The next time you clean out your clothes or linen closet, don’t throw any of it away. Instead, bag it up and drop it off at a charity.
Most Americans don’t realize that all but 5 percent of textiles can be recycled this way. You may think no one wants your smelly old shoes or ketchup-stained shirt, but they do.
Becoming aware of this fact is the first step in reducing a growing problem: 25 billion pounds of textiles are generated each year and only 15 percent get recycled, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.
Discarded textiles not only take up landfill space when they could be reused or repurposed, but they also release methane as they break down, a highly destructive greenhouse gas.
Keeping textiles out of landfills is a new priority for Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), which is doing outreach to spread the awareness, targeting businesses and organizations with its At Work consultation program, and the public with its website RecycleSpot.org, where consumers can look up which items are recyclable and where to donate them.
When you drop off a load of clothes at a charity such as Goodwill or Planet Aid, perhaps only a fraction will actually be placed on a retail floor for sale. Your 1970s vintage prom dress or faded denim jacket might make the cut, but most textiles get packed up and sent off to wholesalers with other intentions.
Some may be shipped to Africa where a secondhand market booms or be turned into rags for industrial use.
“There are two myths people believe,” says Matt Riggs, outreach coordinator for MARC’s Solid Waste Management District. “The first is, ‘If I donate this, it will end up on my local sales floor.’ That’s probably not going to happen. Only 15 percent of donated items get sold locally.
“The second myth is, ‘If it’s torn, stained or faded, no charity will want it.’ Whatever shape it’s in, go ahead and donate it.”
That includes intimate items — bras, underwear and socks — that may carry an embarrassment factor.
“No one is going to say, ‘Hey, look, it’s Marsha’s bra,’ ” Riggs assures. “The sorters are performing a mindless task and their job is to sort quickly.”
So, anything and everything goes, but there are a couple of basic guidelines.
Don’t donate damp or wet items, as bacteria and mold can ruin an entire load and it will have to be thrown out.
Items don’t have to be freshly laundered, but be considerate of the sorters and wipe off those gobs of ketchup.
You don’t even have to separate items you think may have reuse value, like last season’s sweater, from those that you think have none, such as holey socks. Sorters at warehouse facilities do that job, giving every item a grade and packaging it up for buyers.
“All major thrift stores have contracts with companies to take unwearable textiles,” Riggs says.
Charities have tried to make the donation process as convenient as possible.
RecycleSpot.org lists thrift stores accepting donations by zip code, where you can drop bags at the back door, while Planet Aid provides bright yellow bins in the parking lots of many area businesses and organizations. You can find your nearest bin at PlanetAid.org.
You can even make the task of donating easier for yourself by designating a bag or box in your basement and placing items you no longer want inside over several months until it’s full. “Once it reaches the top, take it to the thrift store on the way to buy groceries,” Riggs suggests.
Riggs gives credit to a handful of retailers who run a Take Back recycling program, including H&M, Levi’s, Patagonia, Puma, North Face and Target, where you can drop off items purchased at the store for recycling. Although, he notes, most giant retailers are creating the glut of cheap clothes headed for the landfill in the first place.
“The biggest issue is the phenomenon of fast fashion with its rapid cycles,” Riggs says. “In grandma’s day, you had a spring collection and a fall collection; now lines are coming out every two weeks.”
More than the overabundance of textiles that must be dealt with are the side effects associated with their production, including the harvesting of virgin cotton, chemical pollution from applications to control pests and weeds, and extreme water consumption (500 gallons to produce a pair of jeans, according to The Wall Street Journal).
“Unlike, say, paper, a lot goes into making an article of clothing,” says John Nagiecki, communications director for Planet Aid. “You have to grow the fiber, produce the cloth and dye it. All these steps impact the environment negatively. There’s also the human cost. Most work under conditions that are not exactly favorable.”
Unless or until the garment industry can close the waste loop, responsibility lies with the consumer.
“We need to change people’s whole mindset. People’s first thought should be that shopping used can be as good as shopping new — and for pennies on the dollar. Second, everyone should buy well-made items that fit well and will last a long time. Third, we need to learn to mend clothing, sew buttons and properly launder and store clothes.”
By donating and extending the life of your clothes after they leave your closet, you contribute to a measurable environmental benefit. According to EPA statistics, in 2015, 23 million tons of textiles were recycled, resulting in a greenhouse gas reduction of 5.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
“That’s equivalent to taking 1.2 million cars off the road for a year,” Nagiecki says.
It’s not the end-all answer, but it sure does help.