Textile recycling information sheet

Why bother? It is estimated that more than 1 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year, with most of this coming from household sources. Textiles make up about 3% by weight of a household bin. At least 50% of the textiles we throw away are recyclable, however, the proportion of textile wastes reused or recycled annually is only around 25%.  Although the majority of textile waste originates from household sources, waste textiles also arise during yarn and fabric manufacture, garment-making processes and from the retail industry.  These are termed post-industrial waste, as opposed to the post-consumer waste which goes to jumble sales and charity shops. Together they provide a vast potential for recovery and recycling. Recovery and recycling provide both environmental and economic benefits. Textile recovery:

  • Reduces the need for landfill space. Textiles present particular problems in landfill as synthetic (man-made fibres) products will not decompose, while woollen garments do decompose and produce methane, which contributes to global warming.
  • Reduces pressure on virgin resources.
  • Aids the balance of payments as we import fewer materials for our needs.
  • Results in less pollution and energy savings, as fibres do not have to be transported from abroad.

If everyone in the UK bought one reclaimed woollen garment each year, it would save an average of 371 million gallons of water and 480 tonnes of chemical dyestuffs.
Reclaiming fibre avoids many of the polluting and energy intensive processes needed to make textiles from virgin materials, including:

  • Savings on energy consumption when processing, as items do not need to be re-dyed or scoured.
  • Less effluent, as unlike raw wool, it does not have to be thoroughly washed using large volumes of water.
  • Reduction of demand for dyes and fixing agents and the problems caused by their use and manufacture.   How's, what's and where's of recycling textiles The majority of post-consumer textiles are currently collected by charities.  Some charities sort collected material selling it on to merchants in the appropriate sectors. Over 70% of the world's population use second hand clothes.Some post-industrial waste is recycled 'in-house', usually in the yarn and fabric manufacturing sector.  The rest, aside from going to landfill or incineration, is sent to merchants.

Collection Methods At present the consumer has the option of putting textiles in 'clothes banks', taking them to charity shops or having them picked up for a jumble sale. The Salvation Army, Scope, and Oxfam also use a bank scheme in conjunction with other methods.  Scope, for example, runs a national door-to-door textile collection service.  There are about 3,000 textile banks nationwide, but clothes banks are only operating at about 25% capacity. The Salvation Army is the largest operator of textile banks in the UK, with over 2,000 banks nationwide.  On average, each of these banks is estimated to collect about six tonnes of textiles per year.  Combined with door-to-door collections, The Salvation Army's textile recycling operations account for the processing of in excess of 17,000 tonnes of clothing a year.  Clothes are given to the homeless, sold in charity shops or sold in developing countries in Africa, the Indian sub-continent and parts of Eastern Europe. Nearly 70% of items put into clothing banks are reused as clothes, and any un-wearable items are sold to merchants to be recycled and used as factory wiping cloths. The average lifetime of a garment is about three years.  Unsold and un-wearable clothing is sent to Oxfam's Wastesaver, a textile recycling plant in Huddersfield.  These clothes are sold as raw materials to the textile recycling industry.  Wastesaver handles about 100 tonnes a week.

Processing and Outlets for Waste Textiles All collected textiles are sorted and graded by highly skilled, experienced workers, who are able to recognise the large variety of fibre types resulting from the introduction of synthetics and blended fibre fabrics. Once sorted the items are sent to various destinations in United Kingdom and abroad. Oxfam's Wastesaver provides clothes to Mozambique, Malawi or Angola for emergency use, as well as providing warm winter clothing to former Yugoslavia, Albania, Afghanistan and Northern Iraq. Unwearable textiles are sold to the 'flocking' industry. Items are shredded for fillers in car insulation, roofing felts, loudspeaker cones, panel linings, furniture padding etc. Woollen garments are sold to specialist firms for fibre reclamation to make yarn or fabric. Cotton and silk are sorted into grades to make wiping cloths for a range of industries from automotive to mining, and for use in paper manufacture.  Post industrial waste is often reprocessed in house. Clippings from garment manufacture are also used by fibre reclaimers to make into garments, felt and blankets. Some items will be reused by designers fashioning garments and bags from recovered items, however this is a very small sector within the overall destinations of textiles.

The Fibre Reclamation Process Mills grade incoming material into type and colour. The colour sorting means no re-dying has to take place, saving energy and pollutants.  Initially the material is shredded into 'shoddy' (fibres).  Depending on the end uses of the yarn e.g. a rug, other fibres are chosen to be blended with the shoddy.  The blended mixture is carded to clean and mix the fibres, and spun ready for weaving or knitting. 

The Recycling Scene Evergreen produces yarns and fabrics from recycled fibres.  Their most successful products are inblends spun from English and Chinese hemp and recycled denim, in addition to other recycled fibre blends containing wool, cashmere, silk and PET (polyester made from post-consumer recycled plastic drinks bottles and tencel, a fibre made from wool). The reuse of clothes is promoting a new breed of designer.  NoLoGo are a team of volunteer designers set up by Oxfam who restyle donated garments and fabrics, selling them on at some Oxfam shops. 

What You Can Do?

  • Take your used clothes to a textile bank. Alternatively you can take used clothing to local charity shops.
  • Give old clothes/shoes/curtains/handbags etc. to jumble sales. 
  • Buy second-hand clothes - you can often pick up unusual period pieces!  If bought from a charity shop, it will also benefit a charity.
  • Buy things you are likely to wear a long time - a dedicated follower of fashion can also be a green one if items are chosen carefully.
  • Look for recycled content in the garments you buy. This should be on the label, though at present there is no conventional marking scheme and some companies do not always advertise the recycled content.
  • Buy cloth wipers instead of disposable paper products as the product can be used repeatedly.