How to Recycle Fabrics

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on January 17, 2023

Many items are recyclable and can be repurposed into other items. Some of the most commonly known recyclables include plastics and aluminum, but recycling fabric is possible too. Other recyclables include: 

  • Paper and cardboard
  • Glass
  • Batteries
  • Electronics
  • Food
  • Lawn materials
  • Used oil
  • Household hazardous waste
  • Tires
  • Metal 

Miscellaneous items are also recyclable, such as used diapers and various textiles including old clothes, shoes, and other household fabrics. Many people do not realize textiles are recyclable or understand the process of recycling fabric, so these materials are often discarded.  

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that textile waste, including fabrics, makes up roughly 5% of landfill space. Meanwhile, the textile recycling industry recycles around 3.8 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste (PCTW) annually. Despite these numbers, only 15% of PCTW ends up recycled, and 85% goes to landfills. 

Almost all textile products can be reused, and the impact of recycling fabrics is not just environmental. When you recycle old fabrics, you help provide affordable clothing to people worldwide who are underprivileged.

Deciding to start recycling textiles is only half the battle. To be successful, you need to know the correct processes for recycling fabric and other textiles.

What Is Fabric Made Of?

Fabrics are made from natural resources such as wool, wood, cotton, cocoons, coal, and petroleum. These different materials share one commonality: they are all made from chemical compounds known as polymers. However, not all polymers can be used to create fabrics. Those found in the substances listed above are ideal for making fabric but require a special process to do so.

For example, natural fibers must be gathered and cleaned before they can be used. Then, they must be arranged in the same direction and twisted together to create small yarns. Yarn is then woven together to create the fabric. Fibers such as those derived from petroleum are created by a chemical reaction called chemical synthesis and then used to build textiles.

Is Fabric Bad for the Environment?

The answer isn't black and white when it comes to the impact of fabric on the environment. Certain fibers can have negative impacts on the environment in different ways. Some common concerns include:

  • Contamination: Some fabrics carry a higher risk of contamination. Nylon is linked to the creation of nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. Polyester requires large amounts of water and lubricants which can cause contamination. The manufacturing process of any fiber consists of dying and bleaching, which can also contribute to contamination.
  • Energy use: Many processes for obtaining fibers and manufacturing textiles are energy-heavy.
  • Pollution: Some fibers are non-biodegradable, meaning they cannot break down and consequently contribute to pollution. 
  • Pesticides: Some fibers, such as cotton, can contain pesticides that cause a significant environmental impact.

Can I Recycle Fabrics?

For the most part, fabric can be recycled. However, the processes for recycling fabrics and textiles depend on the type. For example, disposable diapers are not always recyclable, but reusable cloth diapers typically are. Still, you should check with your local solid waste agency or recycling programs before throwing away disposable diapers. 

As for old clothes and shoes, there are few recycling options. If the items are in decent shape, you can donate them to charities. Some will not accept damaged clothes or shoes, but it is always best to ask. You may also check into local recycling programs. Retail stores commonly accept old clothes and shoes for recycling purposes. 

Damaged clothing usually cannot be reused or reconstructed into suitable clothes. Instead, it can be recycled into wiping rags or deconstructed into fiber that is used to create new items including yarn, carpet padding, and insulation.

Recycling fabric has many environmental benefits. The act reduces:

  • Space required for landfills
  • Pollution from incinerators 
  • Harsh chemicals, waste products, wastewater, and other toxins released in the manufacturing process

The Process of Recycling Fabrics

Almost all textile items are recyclable, even those that are stained, torn, or well-worn. However, they must be dry and odor-free to be recycled and reused.

When people think of textiles, many think only of clothing. However, textiles can also include household items such as towels, curtains, and stuffed animals. More examples of recyclable textile items include: 

  • Accessories such as belts, boots, purses, and socks
  • Bedding such as comforters and blankets
  • Clothing such as jeans and pants, pajamas, shirts, jerseys, dresses, and coats
  • Footwear such as slippers, flip-flops, and other shoes 
  • Household textiles such as stuffed animals, table linens, pillows, napkins, and curtains

The steps to recycle textiles are as follows: 

Collect your textiles. Scan your home for any textiles you would like to recycle. You could invite family and friends to contribute items as well.

Find a program. Ask your local sanitation company about their recycling options, or find a local charity or retail store with a recycling program.

What happens during and after. Textile-based recycling programs usually require a few professionals in various roles including collectors, processors, and distributors.

Collectors work for recycling companies and programs that receive used textiles and clothing from households, public venues, and businesses such as industrial laundries, hotels, clothing manufacturers, and healthcare clinics. 

Once collected, the collectors bale the products and sell them to third-party sources such as clothing graders and dealers.

Processors sort, grade, and repurpose used textiles which are then baled and resold. These products are mostly distributed overseas but sometimes resold in the United States. Processors also receive items from industrial laundries that are used to create wiping cloths.

Many companies turn used clothing into fiber that is then sold to other companies to create new products. The fibers are used to create household goods such as stuffing for furniture, pet bedding, and other important items.

Finally, distributors take used textiles and turn them into wiping cloths. These cloths are often sold to industries including manufacturing and retail businesses.

Show Sources

ACS: “Fabulous Fibers: The Chemistry of Fabrics!”
Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection: “Textiles Reuse and Recycling.”
Green Choices: “Environmental impacts.”
SMART ASN: “Frequently Asked Questions,” “List of Recyclable Textiles.”
United States Environmental Protection Agency: “How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables.”
Wear Donate Recycle: “ISSUE.”

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