being said, you can help extend your favorite clothes' lifespan by using them for as long as possible before recycling them responsibly!

Every year, around 80 to 100 billion pieces of clothing are produced. The US itself has contributed to 15 million tons of textile waste annually - that is the equivalent of about 47 clothing pieces per person - and the UK sends about 235 million garments to landfills. The numbers are overwhelming, considering that many textile fibers can be recycled with the appropriate process.

Textile Recycling Defined

Textile recycling is the process of recovering fibers, yarns or fabrics and reprocessing the textile materials into new products. After the textile waste is gathered, it is sorted and processed according to each fiber’s condition, composition and resale value. There are two primary sources where textiles are collected for recycling:

Textile Collection: Post- Vs. Pre-Consumer Textile Recycling 

The first step in any textile recycling process is collection. Materials are sorted and recycled differently depending on if they are post- or pre-consumer. 

Post-consumer textiles are those donated by individuals (i.e., secondhand clothing). Most post-consumer clothing is collected through public donation bins, clothing drives, or independent company programs. These bins from companies are strategically placed in populated areas for public donations. Other businesses use donation boxes or mail-in services so that individual consumers can ship their used clothing to processing facilities. 

But companies work with recycling partners to ensure donated items never go to landfills. And a handful of other brands also use take-back programs to upcycle, recycle, or resell customers’ garments. Each of these efforts is exciting, but minimal in comparison to the larger issue at hand—which includes campaigns that are claiming to tackle post-consumer textile recycling at scale when, in actuality, the brands are greenwashing. 

Pre-Consumer Sources

This includes textile waste produced at the industrial production stage. These sources are usually by-products from yarn and fiber manufacture and are repurposed by the automotive, furniture and other industries.

Post-Consumer Sources

These are discarded garments or household items from manufactured textiles that are usually damaged. Some of these garments are redirected to second-hand retailers in order to be sold again, after being collected from municipal clothing bins. However, the sad truth is that the majority eventually ends up in landfills and incinerators.

FAQs

Clothing can be converted into fiber and used to manufacture all sorts of products, including carpet padding, rubberized playgrounds, and materials for the automotive industry. Organizations like Blue Jeans Go Green even recycle your unwanted blue jeans into housing insulation!

Globally just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled. ... 13.6% of clothes and shoes thrown away in the US end up being recycled – while the average American throws away 37kg of clothes every year. Globally just. 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled.

What happens to fabric waste that is not recycled? Fabric that is not recycled will end up in landfill. It sits in landfill while it decomposes – this can take decades, particularly for artificial fabrics. Cotton and thread take a few months to decompose, while synthetics like polyester can take hundreds of years.

Textile consumption around the world is calculated to be over 100 million tons. However, the rate of recycling is rather low: Barely 13% of the total material input is in some way recycled after usage. Of this recycled 13%, a minuscule part is used to produce new clothing—less than 1%.

Textile recycling is the process by which old clothing and other textiles are recovered for reuse or material recovery. It is the basis for the textile recycling industry. The necessary steps in the textile recycling process involve the donation, collection, sorting and processing of textiles, and then subsequent transportation to end users of used garments, rags or other recovered materials.

The basis for the growing textile recycling industry is, of course, the textile industry itself. The textile industry has evolved into a nearly $1 trillion industry globally, comprising clothing, as well as furniture and mattress material, linens, draperies, cleaning materials, leisure equipment, and many other items.

Every year, around 80 to 100 billion pieces of clothing are produced. The US itself has contributed to 15 million tons of textile waste annually - that is the equivalent of about 47 clothing pieces per person - and the UK sends about 235 million garments to landfills. The numbers are overwhelming, considering that many textile fibers can be recycled with the appropriate process.

Every year, 87% of garments end up in landfills and incinerators with only 13% being recycled and eventually reused and currently, only 1% of collected clothing is recycled into new fibers. That means that disposed textiles that end up in landfills, take more than 200 years to decompose.

What happens then? The most common organic fibers that garments are made of are cotton, wool and silk, which are biodegradable. The majority of garments, though, are blends and contain polyester. Biodegradation is an environmentally friendly process due to its natural decomposition. However, when dumped into landfill, textiles go through a process called anaerobic digestion, where the constant compression of textile waste layers glean the air out of the waste making the atmosphere ideal for anaerobic bacteria. The “trapped” clothes then start emitting methane - a greenhouse gas which is considered more toxic than CO2 and absorbs 20 times more heat in the atmosphere. Even when you donate garments, 10 to 15% will reach second hand markets but a 5% of them will still end up in landfills polluting the environment.

The Benefits Of Textile Recycling

From an environmental aspect, textile recycling decreases the demand for chemical dyes, considering that about 10,000 chemical dyes are used during textile production. Just imagine the environmental damage this causes. Another essential benefit is the preservation of virgin fibers used for the massive production of garments. Natural sources are already depleted so the textile and fashion industry should start contributing to a circular economy instead of a linear one. Recycling textiles also reduces the consumption of water and energy, considering that a single pair of jeans needs almost 30,000 litres of water for its production. 

From a socio-economic aspect, textile recycling ‘saves money and space’: Landfills are generally very expensive to purchase and require an abundance of open space. They cost millions to operate and guess where the money comes from? The citizen’s pocket, as it is included in the taxes of each municipality and city.

Who Makes A Good Effort?

In 2013, fashion brand “The North Face” introduced the so-called “Clothes the Loop”, where customers can recycle post-consumer items from any brand at any North Face retail location across the country. The famous denim brand Levi’s also launched the “Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green” program in 2014, where consumers can bring in their denim from any brand to a Levi’s US and Canada store, and in exchange receive a 20% discount on any of Levi's items. The donated fabric will be recycled and used as material for building insulation for hospitals and schools. Patagonia has also done a lot of initiatives in textile recycling. Currently, the brand uses pre and post-consumer waste recycled fibers in 72% of its product line and avoids the exploitation of virgin fibers.

The Urgency To Recycle Textiles

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The importance of recycling textiles is increasingly being recognized. An estimated 100 billion garments are produced annually, worldwide.2 According to the US EPA, around 17 million tons of textile municipal solid waste (MSW) was generated in 2018, about 5.8% of total MSW generation. The recycling rate for textiles derived from clothing and footwear was 13.0%, while the recovery for sheets and pillowcases was 15.8% for the same year. As such, textile recycling is a significant challenge to be addressed as we strive to move closer to a zero landfill society.

Once in landfills, natural fibers can take a few weeks to a few years to decompose.4 They may release methane and CO2 gas into the atmosphere. Additionally, synthetic textiles are designed not to decompose. In the landfill, they may release toxic substances into groundwater and surrounding soil.

Textile recycling offers the following environmental benefits:

  • Decreases landfill space requirements, bearing in mind that synthetic fiber products do not decompose and that natural fibers may release greenhouse gasses
  • Avoided use of virgin fibers
  • Reduced consumption of energy and water
  • Pollution avoidance
  • Lessened demand for dyes.

Sources Of Textiles For Recycling

Textiles for recycling are generated from two primary sources. These sources include:

  • Post-consumer, including garments, vehicle upholstery, household items and others.
  • Pre-consumer, including scrap created as a by-product from yarn and fabric manufacture, as well as the post-industrial scrap textiles from other industries.

The donation of old garments is supported by non-profit as well as many corporate programs, including those of Nike and Patagonia.

Wearable And Reused Textiles

In the European Union, about 50% of collected textiles are recycled and about 50% are reused. Approximately 35% of donated clothes are turned into industrial rags. Most of the reused clothing is exported to other countries. Oxam, a British charitable organization, estimates 70% of their clothing donations end up in Africa. The issue of sending used clothing to Africa has generated some degree of controversy as to the benefits of such initiatives, where it can have an adverse impact on local textile industries, native dress, and local waste generation.

H&M’s widespread garment collection, for example, doesn’t address the company’s overproduction or provide a plan for reusing the overwhelming amounts of textiles they receive during collection. Moreover, many recycling programs and store take-backs have quality guidelines for donations, some excluding items with stains or rips. And almost all textile recycling programs refuse wet garments because of inevitable mildew buildup. If a piece of clothing gets wet in the shipping or sorting process, it’s then headed for the landfill.

Some companies have decided to avoid sifting through stained t-shirts altogether and instead focus on pre-consumer textile recycling. Pre-consumer collection includes anything from clothing manufacturers’ fabric scraps to post-industrial scrap textiles from entities like hotels and healthcare facilities. partner with brands to create circular solutions for unsold stock and unused textiles.

Sorting Textiles By Fiber: Natural Vs. Synthetic Fiber

After collection and sorting, textiles are generally “graded” to determine what can be resold and what must be recycled. The garments that can’t be resold are sorted by color and material. In the case of natural materials, the garment is then shredded into fibers via machine; these fibers are then cleaned and re-aligned in a ‘carding process’ before being re-spun into yarn. 

Depending on its intended purpose, different types of yarns are blended to create a stronger fiber for reuse. Still, most natural fiber isn’t spun into yarn again but instead turned into stuffing for furniture, insulation for buildings, or cleaning rags. Technically all fabrics can be recycled, so why are only .1 percent of textiles turned into new clothing? Aside from consumer error, natural fibers are unfortunately much harder to recycle than synthetic ones. 

Here’s how most recycling is done using thermomechanical processing. The heat burns up most natural fibers but, on the other hand, if you have polyester, you can shred the polyester fabric or garment and run it through an extruder because it's a plastic and it will melt like any other plastic. The extruder—which is the machine that carries out the thermomechanical processing—can then create new granules from the broken down synthetic material.

This is a much more straightforward process than the one that happens with natural fibers. This isn’t to say that natural fibers are bad (far from it), but we simply don’t have the systems in place to widely recycle them at the moment. Even more difficult? Combined fibers—though solvents and solutions can extract polyester or cotton from a blended fabric.

The Future Of Textile Recycling 

Textile recycling, circularity, and clothing reuse—there’s a lot to discuss. But we have very little information on how these ideas will scale. Organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have big ideas and plans for creating a new textiles economy based on the principles of a circular economy, but we’ve yet to see real impact in the fashion industry. There seems to be a disconnect between accessible donation and the rate of recycling into new, wearable items. 

Civic or science-minded organizations and companies are hell-bent on making it easy for clothing to be collected, while the percentage of clothing turned into new items remains slim. A lot of clothing is diverted from landfills for the time being, but what will it take to create this widespread, sustainable change? We’ll have to see.

In the meantime, the best thing we can do for the planet is to be more mindful about textile donations, and not be so quick to assume our donations will be recycled. Instead, we can find ways to reuse and repurpose garments and textiles in our home as a way to ensure they stay out of landfills. 

The Recycling Process 

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For textiles to be recycled, there are fundamental differences between natural and synthetic fibers. For natural textiles:

The incoming unwearable material is sorted by type of material and color. Color sorting results in a fabric that does not need to be re-dyed. The color sorting means no re-dying is required, saving energy and avoiding pollutants. Textiles are then pulled into fibers or shredded, sometimes introducing other fibers into the yarn. Materials are shredded or pulled into fibers. Depending on the end use of the yarn, other fibers may be incorporated.

  • The yarn is then cleaned and mixed through a carding process
  • Then the yarn is re-spun and ready for subsequent use in weaving or knitting. 
  • Some fibers are not spun into yards, however. Some are compressed for textile filling such as in mattresses.

In the case of polyester-based textiles, garments are shredded and then granulated for processing into polyester chips. These are subsequently melted and used to create new fibers for use in new polyester fabrics.

Are My Donated Clothes Really Being Recycled?  

Each year, new and more horrifying statistics come out about how much textile waste is being produced. This includes vehicle upholstery, home goods, and of course, clothing. With fast fashion continuing to rear its ugly head, secondhand shops are overwhelmed and clothing donated with the best intentions often ends up in landfills. 

According to The Environmental Protection Agency, 16.9 million tons of textiles were generated in 2017, with only 13.6 percent estimated to have been recycled. Landfills receive more than 10 million tons of textile waste each year because there isn’t enough demand for the endless supply of donated clothing. This results in mountains of used items being dumped around the world, as well as used pieces being sold by vendors, hindering the businesses of local designers and makers.

Beyond Recycling, Shop Sustainably

As society becomes more familiar with the hazards associated with sending old textiles to the landfill, and as new recycling technologies develop, it can be anticipated that the textile recycling industry will continue to grow. At the same time, watch for trends such as slow fashion to draw continued attention to the interplay of clothing and sustainability. The fast fashion industry generates considerable pollution and a sizable negative impact on climate change. Consumers can help affect change by choosing clothing brands that last longer and which demonstrate a commitment to reducing their climate change impact.

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