Despite the rising popularity of recycled fashion, currently less than one percent of the materials used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.
How can we effectively recycle textiles? Which brands are getting recycling right? And what on earth is a closed loop? From the debate around recycled polyester to what really happens when you recycle your clothes, here is a compilation of frequently asked questions about fashion and recycling so you can start to unpick the complex web.
What is the difference between ‘recycled’ and ‘recyclable’?
Both ‘recycled’ and ‘recyclable’ are buzzwords seen on product descriptions far and wide in 2020. While there are various guidelines in place for clothing labels, like the EU regulation which allows brands to use these terms “providing it is not misleading or deceptive for the consumer”, some brands take liberties, which of course makes this sector vulnerable to greenwashing.
A handy guide is to remember that recycled relates to what the garment is made of (at the fabric, yarn or fibre level), while recyclable relates to what happens after you wear the garment (eg. 100% cotton tends to be recyclable). If in doubt, ask the brand #WhatsInMyClothes.
How can I recycle clothing and shoes?
Many neighbourhoods don’t have accessible clothes recycling bins, and if they do, they’re usually charity donation banks with strict guidelines on the quality of what you can drop. However, with a little bit of homework, you’ll see that recycling your clothes can be done, sometimes you just need to get creative.
One option is to use recycling systems from brands, such as Swedish Stockings’ Tights Recycling Club, Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe or The North Face’s Clothes The Loop. Another is to use digital directories to help locate textile recycling facilities near you, for example Love Not Landfill, Recycle Now, King Cotton and Recycle Nation. Services like Terracycle and Recycle Smart also offer solutions for recycling clothing waste from home. Finally, ask your local charity shops if they have textile recycling pick-ups in addition to accepting donated goods, such as Oxfam’s Wastesaver Centre.
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It’s important to remember to check the specific rules of whichever recycling scheme you choose to use before recycling any textiles. There will always be some items that cannot be accepted, as well as guidelines on materials and quality. Generally, you need to ensure clothing is clean and dry to avoid the development of mould and bacteria. Like with any kind of recycling, taking the time to practice good etiquette will save workers hours of sorting time and ultimately ensure that you are minimising, not maximising, the fashion waste problem.
What happens when I recycle my clothes?
Unfortunately, clothes recycling is not as simple as taking a garment, breaking it down, and making a new garment. In reality, around 73% of used clothing is incinerated or sent to landfill, with 12% ending up as ‘cascaded recycling’. This essentially means it is used for a lower-value application such as insulation, mattress stuffing, wet wipes or cleaning cloths, otherwise known as ‘downcycling’.
Recycling clothing can take place via two main processes – mechanical recycling or chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling is where materials are shredded to recapture the fibres, while chemical recycling breaks fabrics down into monomers in order to recalibrate the original fibre makeup. Both of these processes have significant limitations, namely the recycled end-result being of inferior quality in comparison to virgin materials.
What’s more, used textiles that are unable to be recycled domestically are regularly exported offshore to dodge the burden of waste, which creates colossal economic and environmental ramifications. Another major issue is the energy efficiency of textile recycling. There is a risk that it can cause an increase in the carbon impact of clothing when recycling processes are powered by fossil fuel energy, in addition to the transport emissions produced by the logistics of third-party recycling.
Why are clothes so difficult to recycle?
The complexities of creating clothing (think: harvesting fibre, spinning a yarn, weaving a fabric, dyeing, cutting and sewing…) make the end-of-life options overwhelming.
Around 60% of our clothes are made from synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester, which presents a recycling challenge. More often than not, our clothing contains a mix of various materials, such as polyester with cotton or viscose with elastane, and therefore really difficult for textile recycling plants to break down and turn into something new, even with chemical recycling. Not to mention the sewing threads (usually made from polyester), metal zips, plastic buttons, embellishments, hooks, and more finishings and fastenings added to garments that don’t get included in the materials list.
Moreover, so many of us no longer care for our clothes properly, or respect the rules of clothing banks, that up to 4-5% of collected clothing is too damaged to salvage, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. Most notably though, there are no effective garment-to-garment (aka closed loop) recycling systems currently operating at scale. Extended Producer Responsibility has been suggested as one potential solution for this, to ensure retailers are held accountable for what happens to their products throughout the lifecycle.
How can designers and policymakers make fashion recycling easier?
Sarah Ditty, Policy Director at Fashion Revolution, suggests in the Loved Clothes Last zine some important actions that citizens can ask their representatives to undertake in order to tackle fashion’s waste problem, including:
- Providing more information for citizens on recycling
- Passing extended producer responsibility legislation
- Raising taxes on the use of virgin materials, and introducing tax incentives on recycled materials
- Investing in research and infrastructure to help build a circular economy
For designers, it’s vital that the end-of-life of a garment is considered at the design stage. Aligning clothing design with recycling processes could tackle the problem of recycling mixed-fibre blends, increase clothing longevity, and even help create designs that are modular (easily broken down into component parts) or fully biodegradable.
Do ‘closed loop’ schemes work?
A closed loop is a circular economy principle where products are circulated in use for as long as possible, minimising waste and energy consumption by eliminating the need for new materials. Traditionally, recycling is considered as an ‘end of pipe’ solution, rather than a holistically circular model.
Many fast fashion brands, such as H&M, offer clothing take-back schemes where customers can drop off pre-loved clothing to be recycled. However, there are various types of greenwashing going on here which mean these initiatives can’t truly be called ‘closed loop’. For example, these brands offer incentives such as discounts and vouchers which encourage further unnecessary consumption.
Additionally, there can be very little transparency on what happens once you’ve dropped your clothes in the box. For example, are they broken down into recycled fibres to be used as a material for new garments, or are they simply sent off to be downcycled, resold or destroyed on the other side of the world? This is where transparency is important, so make sure to ask for more details if you are feeling wary about a brand’s ‘closed loop’ schemes.
Is recycled clothing sustainable?
Generally speaking, clothing that utilises recycled materials is a more eco-conscious option, simply because using existing resources means that the energy required to make new materials is cancelled out. From wool and cashmere to cotton and linen, recycled fibres are a great option for your sustainable wardrobe.
For synthetic fibres, the lines are a little more blurred. Studies show that the manufacturing process of recycled polyester produces 79% less carbon emissions than virgin polyester, so if you are faced with two equivalent products, you should strive to invest in the former. However, it is important not only to consider fibre quality and energy efficiency, but also the difference between post-consumer waste and post-industrial waste.
As previously mentioned, only a miniscule proportion of clothing actually gets turned into clothing again, so most recycled garments are actually made with feedstock from other industries, for example PET plastic bottles. These bottles tend to be mechanically rather than chemically recycled (a more expensive option), which after processing more than once, the quality is massively reduced due to progressively shorter and weaker fibres, therefore recycled polyester is not a closed loop solution. Using bottles also means that the bottling industry can’t operate a closed-loop system, because its resources are exported to the fashion sector instead.
There is also the issue of microplastics. Even when a synthetic garment is made from recycled fibres, with each washing machine cycle it still sheds around 700,000 microfibres into the water system, threatening both marine and human life just like with virgin polyester.
Could recycling fuel fast fashion?
Recycling is not the solution to the fast fashion crisis, nor should it act as an enabler for us to produce and consume more clothing. While the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that we can make fashion circular through technological innovation, investment in renewable energy, government legislation and consumer demand, the Earth Logic view is that “the only solution is less stuff”. Buying fast fashion t-shirts made from a small percentage of recycled polyester is only going to exacerbate the waste problem. Ultimately, we need to buy less and we need to keep what we have in use for much longer.
It is clear that recycling clothing is more complicated than it seems, and the sustainable credentials are far from black and white. That’s why it’s more important than ever to exhaust all other options first before you take your clothes to be recycled. Learn to mend, repair and upcycle (Repair What You Wear is a great resource), follow these tips from Love Your Clothes to remove stains, re-sell online with Depop and thredUp, donate to charity using Thrift+, or even swap and rent with Nuw.
Which fashion brands are using recycling for good?
RÆBURN is an innovative fashion studio built on the principles of reclaiming existing resources and transforming them into contemporary, luxury products. Commercial products are constructed from unexpected materials such as military parachutes, Arctic immersion suits and solar blankets.
Bethany Williams is an independent fashion designer with a mission to use fashion as a force for change by breathing new life into old textiles to support social projects. Recent work includes one-off pieces made from tents and blankets, jeans made from recycled denim and knitwear using Wool and The Gang’s waste plastic yarn.
Finally, Riley Studio is a gender-neutral fashion brand that utilises a variety of reclaimed materials, including Econyl yarn (made from recycled fishing nets), Q-Nova yarn (made from discarded nylon waste), Recover yarn (made from recycled cotton and recycled polyester), and even zips made from recycled plastic bottles.
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Cover image of a creative sidewalk advertisement for sustainable denim label Nudie Jeans. Photo: Crawford Jolly.