Q. Clothing Conundrum. I’m never sure what to do with ripped or stained clothing. I use some for household rags, but I don’t need all of them. Is there somewhere to donate clothing which is no longer fit for wearing? Can I get it into the stream that ends up in new fibres? And what can I do with footwear that is not useable anymore?
A. Disposing of used and unwanted clothing is a huge problem in Canada. However, it’s not one that we think of very often, perhaps because we don’t throw clothing away on a daily or weekly basis like we do with plastic containers or newspapers. It’s estimated that 85% of our clothing ends up in the landfill instead of being recycled.
Interestingly, clothing is an area where we are better at reusing than we are at recycling. Nearly 91% of Ontarians (I couldn’t find Alberta or Canadian data) reported donating clothing to a secondhand store or charity. However, options for true recycling of clothing and particularly clothing that is no longer reusable, are limited.
Even secondhand stores that collect unsellable clothing usually don’t recycle it. Most often, it is baled and sent overseas to countries in Asia and Africa. There are issues with this strategy, as these products can disrupt domestic textile industries in these countries. It also begs the ethical question as to whether we should be exporting our garbage for others to deal with.
There are a number of challenges when it comes to the true recycling of clothing, not the least of which is that the vast majority of our clothing is produced overseas and imported into our market, which makes dealing with the supply chain difficult.
In addition, the nature of textile fibres presents challenges to recycling. Textile recycling takes two forms: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical recycling involves ripping or shredding the material while chemical recycling basically dissolves or melts the textiles. For natural fibres such as cotton or wool, both mechanical and chemical recycling alter the nature of the textile fibres, meaning that they can’t be repurposed as textiles without adding new material. This is very similar to what happens with paper recycling, where the fibres are broken down through the recycling process. As a result, most natural fibres that are recycled are repurposed into things such as insulation or carpet padding.
Artificial fibres (such as nylon and polyester) are easily melted through chemical processes. However, the challenge is that most clothing is made of a fibre blend and different fibre types require different types of processing. In addition, poor labelling requirements mean that even manufacturers cannot be 100% sure of the type of fibre present in a particular item.
Specific retailers such as Mountain Equipment Co-op, Patagonia and H&M are committed to using recycled fibres in their products. Patagonia offers a program where worn-out clothing can be traded for replacement items. H&M offers recycling of any textile items, which are turned into insulation or similar products. Additional options for repurposing stained or ripped items such as towels, sheets or blankets include animal shelters and animal hospitals. Be sure to contact these organizations prior to dropping items off.
Since recycling clothing is so difficult, putting an emphasis on reducing and purchasing quality items becomes even more important. Techniques such as creating a capsule wardrobe of quality items or the 333 challenge, where you commit to wearing only 33 items for 3 months can help reduce the amount of cheap clothing that creeps into our closets. Especially for kid’s clothes, swapping or handing down items can help reduce waste as well.
A footnote about footwear. Recycling shoes is equally, if not more, challenging as recycling clothing. Most shoes are made of a variety of materials from rubber to metal to leather to cloth which makes deconstruction and recycling difficult. Several of the athletic footwear companies, such as Nike, Puma and Converse collect and recycle old shoes into materials such as playground surfaces.
In short, true recycling of clothing and footwear by individuals is extremely difficult. Instead focus on the purchasing fewer high-quality, long-lasting items.