Why clothes are so hard to recycle (2023)

Recycling

Why clothes are so hard to recycle

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Why clothes are so hard to recycle (1)

By Abigail Beall13th July 2020

Fast fashion is leading to a mountain of clothing being thrown away each year and has a huge impact on the environment, so can we turn our unwanted garments into something useful?

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Open your wardrobe and be honest. How long was it since you last wore some of those clothes? Do you think it might be time for a clear out?

Languishing in the back of cupboards and bottom of drawers are outfits that don’t fit any more, items that have gone out of fashion, or even clothes that have never been worn. In fact, according to research conducted by sociologist Sophie Woodward at the University of Manchester, on average 12% of clothes in the wardrobes of women she studied could be considered “inactive”.

If you were brutal, you’ll probably manage to fill a bin-bag or two with clothes you no longer want or need. But what then?

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Around 85% of all textiles thrown away in the US – roughly 13 million tonnes in 2017 – are either dumped into landfill or burned. The average American has been estimated to throw away around 37kg of clothes every year. And globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste is created each year and the equivalent to a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second. By 2030, we are expected as a whole to be discarding more than 134 million tonnes of textiles a year.

“The current fashion system uses high volumes of non-renewable resources, including petroleum, extracted to produce clothes that are often used only for a short period of time, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration,” says Chetna Prajapati, who studies ways of making sustainable textiles at Loughborough University in the UK.

“This system puts pressure on valuable resources such as water, pollutes the environment and degrades ecosystems in addition to creating societal impacts on a global scale.”

There are good reasons to seek out alternatives to chucking clothes in the bin – globally the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with textile production alone is estimated to release 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Vast amounts of water are also needed to produce the clothes we wear too and the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of global waste water. (Read more about the impact our fashion addiction has on the planet.)

At the same time we are buying more clothes than ever – the average consumer now buys 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago. More than two tonnes of clothing are bought each minute in the UK, more than any other country in Europe. Globally, around 56 million tonnes of clothing are bought each year, and this is expected to rise to 93 million tonnes by 2030 and 160 million tonnes by 2050.

Globally just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled

While most clothes with care will last many years, changing fashions mean their lifespan is artificially shortened by consumers changing tastes. Industry figures suggest modern clothing will have a lifespan of between 2-10 years – with underwear and t-shirts lasting just one to two years, while suits and coats last for around four to six years.

Would recycling our clothes help to reduce the toll our fashion addiction has on the environment?

Currently just 13.6% of clothes and shoes thrown away in the US end up being recycled – while the average American throws away 37kg of clothes every year. Globally just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled. Compare that to paper, glass and plastic PET bottles – which have recycling rates of 66%, 27% and 29% respectively in the US – and it is clear clothing lags behind.

Indeed, most of the recycled polyester being used now by leading fashion brands in fact comes from bottles rather than old clothing.

Much of the problem comes down to what our clothes are made from. The fabrics we drape over our bodies are complex combinations of fibres, fixtures and accessories. They are made from problematic blends of natural yarns, mand-made filaments, plastics and metals.

“For example, a 100% cotton t-shirt contains many other components such as labels and sewing threads which are usually made from another material like polyester,” says Prajapati. “Similarly, a typical pair of jeans are made from cotton yarn which is generally blended with elastane, and other components such as zips and buttons and polyester sewing thread and dyed using a range of dyes.”

Why clothes are so hard to recycle (3)

Sorting clothing by hand is a time consuming task made more complicated by the many blends of man-made and natural fibres used in modern garments (Credit: Getty Images)

This makes them hard to separate so they can be effectively recycled. Sorting textiles into different fibres and material types by hand is labour intensive, slow and requires a skilled workforce. Growing use of modern fabric blends in clothing also makes it hard to do this mechanically too, although European researchers have been developing techniques that make use of hyperspectral cameras – which can see light beyond the limits of human vision – to better identify different fabric types. Once sorted, the dyes that have been applied to the fabrics need to be removed in order for yarns to be reused.

Currently, however, very few of the clothes that are sent to be recycled are actually turned into new clothing – a process known as “material to material” recycling. Old wool jumpers, for example, can be turned into carpets, cashmere can be recycled into suits. But as of 2015, less than 1% of used clothing was recycled in this way.

While of course there is a healthy market in second-hand clothes being sold online, perhaps the most popular way of disposing of old clothes is simply to give them away so they can be reused through charity shops. Increasingly, however, clothes donations are being used as a way of simply passing on the textile waste problem to others.

Shorter fibre length produces fabrics of lower quality and strength, so the results from this kind of recycling can’t be used for clothing

At Oxfam’s Wastesaver clothes sorting and recycling plant in Batley, Yorkshire, UK, 80 tonnes of old clothes pass through the factory every week. Lorraine Needham Reid, Oxfam’s Wastesaver manager, has worked at the plant for over 10 years. Over that time, however, she has seen a real decline in the quality of clothes that are reaching them, particularly when it comes to the materials used to make the clothes.

These days, most of what reaches Wastesaver will end up never being worn again. Over a third – 35% of the clothes – go to Oxfam’s partners in Senegal to be sold. Between 1-3% go back into Oxfam shops around the UK to be re-sold.

The majority is sent for recycling in some way, but about six tonnes of the garments are of such poor quality they are simply torn up so they can be used as industrial cleaning clothes and stuffing for mattresses or car seats.

Fibre recycling technologies do exist, but they are only used on a small scale. Generally, the techniques can be separated into mechanical and chemical recycling.

“Blends are most suitable for mechanical fibre recycling, where fabrics are shredded and pulled to transform them into fibres of shorter length,” says Prajapati. Shorter fibre length produces fabrics of lower quality and strength, so the results from this kind of recycling can’t be used for clothing. Instead these tend to then be “downcycled” to produce other composite fibre materials such as thermal insulation or carpet for use in the building industry. Some researchers have found ways of creating noise insulation from old textile fibres.

Chemical fibre recycling for fabrics with large quantities of one type of fibre, for example polyester and nylon are well established, says Prajapati. “However, they consist of multiple processes and additional chemicals, making the process and resulting yarn or fabric costly,” she says.

Why clothes are so hard to recycle (4)

Treating cotton-polyester blends with enzymes from fungi can recover the man-made fibres for reuse (Credit: Getty Images)

There has been success on a smaller scale to effectively separate natural and synthetic blends and capture both types of fibres, without losing either fibre in the process. However, scaling up this technology to an industrial scale remains the challenge.

One group of researchers led by Carol Lin, a chemical engineer at the City University of Hong Kong, has developed a technique for recycling fabrics made from cotton and polyester blends by feeding them to fungi. The fungi Aspergillus niger– which typically forms a black mould on grapes – produces an enzyme that can break down the cotton into glucose that can then be used turned into syrup. The remaining pure polyester fibres can then be reused to make new clothing, they claim. Poly-cotton blends are now among the most popular fabrics for use in cheap clothing, commonly used in t-shirts, shirts and even jeans.

Lin and her team have since refined the process so it can be done on a larger scale using industrially produced cellulose enzymes, and have been working with the clothing retailer H&M to examine what impact this recycling process might have on its textile waste.

Austrian researchers have also developed techniques using enzymes that allow them to turn old wool clothing into a material that can be used as a resin or adhesive.

But if we ever hope to make our clothing sustainable, more fundamental changes to the clothing industry will need to be made. Fabrics, fibres and garments will need to be designed in ways that make them easier to recover and recycle.

Some are even looking at turning other types of waste – such as off milk – into clothing

“Recycling needs to be incorporated into the current system to make it more circular,” says Prajapati. “Therefore, the way we design clothes needs to change, it needs to facilitate recycling.”

One option is to create new types of materials altogether, from different sources, that either won’t have the same impact on the environment or might be easier to recycle. Some are even looking at turning other types of waste – such as off milk – into clothing.

When milk turns sour, it separates into whey at the bottom and protein flakes on top. When you remove the whey, you are left with a kind of cottage cheese.

“This cottage cheese is put into a machine that works like a noodle machine,” says Anke Domaske, founder of QMilk, a company that has been developing new types of biodegradable fibres in Hemmingen, Germany. “Together with water you create a dough. At the end there is a spinneret with holes so fine that you do not end up with noodles, but fine fibres that are thinner than hair.”

The company then spins these fibres into yarns, which it says have a silk-like texture. These can then be used to make jersey or woven fabrics, or other textiles like felt. Crucially, when a garment made completely from QMilk fibres is no longer wanted, it can simply be composted at home, Domaske says.

QMilk isn’t the only company creating textiles from unusual sources.

Why clothes are so hard to recycle (5)

The dye that is added to clothing also needs to be removed before it the yarn can be recycled (Credit: Getty Images)

After working for years at a design company in Germany, Renana Krebs saw behind the scenes how poor the textiles and clothing industry is for the environment. She vowed to do something about it and in 2016, she started Algalife, making fibres and dyes from algae.

Algae is already widely used in the beauty industry, in certain foods and it is used to make biofuels. “After learning about all those industries, and the benefits that we get from algae, we asked ‘why not to do this for textiles?’” says Krebs.

One benefit is the algae are harvested in a closed system, meaning there is no freshwater used in the process at all. All the algae need to grow is water and sunlight. By extracting natural colourings from different types of algae, Krebs and her team have been able to combine these with enzymes and fixative agents – which help to bind the pigment to a fabric – from synthetic and natural sources, including oak galls, pomegranate rind and juniper needles.

They have also been able to produce fibres that can turned into yarns by purifying proteins from the algae or even using them to produce a bio-oil that can be turned into bioplastic fibres.

Prajapati has also been working with colleagues at De Montfort University to produce enzymes that could potentially make the clothes dying process more sustainable.

Major brands across the fashion industry are starting to pay attention to the demand for more sustainable practices

Currently most textiles are coloured using synthetic dyes, which are petroleum derivatives, and patterned with complex processes. These processes can require temperatures of up to 100C for cotton, nylon and wool, but higher for polyester and other synthetic fibres. On top of this, the process requires high pressures, long processing times and the use of additional chemicals such as acids and alkalis, which are harmful towards the environment in large quantities.

Prajapati and her colleagues have been developing processes that use enzymes so that textile dyes and patterning of fabrics can be done temperatures as low as 50C, at atmospheric pressure and pH conditions around neutral without the use of additional chemicals.

“The key advantages over conventional methods include simpler processing of textiles, the elimination of pre-manufactured dyes and opportunities for multiple colours to be achieved through simple alteration of processing conditions,” she says.

Pigments made by Algalife have similar benefits, plus the added benefit of being created from renewable sources, says Krebs. You can even drink the dye they produce, she says. Algalife is now working with a major retail fashion brand and hope to have clothes made from algae in stores by 2021.

Other major brands across the fashion industry are starting to pay attention to the demand for more sustainable practices. Companies like Adidas, that recently announced a range of trainers made from ocean plastic. High street retailer Zara also announced in 2019 that it would be using only sustainable materials by 2025.

Why clothes are so hard to recycle (6)

The shredding process used by mechanical recycling methods leads to shorter, weaker fibres that cannot be resued to make clothes (Credit: Alamy)

“Using recycled, rather than virgin, materials offers an opportunity to drastically reduce non-renewable resource inputs and the negative impacts of the industry, like CO2 emissions, water and chemical use,” says Prajapati.

But some are sceptical about how committed some large brands are to sustainability, accusing them of “greenwashing”, which the companies deny.

Zara was one of the original inventors of the fast fashion system as we know it, says Clare Press, Australian Vogue’s sustainability editor-at-large and author of the book Wardrobe Crisis. “Let’s not pretend people shop at Zara for heirlooms to pass down through the generations,” she says. “In the last 20 years the fashion system has changed completely, moving away from seasonal drops towards near-instant gratification. Waiting six months for a runway look seems crazy to a new generation of fashion fans raised on Instagram and ‘see now, buy now’.”

So while recycling and more sustainable fabrics will be a key part of the solution, consumers too will need to change their behaviour if we hope to lessen the impact that the fashion industry is having on our planet.

“We need to slow down, take a little time to reconnect with our clothes and appreciate them again,” says Press. “Remember that whatever you are wearing, it took both physical and creative resources to make it.”

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FAQs

Why is it difficult to recycle clothing? ›

Much of the problem comes down to what our clothes are made from. The fabrics we drape over our bodies are complex combinations of fibres, fixtures and accessories. They are made from problematic blends of natural yarns, mand-made filaments, plastics and metals.

What is the most difficult material to recycle Why? ›

What is the most difficult material to recycle? That's correct … it's PLASTIC!! The biggest problem in recycling plastics is that they aren't biodegradable, which means it can't be broken down by natural organisms and acts as a source of air and water pollution.

Why is there so much clothing waste? ›

A lot of the clothing waste comes from manufacturers–13 million tons of textiles each year— and from clothing retailers themselves. Manufacturers overproduce the supply of clothing, and retailers end up overstocked– as seasons change, the unsold supply ends up thrown away to landfills.

What happens to clothes that can't be recycled? ›

Textiles that are not suitable for re-use are reprocessed or incinerated: Cotton rich textiles, e.g. t-shirts, shirts, bedsheets and towels, are reprocessed and made into industrial wiping rags, as cotton absorbs liquids well.

Do clothes really get recycled? ›

Yes! Clothing and textiles are 100% recyclable. You may already donate your gently worn clothes to local nonprofits, take them a consignment store for resale, or participate in online garage sales, but some of your items with rips or stains may not be suitable for donation.

What really happens to recycled clothes? ›

Finally, what clothing remains gets sent to textile recycling centers where they will be cut into rags, processed into softer fiber used for filling furniture and building insulation, or sent overseas.

What products are difficult recycling? ›

Plastic. Plastic is difficult to recycle because there are many different types of it—some of which can be recycled and some of which can't. What's more, even the types that can be processed are often not thanks to high costs, low-quality outcomes, and questionable carbon footprints of recycling systems.

Which item is the least recyclable? ›

Non-recyclable items
  • Garbage.
  • Food waste.
  • Food-tainted items (such as: used paper plates or boxes, paper towels, or paper napkins)
  • Ceramics and kitchenware.
  • Windows and mirrors.
  • Plastic wrap.
  • Packing peanuts and bubble wrap.
  • Wax boxes.

How much clothing actually gets recycled? ›

13.6% of clothes and shoes thrown away in the US end up being recycled – while the average American throws away 37kg of clothes every year.

Why do Singaporeans not recycle clothes? ›

Singaporeans' low environmental commitment

Hence, Singaporeans do not prioritise environmentally-friendly options in their clothing choices despite an increasing need for environmentally-friendly labels (Heng, 2016).

How much clothing is actually recycled? ›

Only about 15% of used clothes and other textiles in the United States get reused or recycled. The other 85% head straight to the landfill or incinerator. This wastes scarce resources, contributes to climate change and pollutes waterways.

What percentage of clothing is recycled reused? ›

Recycling of post-consumer textiles

Presently, less than 1% of textile waste is recycled into new fibres for clothing and the non-reusable fraction is mostly downcycled into industrial rags, upholstery filling and insulation, or is incinerated or landfilled.

How many clothes end up in landfills? ›

Of the 100 billion garments produced each year, 92 million tonnes end up in landfills. To put things in perspective, this means that the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second.

Why is recycled clothing so expensive? ›

They generally have low production volumes and use high-quality materials. They invest in talented people and must sell at a higher price point. Many steps in the lifecycle of clothing items contribute to the final price.

Why is recycled clothing more expensive? ›

The fabrics are more expensive

It is being picked by hand and doesn't grow as efficiently as the one with use of toxins, but the quality is much higher and more durable which should make it fair for the cost to rise.

What happens to clothes that don't sell? ›

Many shops sell it to discount stores like TK Maxx, or online discounters like the Outnet. Others launch periodic online sales of what needs to go, or have their own outlet stores that sell last season's merchandise at a discount. What happens to unsold clothes in other circumstances is they're donated to foundations.

What clothes should not be donated? ›

Only consider donating items that are like new or gently worn. Do your shorts still have a weird smell? That's a no for us dawg. If any of your clothes have spots or stains on them, try to remove them yourself or take it to a professional.

Does H&M recycle clothes? ›

Our garment collecting program was rolled out in 2013, and we have recycling boxes in stores across the globe. It works like this: 1. Bring any unwanted clothes or textiles, by any brand and in any condition, to one of our stores.

What is the most recycled thing on earth? ›

Did you know that steel is the most recycled material in the world? In North America, we recycle around 80 million tons of steel each year. That's more than the weight of all of the cars in the entire state of California. It's also more than all the paper, plastic, aluminum and glass we recycle each year combined.

What is the most wasted object? ›

According to The World Counts, “paper accounts for around 26% of total waste at landfills“. The most common item found in MSW landfills is plain old paper.

What is the quickest material to recycle? ›

Metal: Most metals are easily recyclable. In fact, steel is North America's #1 most recycled material. Additionally, Aluminum cans are one of the easiest items to recycle, as they are 100% recyclable. Turning used aluminum cans into new ones actually uses 95% less energy than making an aluminum can from scratch.

What are the three most common recycling mistakes? ›

10 common recycling mistakes to avoid
  1. Not looking closely enough at the label. ...
  2. Not cleaning off food and other debris. ...
  3. Wrongly recycling soft plastics. ...
  4. Putting recyclables in a plastic bag. ...
  5. Putting the wrong glass in the wrong bin. ...
  6. Recycling plastic cutlery. ...
  7. Not getting creative with aluminium.
22 Apr 2022

Which Cannot be recycled easily? ›

Items that cannot be recycled:

Plastic bags or recyclables inside plastic bags. Takeaway coffee cups. Disposable nappies. Garden waste.

What materials can be 100% recycled? ›

Steel Is the King of the Recycling World

It is 100% recyclable, and can be reused over and over without any quality loss. It is also the most recycled material, per ton, in the world. Here are some more steel-related tidbits; Each year 70 million tons of domestic steel scrap is used in the production of new steel.

How wasteful is the fashion industry? ›

How widespread is waste in the fashion industry? The short answer is: extremely. The long, and more detailed answer is: it's estimated that 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually by the fashion industry.

Why is Shein unsustainable? ›

Let's look at the sustainability of their materials. Dangerous levels of lead and other toxic chemicals have been found in SHEIN clothing. These chemicals are bad for workers, bad for the planet, and bad for the consumers who purchase SHEIN's clothes, whether new or second hand.

Why did China stop buying recycling? ›

China's imports of waste – including recyclables – has been in decline over the last year. Imports of scrap plastic have almost totally stopped due to the trade war. China said that most of the plastic was garbage, and too dirty to recycle.

Why do people throw clothes away? ›

Some of the most common reasons are boredom and the need to replace old items. However, following the rise of fast fashion, clothes are also thrown away simply because they are no longer fashionable.

What percentage of clothing is waste? ›

Waste occurs throughout a garment's life cycle, culminating in 57% of discarded clothes going to landfill each year.

Are recycled clothes expensive? ›

The extra processing applied for avoiding hazardous chemicals makes it all the more costly. The manufacturing process for eco clothing makes the complete cycle more expensive. All these factors go into the price of the finished garment giving a hefty price tag to the eco apparel.

Does fashion recycle every 20 years? ›

It's all thanks to the 20-year rule – the time it takes for a trend to die, then become fashionable again. The path forward by way of the past is a well-trodden one, and not just in fashion. The 20-year rule holds true for music, decor, television, film, and art more broadly.

How much of returned clothing goes to landfill? ›

Experts estimate that retailers throw away about a quarter of their returns. Returns and resale company Optoro estimates that every year, U.S. returns create almost 6 billion pounds of landfill waste.

Does reusing clothes help the environment? ›

When clothes end up in landfills they create greenhouse gases, so recycling them with Planet Aid instead helps diminish the forces that contribute to climate change. Reusing the fabric in old clothes means less resources, both monetary and environmental, are wasted in growing fiber for new ones.

How much waste does the clothing industry cause? ›

The U.S. throws away up to 11.3 million tons of textile waste each year—around 2,150 pieces of clothing each second.

When should you throw away clothes? ›

Set an expiration date for the items in your closet. If you live in a four-season climate and you haven't worn a piece of clothing in a year, it's probably time to donate it. And if you live in a one- or two-season climate, then you likely should let go of something you haven't worn in the past six months.

How long do clothes sit in landfills? ›

These textiles can essentially be compared to plastic and although they will break down into smaller pieces over time, they are likely to sit in landfills for up to 200 years before they decompose fully.

Is clothing bad for the environment? ›

While the fashion sector is booming, increasing attention has been brought to the impressive range of negative environmental impacts that the industry is responsible for. Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity's carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams.

What items end up in landfill most? ›

Most of the waste we create is household waste, including glass, metals, plastics, clay, and electronic items. These wastes may or may not be suitable for recycling but can be easily discarded using landfills.

Why is clothing waste bad for the environment? ›

In most of the countries in which garments are produced, untreated toxic wastewaters from textiles factories are dumped directly into the rivers. Wastewater contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, among others.

Why you shouldn't throw away your clothes? ›

The majority of fashion waste ends up in landfills

While decomposing, clothes emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and Methane gas (CH4), a substance that is is 28 times higher than CO2 in terms of emissions. This is a major global warming problem. Clothes do not biodegrade while in a landfill.

Why are recycled clothes more expensive? ›

They generally have low production volumes and use high-quality materials. They invest in talented people and must sell at a higher price point. Many steps in the lifecycle of clothing items contribute to the final price.

What percentage of clothing is recycled? ›

Let's call this recyclable textile waste. In conclusion - from 37 mln tonnes of fiber used by fashion and 25% of that becoming recyclable waste - we can conclude that the total volume of industrial recyclable textile waste is at least around 9 million tonnes globally per year.

How can we reduce clothing waste? ›

Top 10 ways to reuse, reduce and recycle your clothes
  1. Increase the number of times you wear your clothes. ...
  2. Repair your existing clothes. ...
  3. Look after your clothes. ...
  4. Buy quality over quantity. ...
  5. Buy clothes made out of eco-friendly materials. ...
  6. Rent. ...
  7. Shop preloved. ...
  8. Donate.

Why is the fashion industry so toxic? ›

Overall, toxic fashion contributes to 35% or 190,000 tons per year of ocean microplastic pollution. Even greater, the fashion industry produces 92 millions ton per year of textile waste which primarily ends up in landfills or incinerated. 85% of all textiles go into landfills each year.

Why do some grown ups hate to throw out old things such as clothes? ›

2. Why do some grown-ups hate to throw out old things (such as clothes)? Well, grown-ups don't like to throw away old things because many memories are attracted to them. We feel that if they throw out their old things, they would lose something important.

How many clothes is too many? ›

Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? It says that 80% of the time you wear 20% of your clothes. It's true! This means that it's probably safe to let go of the other 80% of the things that you're not wearing anyway!

What is the problem with sustainable fashion? ›

Even if one tries to be sustainable, the end cycle of clothes can really change the equation. Unfortunately, most textile waste is mindlessly dumped in landfills or burned. Both these things pollute the land and the air causing hazards to the environment.

Why is upcycling clothes better than recycling? ›

Upcycling is much more environmentally friendly than recycling. It's less expensive, use fewer resources, water, and energy. Upcycling creates stylish and unique pieces of clothing with a more responsible alternative. And many garments can't be recycled at all.

What is the most expensive material to recycle? ›

Metal, more specifically scrap metal, is widely considered the most profitable material in regard to recycling.

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