Every year in the US, we generate more than 258 million tons of municipal solid waste. Just over 16 million tons of that—or about 6%—are textile items. The vast majority of those items can be recycled. Sadly, they aren’t. Nearly 85% of textile waste ends up being tossed in the trash bin. Only 15% are recycled.
These textiles include more than clothes. They include towels, rags, bed sheets, carpets, rugs, curtains, and a host of other items. While most people realize that wearable used clothes can be donated to a local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or some other local charity, many aren’t aware that even used underwear, old rags, and torn up carpets can be donated and recycled.
When a charity or a for-profit textile collection business (such as Simple Recycling) receives a pile of textiles, the first thing they do is go through the items and grade them, separating the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff.
The best clothing items, shoes, etc. are typically resold through thrift shops here in the US. Clothing that is wearable—but might be missing a few buttons or have some other minor flaws—are typically sold in in bulk and wind up being used in overseas markets. People living in those markets tend to have more of a “repair culture” rather than a “disposal culture,” and will think nothing of patching a piece of clothing or replacing a button.
The unwearable items, like rags, towels, used underwear, and so on, are further separated. Some items are cut up and resold into industrial markets as wiping rags. Other material is sold off to be shredded and used to make insulation, stuffing for cushions or stuffed animals, carpet padding, soundproofing in the automotive industry, and similar applications.
So, the next time you clean out your attic or closet, remember to donate your textiles items, no matter how bad they are. Somewhere, somehow, somebody can make use of them. And that’s a lot better than tossing them in the trash.