Textile and clothing recycling is a potentially beneficial activity from environmental, social and economic points of view, as opposed to landfilling or being used for energy. As cities increasingly divert other high-volume waste streams such as organics, the recycling of old clothes has been called the next frontier for cities looking to reduce solid waste.
The main benefit of textile recycling activities is the opportunity to reuse clothing. Through the reuse of clothes and textiles, we can avoid pollution and energy-intensive production of new clothing. Additionally, clothing that cannot be reused may be repurposed into products such as rags or recycled into fabric or other material for reprocessing.
There are some caveats, however. As Greenpeace cautioned in a 2016 press release, the "technological challenges mean full recycling of clothing into new fibers is still far from commercially viable." Even the recovery and sale of used clothing has been a controversial topic, especially for export to developing nations.
Interesting Facts About Textile and Garment Recycling
More than 15 million tons of used textile waste is generated each year in the United States, and the amount has doubled over the last 20 years. In 2014, 16.2 million tons of textile waste was generated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of this amount, 2.62 million tons were recycled, 3.14 million tons were combusted for energy recovery, and 10.46 million tons were sent to the landfill. For 2019, the national Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfill tip fee average was $55.36/ton. Synthetic clothing may take between 20 to 200 years to decompose.
Consumers are regarded as the main culprit for throwing away their used clothing, as only 15% of consumer-used clothing is recycled, whereas more than 75% of pre-use clothing is recycled by the manufacturers.
The average person buys 60% more items of clothing every year and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago, generating a huge amount of waste.
The average total life span of a piece of clothing is 5.4 years.
The annual environmental impact of a household’s clothing is equivalent to the water needed to fill 1,000 bathtubs and the carbon emissions from driving an average modern car for 6,000 miles. If the average life of clothing was extended by just three months, it would reduce their carbon and water footprints, as well as waste generation, by five to 10%.
The recycling of 2.62 million tons of clothing per year equates to taking 1.3 million cars from U.S. streets.
According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), nearly 100% of all used clothing and household textiles can be re-used or recycled: 45% are re-used as apparel; 30% are converted into industrial polishing/wiping cloths and 20% are processed into fiber to be manufactured into new products. 95% of all used clothing is recyclable, only 5% is unusable due to mildew or other contamination.
All these facts indicate the textile recycling industry in the United States has great potential to expand, given that 84.8% of used textiles went to national landfills and 15.2% were recycled in 2017. The next steps involve increased initiatives to promote recycling, as well as harmonization of collection efforts.