Textile Recycling: It's not what you think

May 29, 2023

You may think that “clothes recycling” involves actual recycling: but it rarely does.

When it comes to textiles, actual recycling - defined as breaking something down for reuse - is extremely difficult. 

For some materials, it is technically possible but prohibitively expensive. But for most materials it is simply not possible at all. The technology to separate mixed materials into their composite elements doesn't exist.

So what is it then?

The term “textile recycling” is generically used to mean “dealing in second-hand clothing”. 

This involves

  • collecting used clothes and other textiles
  • selecting items which can be resold
  • throwing out the rest!

For this reason, clothing recyclers often request that items are in good condition or suitable for reuse. Because those that are not may just end up in the trash. Textile waste from these kind of operations is high.


Next Level

There are, however, some companies which do more:

  • collecting used clothes and other textiles
  • selecting items which can be resold
  • identifying those that can be repurposed (eg for cleaning rags)
  • harvesting usable materials from otherwise damaged items (eg cutting out scraps of good material from, say, a torn pair of jeans) for reuse or upcycling
  • identifying textiles which can genuinely be recycled (very few)
  • throwing out the rest!

Waste from such operations is lower.

The textiles that are most valuable to these “recyclers” are natural fibers, such as cotton, which tend to have a longer life and are easier to repurpose when they are no longer suitable for reuse. Synthetic materials and mixed materials are harder to repurpose. 

Likewise larger pieces of cloth are easier to repurpose than smaller scraps. So some companies request that scrap materials are of a minimum size (these companies rarely accept scraps smaller than 50cm square).

Special items like shoes, bras, belts, and accessories are not possible to recycle at all. So unless they can be reused, they will end up in the trash.


What this means to you

The next time you are choosing where to “recycle” your textiles, please ask yourself: what kind of “clothing recycler” are they?

In Singapore, we are happy to recommend the Life Line bins operated by Cloop and Kloth Cares because they fall into the latter category: Life Line is a company that works hard to minimise any waste from textile recycling.  Uniqlo is also reputable, but they only take back their own clothes.

Most other operators are second-hand clothing operators and are strictly dealing in the resale of clothes. 

See a video of Life Line's operations here



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