by Ivory King
What becomes of used clothes? Despite the prevalence of used clothing shops and upcycling trends, the garment industry does not have an efficient resale or recycling system. But with the landfill-stuffing and pollution that flanks production, there is pressure to develop better ways of dealing with the millions of pounds of discarded textiles we create each year. With improved material sorting, we can more effectively reuse and recycle it, and biological and chemical engineering is creating new ways to reclaim fiber as well.
In many developed countries, the majority of discarded clothing is still wearable yet simply gets thrown away. More mindful people may bring their clothes to thrift stores, but the average American still tosses 81 pounds of clothing in a year - adding up to an estimated 3 percent of current landfills. The synthetic garments may stick around for the un-foreseeable future, but natural fibers like cotton don’t really do much better: they also take a long time to decompose and when they do, they give off climate change-contributors methane and carbon dioxide.
Trashed clothes are more than an inconvenience wherever they end up - wearable clothes are often sold and shipped across the globe to areas like Haiti, or some countries in Africa where as many as 80 percent of people wear used clothing. But used textile redistribution impacts the local garment industry, waste generation and native dress.
Ways we currently recycle textiles
There are recycling processes for the most common types of fibers - cotton and polyester, among others. In the case of the former natural fiber, recyclers collect and sort it by type and color. The fiber is then processed, mixed, and respun. The salvaged cotton has a shorter staple (fiber length) and is less durable and more difficult to spin into thread. Recycled cotton for this reason gets blended with virgin cotton to improve the quality - it generally accounts for 30 percent or less of the resulting fabric.
Because it’s weaker than virgin cotton, recycled fiber often goes to industrial applications like stuffing or insulation, or the creation of high-quality paper. But since growing cotton is such a resource and chemical intensive process, even the 30 percent maximum usage of reclaimed cotton used in textiles saves water, pesticides and insecticides from being used. The additional uses for recycled cotton also mean that fewer trees are cut down.
While polyester fabric can be made from recycled materials - like PET (polyethylene terephthalate) water bottles, the resulting material itself is often recycled in-house. Apparel companies have created their own closed loop recycling systems - Patagonia for one encourages its customers to bring back polyester clothing to stores for them to be recycled. Though made from petroleum originally, recycling polyester means that less plastic needs to get turned into fabric and less energy needs to be used to process it.
The future of recycling textiles
There isn’t a widespread means of recycling clothing made from cotton-poly blend - which is a very popular mix. For this reason, a lot of research has been done to create a process that can separate natural from synthetic fibers - only this way can the fabric be completely recycled. Not too long ago, IFAI (Industrial Fabrics Association International) covered a process that effectively dissolved cotton fibers into a solution, and filtered polyester fibers. This separated the cotton from the poly, and the polyester could then be melted and reshaped into fiber or plastic. This process was developed using reusable salt solution and environmentally friendly solvents.
Just late last year another mixed-fiber process was developed by the Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel in Hong Kong that can recycle blends to create high quality green textiles. The process was financed in part by the non-profit arm of H&M, and will be licensed to the textile market. Since it uses heat, water and biodegradable green chemical, the program is considering it a breakthrough towards creating a closed loop for textiles. HKRITA is currently testing the process to ensure that it can scale to accommodate the demands of industry-level recycling and its commercial viability.
Automated sorting of garments
Despite how polluting the textile industry is in its current state, raw materials are cheap. In order to effectively reuse and recycle garments, they must be sorted by type - often manually. Since organizing and separating mixed materials is time-intensive, it can be a barrier for industry-wide adoption of recycled materials. One way to get around this is to make sorting used textiles more efficient. In the European Union, they launched an automated sorting initiative that can separate by fiber composition and color. This process is basically another application for a technology that has been widely used to sort plastic for recycling.
Where you can take your old clothes
Until these innovative ways of recycling are more accessible, we’ll have to rely on our own initiative to keep our old clothes out of the trash. While many thrift stores will take clothes, even items they can’t sell, there are other options. Depending on your charity preferences, getting rid of your shirts and shoes may benefit others in other ways than just providing clothes to people in need. Your local Humane Society may even pick up donations and use them for animal bedding.
Cover image courtesy of Design To Improve Life