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Recycling Your Clothing

De-cluttering our bulging wardrobes is touted as a tonic for the soul, necessary for our mental health. But what happens to the clothes you discard?

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), last year in the UK we bought 1,130,000 tonnes of clothes, but a study by Barnardo’s in 2015 revealed that each item we own is only worn an average of 7 times before we get rid of it. Shocking but, sadly, not surprising.

However, the results of a recent survey by Sainsbury’s might come as a surprise to our readers. They found that three quarters of UK consumers are likely to bin clothes that they no longer want rather than give them to charity or recycling.

Reasons given in the survey included, thinking clothes were too worn out or dirty to donate to charity, not having the time or inclination to sort out or drop off their clothes and not knowing that clothes could be recycled.

We’re sure our readers know charities can re-use or recycle almost any textile, so whatever you do – don’t bin your cast offs!

Clothes thrown in the usual household rubbish will probably end up in landfill, or be incinerated. In the UK, around 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in the household rubbish every year. Though this is 50,000 tonnes less than in 2012, it’s still a significant waste of resources.

WRAP says the CO2 impact of landfill or incineration is relatively low compared to some phases in the clothing life cycle, such as new fibre production or laundry, but still it adds to the carbon footprint. And there are other impacts. In landfill, clothes can leach chemicals into the soil, and incineration releases CO2, toxins and pollutants into the air – even after filtration.

Donating clothes

When you donate your clothes to a charity shop or put them into a clothes bank, they may end up travelling the world. According to WRAP over half of the clothes that we donate to charity get exported for reuse in other countries. 

Graph: Destination of UK textile donations

The UK is the third biggest exporter of used textiles after the USA and Germany. UK exports of used clothes had grown fivefold over the past two decades, but in 2014 they peaked, and prices and exports have been falling since.

Of the rest of our donated threads, 35% gets reused in the UK via charity shops, and roughly 9% goes for recycling. Anything not suitable for reuse is referred to as an End of Life (EoL) textile. WRAP has explored potential additional markets for EoL textiles, including fibre-to-fibre recycling – taking old clothes and turning them into new fibres to make new clothes.

The problem with recycling fibres

One way of recycling natural fibres is by literally tearing textiles apart until they’re broken down into fibres again. Mechanically-reclaimed fibres from clothing cannot fully substitute new fibres, as they’re much shorter and less durable, so new fibres need to be mixed in with the recycled ones.

Polyester and nylon can also be recycled chemically. For either method clothing must first be sorted into the right types. And neither can currently deal with the mixed fibre blends seen in much modern clothing.

Technology for closed loop or circular garment production has not yet been developed which offers both decent quality textiles and also affordability at scale. But people are working on it...

High street take-back schemes

And what about the high-street fashion brands who are offering in-store take-back of your old clothes? H&M, M&S and Zara all have such schemes. So where do these clothes go?

When watching ‘Bring It On’ – H&M’s promotional video (see below) for its clothing take-back scheme – you could be forgiven for thinking the company has developed its own cutting-edge textile recycling technology which can turn old jeans into new jeans.

The words “rip it, grind it, tear it, tear it into smaller pieces, let’s shred it into fibres and stitch it into something new” are spoken as a poem while a model shrugs on a blue denim jacket. “Let’s cut your jeans into pieces and make new jeans out of them” it adds. But the company’s website reveals that the clothes in its take-back scheme are simply collected by partner I:CO and inserted into the existing textile recycling stream as outlined above.

Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. But this is just the same as any other clothing donation. Yes, it might be helping raise awareness among young people who didn’t know clothes could be recycled, but the scheme has also attracted some criticism for potentially falsely assuaging consumers’ guilt over the ‘buy it, wear it, chuck it’ mentality nurtured by the fast fashion industry.

H&M’s website states that any profits from its clothing collections are put into funding research on innovative textile recycling methods to combat the problems outlined above. And H&M clothing collections partner I:CO says it collaborates with SOEX Group on just that.

SOEX Group is one of 20 partners collaborating on the EU-funded Resyntex project, which looks at methods for chemically separating fibres of different types, removing the need for pre-sorting textiles. The aim is that the process creates a slurry which can then be re-formed into new fibres.

According to its website, Inditex (Zara)  is similarly “championing research” into technology for the creation of new textiles from recycled garments together with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and certain Spanish universities.

Image: M&S Shwop Shop

The company is funding a contest where research teams at universities can pitch their environmental idea to win funding to develop it further. It’s also providing an initial 500 tonnes of textile waste to Lenzing, the Australian manufacturer of the plant-based textile fibre TENCEL™ Lyocell, which will use it in manufacturing its materials.

Other textile recycling schemes seem to operate in partnership with charities who already trade in secondhand clothing – M&S run a scheme with Oxfam, and Zara runs one with multiple charities including Oxfam, the Red Cross and Spanish charity Cáritas.

Isn’t it about time clothing companies took financial responsibility for the waste they are creating? Recycling and reusing clothing has a cost. After all, it’s the companies who drive our increasing clothing purchases, and persuade us we need MORE clothes when our wardrobes are already full to bursting.

A more convincing effort might involve allocating an ongoing share of their profits to fund large-scale textile recycling solutions, providing consumers with information on how the use and disposal of clothing affects the environment, and perhaps rethinking the frequency and durability of their clothing collections.

Extending the life of your clothes

The way you wash your clothes has a huge environmental impact, second only to that of creating brand new fibres and fabrics. WRAP say that, since 2012, the carbon footprint of clothing in the UK has been reduced by 700,000 tonnes CO2, thanks to people washing their clothes at lower temperatures, and ironing and tumble drying less frequently.

As raw denim aficionados will attest, jeans only need to be washed every few years (or some say never!). But we could probably save on washes with most garments by airing them between wears. Line drying and washing at a lower temperature lessens the impact, as well as keeping clothes looking good for longer.

Each extra nine months of active use reduces the carbon, water and waste footprints of a garment by around 20-30% each – provided it substitutes a new purchase, thus avoiding the impacts of new fibre production.

Try and hold on to your older clothes for longer – repair them if they get a hole or the fastenings break. The most sustainable clothes are the ones we already have. A societal shift is required in order to embrace this attitude fully. Mending is often seen as embarrassing or scruffy in our society, but inspiration can be found in patchwork Japanese Boro textiles, or the intricate knitwear repair work of Tom of Holland’s Visible Mending Programme.

The mended look isn’t for everyone, but if more of us could learn to love and appreciate clothes which show signs of wear and repair, we’d be in a better position to challenge the dominance of the fast fashion business model.

When you feel the need for something fresh, rather than buy something, could you repurpose an item you already have, or try wearing it a different way? Jeans with holes on the knees can become shorts, or work shirts with worn collars can become a round-neck summer top. Get creative, pool your resources and share old clothes with friends and family. Upcycling offers a way to use your old clothes in new ways without resorting to getting rid of them.

If you really don’t want to wear an item anymore, but it still has some use left, head to a local clothes swap or ‘swishing’ event – there are events all over the country listed on Swaps are a great way to switch up your wardrobe without adding yet more items in. And they help keep clothes in use for longer.

Using every last scrap

Some items of clothing are simply not made to last, and there will come a time when your garment is no longer fit to be seen out in! Of course, you could donate it, but textiles are a precious resource and there are loads of things you can make your old clothes into. Pet beds, 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. Plenty of these projects can be completed with just a pair of scissors, a needle and thread.

But if you’re not confident in going it alone, there are plenty of places you can learn to sew and even pick up specialist skills like clothing repairs and upcycling. The Love Your Clothes website has a list of ‘SuperCrafters’ across the UK where you can learn sewing and textile skills. And the links box below has some interesting reading to get you inspired to make more from your clothes.

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