By Jenifer Suri
You’ve heard it a million times, the 3 Rs, but what does it mean for textiles? How do we reduce, reuse and recycle our sheets, towels, clothing, shoes and bags?
You will probably never be able to recycle your clothes like a soda can, according to the New York Times, but there are so many other things you can do with textiles to keep them out of the landfill. From the Council for Textile Recycling we learned that the US generates 25 billion pounds of textile waste per year. If you break it down, that’s 70lbs of textile waste per person.
85% of that waste goes to landfills. The other 15% is recycled.
How can we flip those numbers?
We need to start going in circles. We have been living in a linear economy–moving natural resources along a line from processing to using and then discarding. This throw away culture leads to a depletion of our natural resources. We can reduce waste by moving to a circular economy in which we collect, purify and reprocess our products–and use and reuse them as long as possible.
“Circular economy is about more than just recycling…It’s about keeping products in their useful form for as long as possible, then when you can’t use them anymore, finding a way to recycle them that preserves as much of their value as possible, and only sending them to the landfill as a last resort.” Amanda Forster, NIST
Reduce ➡️ Buy Less, Wear Longer
Keep textiles out of the landfill by starting at the source. Reduce the amount of textiles you have by buying less. Use them for longer. Look for brands that are durable and environmentally friendly. The best way to find sustainable textiles is through third party certifications like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) and Made in Green by OEKO-TEX. Softly can help you find products that have these certifications.
Download Softly to find textiles that are certified as sustainable such as these cozy bed linens.
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Cancel Fast Fashion
Fashion changes quickly. What used to be four fashion seasons a year has turned to 52. This fast fashion trend is contributing to the enormous amount of textiles going to the landfill, along with a lot of other harm to the environment.
Slow down and stop buying things that don’t last. Most of us wear the same clothes all the time. Admit it and reduce your wardrobe to those favorite things. Add a few basic items to make a wardrobe capsule and you can have outfits you love for any occasion.
A wardrobe capsule can mean fewer decisions, more time and money, less stress and is more sustainable. Apps like Stylebook, Skap or Smart Closet can help you turn your overstuffed closet into a wardrobe capsule.
Reuse ➡️ Donate and Repurpose
After you reduce your wardrobe, what do you do with all those clothes you don’t want? If they’re still in good shape you can find a new owner for them.
Give to Family and Friends
Clothes don’t normally get passed down through the generations the way jewelry might. But why not? I have a super cute sweater that my mom probably knitted when she was in college. It’s still in great shape and is one of a kind.
In India women pass down their saris–yards of beautiful silk or cotton that haven’t gone out of style for 5000 years. When they can’t be worn anymore they are often repurposed into other outfits, bags or quilts.
Ask friends or family members if they need something before you get rid of it. A friend with children a few years younger than yours can probably use your hand-me-downs. A niece or nephew starting a new office job could use some career-oriented clothes that don’t fit you anymore.
Donate to the Community
Someone in your neighborhood may need the exact thing you don’t want anymore. You can connect to someone looking for specific items through gifting groups like Freecycle or Buy Nothing. You post what you have and get responses from people who could use that very thing. You choose who to give it to. It’s grassroots and local.
Animal shelters always need towels and blankets for bedding for animals who are temporarily in their care. Charities like Goodwill and Salvation Army collect and resell clothes and other items. Here is a list of 10 places to donate your clothes.
Consignment shops can give you some money for your old clothes. If they sell you will get a percentage of the sale price. They are also a good place to shop for clothes to keep them going around in that circle.
Do you have a t-shirt collection? Make a t-shirt quilt. Repurpose old sweaters into mittens. Find a crafter and you’ll find someone who knows what to do with used textiles to make something new.
Okay, so you’ve donated and repurposed. You still have a pile of clothes, shoes, sheets and towels that don’t have any more life in them. How do you keep them out of the landfill?
Recycle, Recycle, Recycle
Everything you’ve done so far is actually considered recycling. You’ve kept your textiles out of the landfill by reusing, donating and repurposing. But what about the clothes that you can’t donate or reuse?
You can find out where to take textiles to recycle in your area at Earth911.
Some companies take your textiles and make something new. Garcia Bello is a brand that upcycles returned clothes, and according to Business Insider is “taking outdated clothing and mixing it with raw cotton to generate new items, allowing the designer to extend the life of the garment or fabric.”
Unfortunately turning old clothes into new clothes is not always easy.
The Hard Facts
Textiles that do get recycled do not usually get made into new garments. Fiber to fiber recycling accounts for less than 1% of recycled textiles. It is a complicated process requiring mechanical or chemical techniques that result in textiles of lower quality than the original source.
When you donate your clothes to places like Goodwill, 20% gets resold. The other 80% will go to a broker who will sort through the textiles and about 50% will be downcycled. Downcycled textiles get shredded to be made into rags, upholstery stuffing and insulation. Unfortunately the other 50% will get sent to landfills or exported. 40% of the exported textiles is considered trash.
The best thing you can do is to buy fewer clothes of better quality (reduce), use them for as long as you can and once you’re done with them either find another use for them or find them a new home (reuse). Donating and repurposing your textiles is how you can recycle them to keep them out of the landfills.
Softly! can help you find recycled and recyclable textiles.
Download Softly to find sheets, comforters and blankets that are sustainable and earth friendly.