Where and How to Recycle Your Old Clothes

Amy Arani

You’ve streamlined your closet. Upcycled that old shirt. And donated your gently worn pieces. You love every item in your closet and purchase new clothes with intention. But what about those jeans with the hole that just can’t be patched? That depressing bra that you never want to look at again, let alone put on your body? You don’t want to throw them out, because you know that each day we create enough fashion waste to fill 1.5 Empire State buildings. You also know that 87% of that is burned or landfilled (via Ellen MacArthur Foundation). 

So what do you do?

If you’re like most people, you take your old items to a donation bin or resellers like Goodwill or Savers. Out of sight, out of mind, and at least you’re not throwing it out, right?

Not quite. 

When you donate your gently used items, they end up in the second-hand economy. Buying and donating used clothing is one way to extend the lifecycle of your threads, and keeps items from heading straight to the landfill. That’s a very, very good thing, and that’s what happens with the clothes you send to us. However, clothing that we might call hard-worn has a different future. 

In 2018, the global second-hand clothing market was worth about $4 billion

What you may not know is that when you donate clothing that’s not in tip-top shape, most of it ends up in on a cargo ship, headed overseas. While this does extend the life of used items, there are a few things to consider. First, shipping bales of used clothing abroad contributes to global emissions. Each of the largest container ships emits the equivalent greenhouse gases of 50 million cars, including as much nitrogen and sulfur oxide as 760 million of them. Second, because it can damage their economies, the developing world is beginning to say no to this influx when it does arrive. 

The How and Where of Textile Recycling: It’s complicated.

To keep your less-posh items out of the global market, it seems obvious that recycling is the answer. However, it’s an imperfect process. According to The Balance, much of what you send to your textile recycler will enter the global second-hand economy (50%). If your worn item does get recycled, it will be sorted, processed, and made into either new yarn (0.1%), insulation, mattress fill, and fiberboard (26%), or industrial cloth (20%). 

Although no method is perfect, we have to start somewhere. Here are several options that will keep your old clothes out of the landfill and in circulation.

Repurpose 

Since 20% of what’s recycled will become industrial cloth anyway, save the recycler and yourself the trouble. Make your own! All you’ll need is a pair of scissors. You’ll save money on cleaning supplies and keep those old clothes out of the landfill. Win-win.

Compost! 

Those of us who have jumped on the all-natural fiber train will be happy to know that cotton, hemp, wool, silk, and other natural textiles can be composted. Check with your city to see if non-synthetic clothing can enter their compost stream. If not, your home composting set-up will work wonders. It’s the ultimate way to recycle your clothing.  To make it easier, here’s a how-to-guide that will help you generate new soil from your unwanted clothes.

Send Them To BUHO

BUHO has partnered with non-profits to ensure that your gently used items go to people who need them. All you need to do is fill a bag / box and send your old clothing directly to us. We'll even take your hard worn items and convert them into new fabric. As a thank you, we'll give you $10 off your next order.

Depend on Your City

If you live in San Francisco, you’re in luck. The first city in the nation to implement compost collection has also teamed up with I:CO to collect unwearable clothing. If you’re a San Franciscan, all you need to do is put your clean fabric items in a clear bag and toss them into your blue recycling bin

According to their website, I:CO “aims to create a public, private, and non-profit infrastructure to make it easier, convenient, and rewarding for residents and businesses to recycle textiles.” Hopefully we’ll see this program expand over the coming years, but for now, if you’re far from the city by the bay, you’ll have to head to one of I:CO’s partners to drop off your used clothes. 

Visit Your Favorite Store

Retailers such as Patagonia and Nike accept their clothing for resale and recycling. The North Face, Asics, and H&M partner with I:CO, and they’ll take any brand in any condition. If your favorite line doesn’t have a recycling program, ask why not. 

Send Your Denim to Blue Jeans Go Green

Levi’s, Rag & Bone, and Madewell, among others, work with Blue Jeans Go Green to repurpose denim. Take your old skinnies or mom jeans to one of their shops or send them directly to Blue Jeans Go Green for free via Zappos for Good.

Get a TerraCycle Box 

Although TerraCycle offers many free programs, this option isn’t free. You’ll end up spending at least $100, but that fee includes a prepaid shipping label. To make it more affordable, team up with a group of friends. One idea is to have a clothing swap for your gently used items and split the cost of a TerraCycle box for the pieces that are past their prime. Wine and cheese not included.

Visit Earth 911

Earth 911 has an incredible database for all things recycling, including clothing. Head there and enter your zip code to find your closest clothing recycler.  

Give Your Clothes to Donation-Based Organizations 

Although clothes that end up at Goodwill, Savers, USAgain, Planet Aid, and other donation-based organizations may end up in the global resale economy via salvage brokers, a portion of those items will be recycled.

Sustainable Fashion: A Global Shift

“Sustainability, which breaks into our respondents’ list of the most important challenges for the first time, is evolving from a tick-box exercise into a transformational feature.

State of Fashion 2019, McKinsey

As we move toward a circular economy, and consumers demand more sustainable options, we foresee recycling options increasing. For now, the reality is that only 1% of clothing is recycled. Reward companies that offer recycling programs with your business, and the fashion industry will be incentivized to increase their availability.