What to do with Your Holey Textiles


*Quick Update: Donate Stuff is a great resource for recycling your textiles that are beyond repair, or your scraps of fabric from sewing. If there's not a drop-off location near you, they will send you pre-paid envelopes for shipping your scraps back to them.

To Donate, or...?

What do you do with all of those old clothes you no longer wear or want? Goodwill or Salvation Army, of course. Everybody knows that (in my head, I hear a Geiko commercial; way to go Geiko, you just got free name placement). But did you know that centers that take your cast-offs can only resell about 10% of what they get, based on the condition of the cast-offs?

The rest of the 90% or so can go one of several routes – 1. Get torn up into rags for industrial use, 2. Get shipped to Sub-Saharan African countries for resale, 3. Be recycled into creative uses (like art or accessories), 4. Be shredded for filler in car seats, plush toys, etc., or 5. Be tossed into a landfill.

The Low Road for Clothes

We all know how bad landfills are, so this is an obviously terrible route for your old, holey clothes. (Even if you are not directly putting worn out textiles into the garbage, donation centers may be, so use a critical eye when deciding whether to donate or recycle something.)

But it may surprise you that the Sub-Saharan country resale option is also a bad route. Shipping second-hand clothing to those countries lessens their ability to develop their own healthy textile trade.

In developing countries, research done by the University of Toronto has shown that no country that does not employ at least 1% of its population in manufacturing textiles has reached a sustainable per capital national income. So what we may have seen as charity to these countries is actually inhibiting the countries’ ability to locally produce their own clothing, thereby denying a potential workforce of manufacturing jobs and creating a dependence on donations of these second-hand textiles.

Here are a few links to more in depth articles about what happens to one of America’s largest exports in terms of quantity (hint: it’s what we’ve been talking about above), in case you need further convincing that the shipments to Africa are, in fact, quite bad:

What to do?

So what can you do to lessen the load on our own landfills and Sub-Saharan countries’ economies?

Fortunately, as mentioned above, there are a few options. You can find an artist who may take textile scraps, or more likely, you can bring your old, worn out textiles to a participating recycling center.

This website has a directory of all of the recycling centers in the US that can recycle your old textiles.

You can also check out smartasn.org for more information on recycling old textiles, including a list of all materials that can be recycled (outside of your recycling bin… don’t put your old holey clothes in the recycling bin on the curb, it’ll just get dumped into your trash, then the landfill).

Watch Out for...

Be wary of companies that allow you to sell your textile waste to them, or that strait up say they ship to international customers (for example: worldwiseusa.com). THIS IS BAD. To shunt our waste off to another part of the world is a cop out, not actually handling it in a responsible manner. The foreign country they sell to now has to figure out what to do with this waste, and it is frequently to dump it in their own landfills. If we cannot handle our own waste production here, what good are we?

It wouldn’t hurt to pretend your little patch of earth is the whole earth, and whatever waste you generate, you need to take care of. That’s an exaggeration of reality, but hopefully it gets the point across. If not, I’ll rephrase it again: take responsibility for your waste locally.

Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for Waste Prevention

This website has a lot of useful tips for how to reduce your waste by source reduction (aka: waste prevention).

It ranges in suggestions from limiting impulse buys to buying items with the highest post-consumer recycled content material to buying items in the least amount of packaging (which is totally useless in the re-use category, and frequently not recycleable).

Some other ideas to consider for the future of your wardrobe are the “capsule wardrobe” and the “lean closet” movement.

The “capsule wardrobe” is essentially allowing yourself only the essential items of clothing that will not go out of fashion, so that they can be worn for many seasons. One rule of thumb introduced to me was having only 9 tops and 9 bottoms for the summer season and the same for the winter season. For the fall and spring, then, you can mix and match pieces from summer and winter to accommodate for the temperature changes. The Wikipedia webpage for “capsule wardrobe” actually has a lot of other great suggestions and information about its origins.

The “lean closet” actually provides an incentive to do a capsule-style wardrobe. Check out their webpage for more information.

I don’t know about you, but after doing all of this reading, I am on a mission to pare my closet down to 9 tops and 9 bottoms (or as close as I can get…) for each season; sifting carefully through my cast-offs to determine which are actually in good enough condition to resell and donating those; and recycling the rest of my textiles that are not in good condition to the proper local recycling centers. I’ll probably keep a few things for reusable rags or for crafting purposes.

Here’s to happier, greener closets!

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