A: Just because that old shirt you used to love is too threadbare to wear anymore doesn't mean it has to end up in a landfill. "Consumers don't understand that there's a place for their old clothing even if something is missing a button or torn," says Jana Hawley, a professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Ninety-nine percent of used textiles are recyclable."
Nonprofits like Goodwill and the Salvation Army play a crucial role in keeping old clothes out of the waste stream. When they get donations of clothes that are too threadbare to resell in one of their shops, they send them to "rag sorters" that specialize in recycling pieces of fabric large and small. Says Ms. Hawley, these textile recyclers sell about half the clothing they get back overseas in developing countries, while unusable garments, especially cotton T-shirts, are turned into wiping and polishing clothes used by a variety of industries and sold to consumers. She adds that other textiles are shredded into fibers used to make new products, such as sound-deadening materials for the automotive industry, archival-quality paper, blankets, and even plastic fencing.
Outdoor clothing and gearmaker Patagonia, which plies a strong environmental mandate in key aspects of its operations (from sourcing of raw materials to managing waste to making grants to environmental nonprofits), in 2005 launched its innovative Common Threads Garment Recycling program. The program was originally begun so customers could return their worn-out Capilene long undies for recycling, but has expanded to taking back Patagonia fleece and cotton T-shirts as well as Polartec fleece from other manufacturers. Consumers wanting to unload items that meet the program's criteria can do so at any Patagonia retail store or by mailing them into the company's Reno, Nev., service center.
Of course, do-it-yourselfers handy with needle and thread or sewing machines can turn their old clothes into new creations such as quilts, handbags and smaller items. The website Expert Village, which claims to have the largest online collection of "how-to" videos, offers a free series called "How to Recycle Old Clothes into New Fashions." Short step-by-step videos in the series cover such topics as transforming old garments into works of art; sewing patches, buttons, and beads onto old clothes; and much more.
According to the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, textiles make up about 4 percent of the weight and 8 percent of the volume of all municipal solid waste in the US. The commercial recycling company U'SAgain – which runs private for-profit recycling services in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Louis, and elsewhere – finds that some 85 percent of the 70 pounds of textiles the average American purchases each year ends up in landfills. That means the typical US city with 50,000 residents has to pay (with local tax dollars) for the handling and disposal of some 3,000 tons of textiles every year.
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