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How to recycle your clothes and shoes

We discuss how to give your clothes and footwear a new lease of life – whether by giving away, selling, recycling or reusing.

The problem with throwing away clothing

An incredible 360,000 tonnes of clothes are thrown away in the UK every year. That’s equivalent to the weight of 90,000 elephants.

Clothes take an enormous amount of energy and resources to produce. Cotton uses large amounts of water, and polyester is made from fossil fuels. According to Oxfam, new clothes bought in the UK produce more carbon emissions per minute than driving a car around the world six times.

If we throw clothes away before it is really necessary, a lot of that energy and those resources go to waste.

The problems continue once our clothing enters landfill. The majority of clothes are made of plastic fabrics like polyester and acrylic. These fabrics break down into smaller and smaller plastic fibres, known as microfibres, which seep out into the environment. Microplastics are found all over the world, from the ocean floor to Arctic sea ice. They can be toxic to sea life, can damage fishes’ organs, and can harm their fertility.

If we wear each item of clothing for longer, we can reduce the amount we buy – meaning less emissions, resources and microfibres.

What is the best thing to do with old clothes and shoes?

The best option for your old clothes and shoes will depend on the state they’re in. Here are our recommendations.

1. Repair, resell or give to a friend

If an item is in good repair, this would be our first recommendation. Anything that will ensure the clothing continues to be worn is great, whether that is by repairing it for yourself, putting it in a clothes swap or selling it online or on an app.

2. Donate to a charity shop

Charity shops are a good way to support charity and try to ensure clothes are reused. Unfortunately, though, the majority of clothes donated to charity shops don’t actually get sold in the UK: they get donated to poorer countries, undercutting their economy. Some also get recycled. So only give charity shops stuff you think they are very likely to be able to sell. (We cover charity donations in more depth in a separate article.)

3. Turn into something new

Once clothes are past wearing, there are also loads of things you can make them into. Pet beds, draught excluders, kids’ stuffed toys, reusable shopping and veg bags, gift bags for wrapping, wax food wraps. Even when you get down to the smaller scraps you can make rag rugs or an heirloom quilt, save squares for patching holes or simply use them as cleaning rags.

If you're unsure of where to start with upcycling and repairing, see if there is a local repair cafe or repair group that holds open sessions where you can take things along and learn skills.

You can also use our directory of Libraries of Things to find out if there's a local one which lends sewing machines and other useful things.

4. Recycling is the last step

While it’s much better than sending clothes to landfill, recycling is not quite the magic bullet we might hope, as explained below. So reuse is always the best option.

Problems with recycling clothing

Not all fabrics can currently be recycled. Lots of our clothing is made from ‘blended fabrics’ – meaning they are a mixture of two materials, such as polyester and cotton. Blended fabrics cannot currently be recycled, because we don’t have the technology to separate the two materials out.

Each time a material like polyester or cotton is recycled, it becomes weaker and the quality goes down. Fabrics therefore cannot be recycled indefinitely, and at some stage will end up in landfill.

For recycled cotton clothing, the recycled fibres are usually blended with new cotton, because it is stronger. Even if you always recycled your clothes and only bought recycled materials, your wardrobe therefore still wouldn’t be fully circular.

For these reasons, buying less and wearing longer are always the first steps to addressing the impacts of our clothing.


How to reuse clothes

There are lots of options for giving clothing a second life. Consider giving it to a friend or finding a clothes swap. Another great bet is selling it online (for example on eBay) or on a pre-loved clothes app (like Depop or Vinted). This way, you know it is very likely to be worn again.

Here are a few tips for selling clothes online or on resale platforms:

  1. Use photos of someone wearing them. This makes them more likely to sell, as buyers can get a better idea of size and fit. You may want to make sure your face isn’t in the picture or draw over it, if you don’t want your face online.
  2. Take photos and add a description of any defects. For example, it’s worth stating in the description if the item is sized particularly small or has shrunk in the wash. This way, you’re likely to avoid complaints.
  3. Take photos in indirect sunlight. These will give the best images and a more accurate idea of colour.
  4. Work out your price based on other similar items sold on the platform. It’s worth spending five minutes checking through the app or website to see how much others are asking for. On apps like Depop or Vinted, people are likely to give you lower offers, so consider listing at a price slightly above what you’d hope to sell for.
  5. Remember to factor postage into your price, or list it as an extra cost. The platform you’re selling on is also likely to take a cut, which you may also want to factor in.

If donating to a charity shop, bear in mind that they will only sell clean clothing. If an item is too tattered to likely sell in the UK, they may also send it to poorer countries (causing problems for the local economy) or have to pay for it to be recycled. So sense check whether it’s likely to sell before donating.

We’re more sceptical of corporate second-hand schemes. Companies like H&M and M&S offer to take-back used clothing for recycling or reuse. However, these companies often work with charity partners, who they give the clothes to. The items may then similarly end up being sent to poor countries. Given how opaque lots of these schemes are about where the clothes go, we’d give them a wide berth.

Find our more about buying and selling second-hand in our separate article >

Elderly man using sewing machine to repair clothes

How to repair clothes

If clothing has a tear or hole, it can often be repaired. If it is not quite the right size, you may be able to alter it. Our article on upcycling and repairs has lots of tips and links to some great sites for tutorials on how to do this. The Love Your Clothes website in particular is a great resource.

If you don't feel confident with repairing, you can often find local individuals or haberdashery shops will mend items at relatively low cost.

Think about making repairs before you sell or donate it too, so that it is more likely to continue getting used.

When you feel the need to buy something new, you might be able to repurpose an item you already own. You could turn jeans with holes on the knees into a pair of shorts, or work shirts with worn collars into a round-neck summer top.

How to care for your clothes

We can keep our clothes looking good for longer by caring for them. Line drying and washing at a lower temperature puts less strain on the fabric and saves carbon. Washing clothes less often can also reduce the shedding of microfibres.

You may even be able to wash them less often. As raw denim aficionados will attest, jeans only need to be washed every few years (or some say never!). Other garments can also be aired between wears, to avoid washing so often.

How to recycle clothes

Find your local recycling point on the Recycle Now website, by entering your postcode. In some places, clothes can be added to one of your household recycling bins. In other places, you may have to take it to a specific clothing recycling point.


How to reuse shoes - sell or donate

Like clothes, if your shoes are in good condition, you may be able to pass them on, sell or donate them. Most trainers can be washed in a washing machine before selling to get dirt off.

Likewise, if you are looking to buy shoes, boots or other footwear, look in your local charity shops or online marketplaces to see if there is anything suitable second-hand.

How to repair shoes

A trip to the cobbler is always a more ethical option than buying a new pair of shoes, and a surprising number of things can be repaired, even substantial damage to the upper part of the shoe.

It’s true that taking your shoes to a cobbler can be expensive, but it is often still cheaper than buying a new pair of shoes that are built to last. A resole tends to put you back about £15-£40, depending on where you go and the shoes you are resoling. Small independent cobblers are often substantially cheaper.

If your shoes are a well-known brand such as Dr Marten’s or Birkenstocks, you may also be able to find a specialist repair company. Likewise, specialist companies can repair shoes like hiking boots or climbing shoes. (See tips on this in our outdoor clothing and gear guide.)

One of the most common problems is that shoes just need re-gluing, and you can do this yourself. Some shoe glues are made from animal products. But we checked and a number of popular brands like Shoe Goo, Gorilla and Gear Aid Aquaseal+SR are vegan.

How to recycle shoes

If your shoes are in a poor state and beyond repair, recycling is the best option. The Recycle Now website can tell you the best way to recycle your shoes near you. Some councils can collect them as part of your normal recycling, or there might be a local drop-off point near you.

Or, try something different and use them as a feature in your garden!

When we need to buy new…

Sometimes buying new may be necessary, particularly for items like underwear.

Our shopping guides rate and rank companies on their ethical policies and practices, so you can find the best options for you. They also give tips on what to look for, and highlight vegan, fair trade and organic brands.

We have guides to ethical t-shirts, shoes, sportswear and more. See the full range of guides on our shopping guides page.