In the U.S., we generated 16 million tons of textile waste in 2015, up 69% from 2000. Once in landfills, natural fibers can take hundreds of years to decompose. They can release methane and CO₂ gas into the atmosphere. Synthetic textiles like polyester are designed not to decompose. In the landfill, they can release toxic substances into groundwater and surrounding soil.1 Right now, 84% of U.S. textiles go to landfills — we can do better! Let’s work on collecting, recovering, and reusing our textiles.
Sort old clothing, curtains, table linens, bed linens, and other fabric items into three piles: great condition, good condition and poor condition. Great condition looks new, has retained its shape perfectly, and bears no signs of wear and tear. Good condition may be a little bit faded or worn but still in wearable/useable condition with no stains or holes. Poor condition is stained, threadbare or has holes.2
Household linens that are in great or good condition can be given away or donated. Habitat for Humanity ReStores takes donations of end bolts and samples. Scraps from furniture you have re-upholstered and samples from an interior designer can become craft projects at schools, or go to theater programs — they are always looking for interesting fabrics for costumes and sets! Quilts for Kids, with chapters around the country, provides quilts and wheelchair bags to children in hospital.
Great-condition clothing is excellent for swaps or consignment stores. To host a clothing swap, invite a handful of friends who wear approximately the same size to bring their closet surplus, and exchange clothes among you. Alternately, bring your items to a consignment store in your area. They’ll sell them for you and give you a portion of the proceeds.
Good-condition clothing and linens can also be donated to a thrift store like Goodwill, a PTA Thrift Shop, or the Salvation Army. There, the items are sorted, priced and placed on the sales floor for secondhand shoppers to find. Thrift stores often use the proceeds from the sale of these items to support charity and school initiatives.
You really shouldn’t donate your poor-condition clothing or household linens to a thrift store. If you’re getting rid of it because of its condition, you can bet no one else will want to use it, either.
Use poor-condition household linens as stuffing for pillows or as rags — just rip them up and use them for all your cleaning needs, saving money on paper wipes sold in plastic cylinders. If you use non-toxic cleaners and your rags are all-natural fiber, you can throw them in your compost bin once you have used them all you can. Also, your local animal shelter will probably take any kind of scraps to use as animal bedding.
For worn-out clothing, some companies like Patagonia accept their own items back for recycling. Fashion retailers like H&M and American Eagle Outfitters offer in-store clothing recycling bins to collect textiles and accessories of any brand, so recycling your clothing can be as easy as a trip to the mall!
Finally, there may be textile recyclers in your area that will take textile waste. Find a drop-off spot near you using a handy recycling locator like the ones at RecycleNation.com and Earth911.com. None of it needs to go to the landfill!
One of the best ways to protect the planet from textile waste is to buy durable goods. Purchase items you know will last! Another great way is to shop second hand. Don’t just donate to a thrift store or sell at a consignment shop — buy furnishings and clothing there, too! You’ll be reducing energy, water, and chemical use, and you’ll enjoy your purchases that much more, knowing you are doing good for the earth.
For more information and to find home furnishings made by companies who work to protect the earth, please visit the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) at https://sustainablefurnishings.org/. The Sustainable Furnishings Council provides comprehensive information on environmental, safety, and health issues in the home furnishings industry. The SFC champions initiatives that improve products and processes.
Abby Overton is the Communications Manager for Sustainable Furnishings Council. She is grateful to be part of the team and, in her small way, contributing to the greening-up of the furnishings industry. She is excited to help educate consumers about their eco-friendly options.