Clothing, footwear, towels, bedding, draperies. What can you do with these fibers when you can’t or no longer want to use them? One way to benefit both your community and the environment is to donate used textiles to charitable organizations. Most recovered household textiles end up at these organizations. Donated textiles do not have to be in usable or wearable condition, as what is not able to be sold in thrift shops is sold to textile recovery facilities.
Just the Facts
Nearly half of textiles discarded are contributed to charities, according to an estimate from the Council for Textile Recycling. Charities either give away clothes or sell them at discounted prices in secondhand stores. About 61 percent of the clothes recovered for second-hand use are exported to foreign countries.
Regardless of their final destination, used textiles have a relatively stable and high price. According to EPA, revenue generated by sales is enough to cover processing costs. Unsalable clothing is sold to textile recovery facilities for processing.
A survey by Goodwill Industries, one of the largest textile collectors, found that half of the people making donations prefer door-to-door pickup, and more than half would not go more than 10 minutes out of their way to make a drop off. To help divert textiles that might otherwise end up in a landfill or incinerator, some counties collect used textiles with regular curbside recyclables pickup. Others offer less frequent quarterly or annual pickups. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes waste reduction and recycling, reports that the most successful municipal or county programs have partnered with or otherwise involved local charities and nonprofit organizations.
Textiles typically are not sorted at the point of collection, but keeping them clean and free from moisture is important. Once clothes get wet, stained, or mildewed, they cannot be sold for reuse. To prevent contamination, many charities offer enclosed drop-off boxes for clothing or other fabrics. Communities with curbside collection for textiles should educate donors on how to properly bag clothing.
Textile recovery facilities separate overly worn or stained clothing into a variety of categories. Some recovered textiles become wiping and polishing cloths. Cotton can be made into rags or form a component for new high-quality paper. Knitted or woven woolens and similar materials are "pulled" into a fibrous state for reuse by the textile industry in low-grade applications, such as car insulation or seat stuffing. Other types of fabric can be reprocessed into fibers for upholstery, insulation, and even building materials. Buttons and zippers are stripped off for reuse. Very little is left over at the end of the recycling process. The remaining natural materials, such as various grades of cotton, can be composted. If all available means of reuse and recycling are utilized, the remaining solid waste that needs to be disposed of can be as low as 5 percent.
More than 500 textile recycling companies handle the stream of used textiles in the United States. As a whole, the industry employs approximately 10,000 semi-skilled workers at the primary processing level and creates an additional 7,000 jobs at the final processing stage. Primary and secondary processors account for annual gross sales of $400 million and $300 million, respectively.