More than 300,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing ends up in the UK’s landfill each year, contributing to the fashion industry having the fourth-biggest environmental impact after housing, transport and food.
So, why is it so important to prevent old clothes from going to landfill? What happens to recycled clothes?
Almost a quarter (23%) of Londoners’ clothes are unworn, according to research from UK clothes reuse charity, TRAID.
Londoners own an average of 76 items of clothing, but ~18 of these are lurking in wardrobes and never worn—most commonly because they no longer fit.
On top of that, UK customers buy an estimated 26.7kg of new clothes every year.
TRAID says the total amount of unworn clothes owned by Londoners equates to 123 million items, or 333,000 tonnes of CO2e—enough to power 50,000 homes for a whole year.
It would take the entire population of London 15 years to drink the water footprint of London’s unworn clothes.
In order to avoid our used clothing from ending up in landfill we can give them a new lease of life by passing them on to charity to be reused or recycled.
Keep reading to find out what happens to clothes when they are recycled and scroll to the bottom to find out how you can get started.
Exploring Recycled Clothing & Tips to Get Started
1. Can We Recycle Clothes?
TRAID wants you to pass on your unwanted clothes and hardly worn clothes.
As well as reducing your carbon, water and waste footprint, by choosing to keep recycled clothing in circulation, you’ll also be supporting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12 to ensure more sustainable consumption and production.
TRAID’s Head of Communications, Leigh Mcalea explains:
“Here at TRAID’s warehouse, where we sort thousands of tonnes of donations every year, we see the unvarnished truth of consumption.
“We see the explosion of fast fashion brands, clothes that are barely worn or still sporting the price tag and low-quality brands that are made to be disposable.
“Our solution is to sort these clothes for reuse and resale in our charity shops.
“Extending the life of our clothes, and sourcing more of our clothes second-hand, is one of the most environmentally beneficial things we can do to shrink the environmental impact of fashion.
“Passing clothes on to TRAID also raises funds, which we commit to global projects benefiting the people and places making our clothes including training thousands of cotton farmers to stop using hazardous pesticides and grow organic.
“It’s a beautiful circle linking more sustainable consumption with more sustainable production.”
2. What Happens When Clothing Is Recycled?
Donated clothing is collected from TRAID textile banks across Southwest England and through its convenient free home collection service for Greater London residents.
Those who don’t have access to TRAID’s donation banks can post their old clothes to them for free by printing off a postage label and dropping them off at their nearest Collect+ store.
On arrival at the warehouse the collected to-be–recycled clothes are loaded onto trolleys, and then weighed, so that TRAID knows exactly how much tonnage it’s diverting from landfill and incineration on an annual basis—currently an impressive 3,000 tonnes per year.
Next, old clothes are put onto a conveyor belt where they are hand-sorted into categories such as children’s clothes, out-of-season, sari’s and natural textiles like linen – with particular TRAID shops in mind.
By sorting through the recycled clothing in this way, TRAID is able to edit and choose items based on what they know will sell in different areas and appeal to different communities, as well as what’s in season (out-of-season stock is stored and saved for when it’s back in season), making the reuse and resale process much more efficient.
This means that the majority of items in a TRAID shop have been carefully curated at the warehouse with the customer in mind. New stock lands in store weekly, making their charity shops seem much more like a regular retail destination. This allows them to compete with much bigger high street fashion retailers.
As an offshoot of this efficient sorting stream, sometimes other organisations such as film companies will get in touch looking for certain clothing which can be sorted specifically for them to use.
They’ve even sorted clothing for a James Bond film!
3. What Happens To Clothes That Don’t Sell?
TRAID also has partnerships with some retailers who give them faulty items, samples, customer returns and discontinued stock, which are still in good enough condition to be resold in the TRAID shops and would otherwise have ended up being sent to landfill or incinerated.
Everything that comes into the TRAID warehouse goes down this belt, with the aim to reuse as much as possible in their shops to keep the goods in the UK.
However, not everything can go to the shop, sometimes because of poor condition, or because there may be an excess of a certain type of clothing such as school uniforms, or a pallet full of shoes that are brand new but have the buckles ripped off of them.
For these donated clothes, TRAID has created another reuse and recycle stream by selling them by weight to wholesalers, who use the goods for various different markets.
This also creates added revenue for the charity, which in turn allows it to support more global sustainable fashion projects.
So, what happens with recycled clothes that don’t make the resale cut?
They are often downgraded into recycled materials that will eventually end up back in the waste stream.
A typical example of this is textiles being shredded and then used for car seat stuffing, insulation material, or carpet padding, which is less desirable than if the items were to be reused.
4. What Happens To Clothes That Are Thrown Away?
Sadly, some of the items are in too bad a condition to even go to the wholesalers, and as a last resort, 7% of the donations that come through the TRAID warehouse are sent to landfill.
That’s still an incredibly small portion going to waste when you compare it with fast fashion brands.
Every new season, a staggering around 30% of clothes produced around the world are never sold. Unsold clothing either gets incinerated or dumped in landfills.
A 2019 report by McKinsey found that “for every 5 garments produced, the equivalent of 3 end up in a landfill or incinerated each year”.
So, how much clothing is recycled?
Some fashion brands will donate unsold stock from last season to charities like TRAID. Anything charities can’t sell or recycle often gets shipped overseas to (maybe) get recycled.
Around 700,000 tonnes of used clothing are sent to other countries annually.
As for the rest of the old clothes and used textiles that are passed over for textile recycling, it’s incinerated or sent to landfill.
5. Where Can We Recycle Clothes?
If you’re based in the UK, the best resource for finding out how to recycle your old clothes is Recycle Now.
The website lets you put in your postcode to find your nearest clothing bank and textile recycling. You might even be able to recycle from home.
If your clothes are unwanted but still in good condition (i.e. not ripped or stained), consider making a bit of cash by selling them on online platforms like Vinted or Depop.
You could also get your friends together and do a clothing swap.
Another easy option is to donate good quality second hand clothing to charities. You could drop them off at your local charity shop or send them for free to TRAID. You can even schedule a pickup and they’ll arrive in their iconic yellow van to collect old garments.
If you want to give your clothes a better chance of getting resold or recycled, here are some tips to follow before donating:
- Inspect your unwanted textiles: Before donating, make sure the clothing is clean, in good condition, and free from tears, stains, or excessive wear.
- Check guidelines: Research the specific requirements and guidelines for clothing donations at your chosen facility. Some places may have restrictions on the types of items they accept.
- Wash and dry clothing: Clean your clothing items before donating to prevent the spread of dirt, odours, or pests.
- Avoid hangers and plastic bags: Most donation centres prefer clothing items without hangers or plastic bags. Fold or bundle clothing items together instead.
- Donate seasonally: Donate clothing items appropriate for the current season to maximize their use and chances to resell.
6. What Else Can We Do With Our Unwanted Clothes?
The best thing to do with unwanted clothes is keep them as clothing worn by someone. Maybe you’d never wear that jumper again, but your friend might. Get a group together and host a clothing swap.
One person’s last season style might be another’s fashion of tomorrow.
For worn out clothes that are too far gone, it doesn’t have to spell the end. You could recycle them as textiles through Recycle Now, but a better alternative to recycled clothes is upcycling them.
Get creative and transform old clothes into brand-new clothes, or you could keep it simple by turning them into cleaning rags, hair scrunchies or gift wrap.
You could even turn old scraps into a quilted blanket.
The possibilities are endless when you think about what can recycled clothes be made into.
Closing Thoughts On What Happens To Recycled Clothes
If you look at how much clothing is recycled each year, less than 1% of textile waste is recycled into new (recycled) fibres for clothing.
While fashion brands and the textiles industry need to do more to tackle textile waste, TRAID makes it easier to give unwanted and unsold clothes a second chance elsewhere.
Their warehouse is an impressive place which offers hope for a future where more and more people donate unwanted clothing, which can then be reused and recycled, meaning less ends up in landfill.
After all, with 300,000 tonnes of clothes going to landfill in the UK each year, it’s never been more important to start recycling clothes today—whether with TRAID or elsewhere.