Guest Post: Nancy Dilts on Textile Recycling

Today I’m thrilled to welcome sustainable stylist Nancy Dilts back to Already Pretty! A few weeks ago, Nancy and I got to talking about textile recycling – a topic that fascinates me, as someone who is trying to shop and live more sustainably – and eventually I found myself begging her to share her knowledge with you folks. So I’ll turn it over to Nancy and let her dig right in.

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Consign, Donate, or RECYCLE?

As a wardrobe consultant who specializes in practicing sustainable consumerism, a large part of my work with clients is to help them embrace their personal style sustainably, using three strategies:

  1. Making your existing wardrobe as functional as possible
  2. Shopping new-to-you (second-hand)
  3. Shopping ethically when purchasing new clothing

When we do a Wardrobe Consult, we look at the client’s existing wardrobe to purge the items that no longer work and make the ones that do work more functional. What to do with clothing that is outdated, worn out, or no longer fits can be daunting. As a result, Americans recycle or donate only 15 percent of their used clothing, and the rest—about 10.5 million tons a year—goes into landfills. Textiles are a significant contributor to solid waste issues around the world.

think progress _clothing bales

Please don’t throw away discarded clothing! Consign, donate, or recycle it. Here’s how.

Consign

A few months back, Sally wrote this post about choosing consignment over donation, and she’s absolutely right. If clothing is in good condition and five or less years old, consign rather than donate. This also holds true for classic vintage items. Consigning is a little more effort than donating – clothing must be clean, free of stains, undamaged (no tears or holes, broken zippers, missing buttons, etc.) and wrinkle-free.

However, it guarantees that clothing will be kept in the use stream. Plus, depending on what you are consigning, you can earn a modest to significant payback in store credit or cash for your items.

The growing scene of local consignment shops around the nation – as well as online consignment sites like old standby eBay and newer thredup, swap.com and the RealReal – make consignment easier than ever. Selling – and buying – consignment is the best way to reduce the environmental (and human rights) impact of your clothing.

Donate

Many items are just too old or worn out for consignment. This is where it gets trickier in deciding the most environmentally friendly method of disposal. Many items can be donated, but not all of them. A good rule of thumb is that if items are less than 10 years old and in decent condition, they are great candidates for donation. As Sally mentioned in her post, charitable organizations are absolutely inundated with donations, and a surprisingly large amount of donated clothes never make it onto the sales floor. Things that are very old, damaged or worn out will not be put out for sale.

eureka recycling_clothes and linens

Charitable organizations recycle some unused donations. Often though, they bale these items and send them to developing nations, where some do get used, but not all of them. Again, the sheer quantity of unwanted clothing in the United States is mind-boggling. Items that are not used in developing nations end up in landfills there, exacerbating solid waste issues that are often much worse than those in the United States. Out of sight is not out of mind.

So, what to do with those items that really aren’t fit for sale? Recycle them.

Recycle

When considering what should be recycled, think about what you would want to wear or would feel comfortable giving to a friend. If you wouldn’t do either with a specific garment, then recycle it instead of donating it. That way you know for sure that the item will not end up in a landfill here or across the world but will instead be put to use in another form.

Textile recycling is  becoming easier for the average citizen. In many cities and metro regions, including the Twin Cities where I live, curbside recycling programs accept textiles at the curb or have drop-off sites. Check your recycling service’s methods for accepting textiles – this is the most reliable way to ensure that your items will be recycled and repurposed as rags, furniture stuffing, upholstery, home insulation, automobile sound-proofing, carpet padding, building materials and various other products.

usagain bin

Another way to recycle unwanted clothing is in metal drop-boxes one sees around town, often in parking lots of shopping areas or grocery stores. Some of these bins are donation sites for charitable organizations; others are for-profit textile recycling companies. USAgain is one such company that has drop-boxes all around the United States. Even though these companies are for-profit rather than charitable, they are ensuring that unwanted textiles are recycled. Read the signs on the drop-boxes to distinguish whether they are for donation or recycling and choose accordingly. In any case, choose only bins that are professional, forthright in their purpose, and well maintained. Otherwise, your clothing may not end up where you hope.

Purchasing new-to-you clothing is an easy and effective way to begin practicing sustainable consumerism. Closing the loop with environmentally responsible methods for reuse and recycling of clothing we no longer use is the way to take the next critical step.

– – – – –

Nancy Dilts, founder of Nancy Dilts Wardrobe Consulting, brings her passions – personal style, positive body image, and the environment – together to help her clients feel great about how they look, using an economically and environmentally sustainable approach. Nancy has an MA in Environmental and Resource Policy and, before launching NDWC, spent close to 20 years working in the field of environmental education and outreach raising awareness about environmental issues and teaching about how our behaviors impact the environment. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband, daughter, and dog, and is certain she will one day find a way to incorporate her other passion – chocolate – into her business model.

Contact Nancy to book a Wardrobe Consult, Personal Shopping session, or service package.

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15 Responses to “Guest Post: Nancy Dilts on Textile Recycling”

  1. DJK

    Nancy (and Sally), thanks for this; it’s really good information. I will make more of an effort to consign instead of donate; I hadn’t made the connection that that’s actually better. Also, I located some USAgain boxes for the clothes that I’ve been holding onto for years (like since the 90s years). And, Hi Nancy! I’m happy to see that you are well!

    • Nancy Dilts

      Hi DJK! How great to see your face – it’s been so many years! It will feel good to have those clothes from the 90s out of your wardrobe and to know they will be repurposed. And consigning can be very rewarding – both environmentally and economically. Have fun!

  2. Maya Resnikoff

    You can also re-use the fabric from the clothing around your own home first- use it to dust, scrub, patch other clothes, wipe baby’s tushies, make art, cut down to make different clothes, etc. We regularly use our rags until they start getting holes. I do need to work on getting those holey rags to recycling rather than the trash, though.

    • Nancy Dilts

      Maya, yes it’s a great idea to use worn out and damaged clothing as rags first! And recycling the rags takes it one more step-check your recycling service to see if they take textiles. One of Sally’s readers on Facebook also suggested composting natural fiber rags when you are finished with them – it’s worth a try!

    • Liz

      See if it’s possible to do some creative folding to cover or turn under the holes in your rags. For example, try folding a square piece of rag in thirds so there are some layers under or above the holes. Then run a line of stitching all around the edges of the folded piece and through the middle, either diagonally to the corners or in some other way that will help hold the layers together.

      This way you can rig up a pad that’s actually a lot more useful and absorbent than one layer of material.

      I learned to do this in Japan years ago when paper products were very expensive, and still do it. I tend to sew by hand with a really long basting stitch if the folded material is too thick to fit comfortably in my machine. I do it when I’m watching the news or a TV program that doesn’t require a lot of eye attention, and it goes very quickly.

      You’ll be surprised at how much more wear you can get out of an old piece of cloth that way.

      • Maya Resnikoff

        So far, they’ve been small rags, post years of wear as a t-shirt, then a year or more of wiping a baby’s tush- they tend to manifest a bunch of holes at once. But that could get me some use from husband’s old undershirts…

  3. cryptdang

    Great, informative post!

    It does overstate how easy it is to recycle clothes, though. I have looked unsuccessfully for places to recycle textiles anywhere near me, and not found anything. Will give it another go. I think some thrift stores do recycle textiles, but you might have to call them and ask about it.

    • Nancy Dilts

      You are right – how easy it is to recycle (all materials) definitely depends on where you live! Metropolitan regions tend to have more extensive programs, but that can also vary state by state in the US. Doing an internet search using the phrase “textile recycling near me” should show some options. Calling a thrift store is a great idea as well, because they have to dispose of the items they can’t sell – they should be able to connect you with the service they use. Good luck, and thanks for your persistence!

  4. Jennifer

    I’ve heard that giving clothes to thrift stores is still a good practice for those of us who wear plus sizes. The reasoning seems to be that plus donations are not as plentiful, and will thus be bought more. As someone who regularly (around 2-3 times a year) donates and also often shops at thrift stores, I think this might be the case. Can you tell me if this is true?

    I don’t have a consignment or recycling box in my small town, so I’m sort of limited, either way.

    • Nancy Dilts

      Yes, this is true; the markets for new-to-you plus-size clothing and for kids’ clothing are both very strong – plus-size because there is a demand and not as much stock available (I wish this would change!) and kids because children outgrow clothing before it’s worn out and there is always a demand. Unless a plus-size or kids’ garment is really worn out or damaged, donate it! It will likely sell.

  5. Mindy Holahan

    I hadn’t realized that textile recycling was an option until I read one of your earlier blog posts. It turns out that our garbage company includes textile recycling as a part of their recycling program. The items have to be separated into a plastic bag, labeled, and set next to the recycling bin.

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