Young woman with recycling box full clothes.

We have a clothing problem in the United States and it has nothing to do with outdated fashion. The problem is what we do with the clothes we no longer wear.

The EPA reports that over 17 million tons of clothing and textiles end up in landfills every year, comprising over 5.8% of total space. By comparison, we recycle only 2.5 million tons. The most common solution lies in the middle: donating your unwanted clothing for reuse.

young woman looking through clothing in thrift store
Thrift store shoppers look for clothing that’s in good condition. Image: Pexels

Is Your Unwanted Clothing Reusable?

What if you need to dispose of clothing that’s torn or stained to the extent that it’s no longer wearable? Secondhand stores and charities like Goodwill, Easter Seals, The Purple Heart Foundation, and the Salvation Army accept all textiles for donation as long as they aren’t “wet or contaminated with hazardous materials.” This is possible because volunteers can make small repairs and secondhand stores have established relationships with textile recyclers to handle unsold clothing. Other organizations such as PlanetAid provide usable clothing to sellers in other countries to distribute in their stores.

Of course, shoppers are more likely to purchase clothing that’s in good condition. But in the case of Goodwill, clothing that doesn’t sell in the store has a third and fourth chance for reuse through auctions and outlet stores before recycling even comes into play. Those 16 million tons of clothing and textiles in landfills aren’t there because secondhand stores are getting unsellable clothes; they’re there because consumers assume their unwanted clothes aren’t usable and throw them into the trash.

You can help reduce the amount of clothing and textile products going into landfills. If clothing is beyond repair, it is likely recyclable.

rags and waste fabrics in the landfill
You can help reduce the amount of clothing and textile products going into landfills. If clothing is beyond repair, it is likely recyclable. Image: Adobe Stock

The Clothing Recycling Market

While secondhand stores do good business, they typically sell less than 20% of consumer donations. Luckily, it is possible to recycle old clothing in other ways.

If you prefer to cut out the middleman, some prominent names in textile recycling include the American Textile Recycling Service, Mac Recycling, and USAgain. All of these companies offer clothing drop-off bins throughout the U.S., usually in high-traffic areas such as parking lots.

Even some governments are getting into the game, such as New York’s refashionNYC. This program offers clothing drop-off bins for apartment complexes, office buildings, and schools.

As of 2021, two businesses currently accept textile recycling curbside but only in select participating areas. They are Simple Recycling and RidWell. If neither service is available near you, you might encourage your municipality to participate in their programs.

Additionally, the clothing retailers H&M and Zara accept clothing of all brands for recycling drop-off at their stores. Some specialty retailers will accept specific products for recycling. Examples include shoe brands such as Nike and Asics, and underwear brands such as Knickey and Hanky Panky. Additionally, the Bra Recycling Agency (B. R. A.) accepts unusable bras for recycling.

According to Secondary Materials and Recovered Textiles Association (SMART), about 45% of discarded clothing is reusable. Of the remaining 55%, most of it can be recycled: 30% is downcycled into industrial rags and 20% is processed into fiber that can be used in products like carpet or insulation. The remaining 5% is unusable because of contamination and will end up in a landfill.

Clothing Recycling Tips

Here are a few helpful tips to follow before you recycle old clothing:

  1. Make sure all fabric is dry, to avoid mildew.
  2. Check all pockets to make sure they’re empty.
  3. You can’t recycle rags contaminated with car fluids, paint, pesticides, or other hazardous waste due to the hazardous derived-from rule; these items need to be treated as hazardous waste. Find a hazardous waste collection site near you.

Originally published on August 8, 2018, this article was updated by Maureen Wise in April 2021.

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.