Your Old Clothes Can Come Full Circle With Textile Recycling

A rack of hanging clothes is sorted into sections labeled “Donate” and “Keep.”

Kelsea Schumacher, guest researcher at NIST

I am an avid secondhand shopper. Clothes, shoes, furniture, household items, sporting equipment, you name it, I always check the secondhand market first. Beyond that, I am continuously donating outgrown clothing and any other unneeded and forgotten items lying around our house. However, despite my reputation of being an avid “Goodwill-er,” I recently learned that I’ve been doing it all wrong.

I always assumed that I should only donate clothes, shoes and other textile products such as linens and towels that were clean, not ripped or torn, and had plenty of life left — that is, items that still had market value. But when working on a NIST report, Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles, I learned that, in fact, all unwanted textile products should be donated or recycled no matter their condition. Even if they’re no longer marketable for their designed purpose, there are many routes in place that can extend the life of those products. While thrift stores generally prefer “gently used” products, most will recycle textiles not sellable in their stores. The best approach is to donate items you consider resellable to those charities and take your worn underwear and ratty T-shirts to textile recycling programs such as municipally run drop-off bins and local transfer stations. SMART is a textile recycling trade group that can help you find recycling resources in your area.

Other key takeaways from the workshop:

  • Rubber-band shoes together when you donate them, so they stay together! There is no resale value in one shoe, and donation centers don’t necessarily have the capacity to search for missing partners.
  • Similarly, bag or band together infant and children clothing sets, such as pajamas.
  • Keep in mind that pure-fiber textiles, such as 100% cotton or wool, are recyclable, while blended textiles currently are not.
  • New synthetic (e.g., polyester) clothing is a significant source of microplastics in the environment. But roughly 90% of those microplastics are lost in the first three launderings. Buying these items secondhand can help reduce the problem.

For more tips on how to recycle textiles, check out this NIST video.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans generate more than 15 million metric tons of textile waste annually, which is about 47 kilograms (104 pounds) per person per year. Only 15% of that is collected for resale or recycling. The remaining 85% is directly discarded in landfills or incinerated. This suggests that most people throw away unwanted textiles, regardless of condition. That said, only about 20% of textiles donated to charities and thrift stores are resold domestically, as these entities receive far too many donations to sell. The remainder is sent to sorters and graders who evaluate the textiles based on quality and sell to various end markets. This material is then exported for resale overseas, cut and packaged as wiping materials, turned into shoddy (shredded fibers used for stuffing and insulation), or recycled back into fibers. An unknown quantity of textiles are exported without being sorted or graded. The major importing countries are in Africa, Asia and Central America, and there is a lot of discussion and differing opinion around the benefits and detriments of exporting used textiles.

A flowchart shows how textiles can be discarded or donated, then moved to sorter/grader/broker and further end stages.

The staggeringly low collection rate is the result of the current linear economic model, which is based on a “take, make, use, discard” approach to resources. This model is not unique to textiles but is the case for nearly all materials and products of the modern world. In NIST’s Circular Economy program, we are working to facilitate a more circular economy aimed at extending the life of products through reuse and repair and keeping end-of-life materials in the economy through recycling as opposed to discarding in landfills and incinerators, where the material and economic value is lost. To date, our attention has been on plastics, high-tech products (electronics, batteries, solar panels) and, more recently, textiles.

The workshop identified several key overarching needs, including collaboration, system harmonization, and data and information sharing. Transitioning to a circular economy requires nontraditional collaboration across industries and throughout the value chain. There is also a significant need to harmonize the system, with agreement needed on common language, definitions, classifications, industry tools and standards. Further, data and information gaps currently inhibit many efforts to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, design effective policy, and educate consumers about textile reuse and recycling.

NIST has the unique capability to serve as a convener of stakeholders across government, industry, nonprofit and academic institutions, all of which are needed to decide on common goals, language, metrics and tools necessary for the transition to a circular economy. NIST could also support the development of a unified system of publicly available databases, repositories and registries for collecting and managing the data needed for a circular economy. NIST also has exceptional capabilities in the areas of standards, laboratory research, economic assessment and manufacturing partnerships, all of which will be needed to grow a more circular economy.

I joined the Circular Economy program at NIST as a contractor in 2020 to help develop the program and identify NIST’s role in facilitating a circular economy in the United States. My interdisciplinary background in engineering and policy prepared me well for this position. It gave me an understanding of both the technical aspects of materials and recycling and a broad perspective of the systems, policies and management practices of various waste streams. I never expected to join NIST. Rather I envisioned myself in the state or EPA policy realm. But I was thrilled when this opportunity arose. Throughout my academic and professional career, I’ve been determined to focus on pressing problems and work for organizations where I can have an impact. In this role, I have learned so much, am constantly challenged, have met wonderful people across NIST and beyond, and truly feel our work is helping to address today’s most pressing challenges.

Video: What Is the Circular Economy?

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on May 9, 2022.

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About the Author

Kelsea Schumacher has a Ph.D. in energy and environmental policy from the University of Delaware, and a B.S. and M.S. in environmental and civil engineering, respectively, from Oregon State University. She joined NIST as a contractor in 2020 to help develop the Circular Economy program and identify NIST’s role in facilitating the transition to a circular economy in the United States. Kelsea’s research is generally focused on sustainable production and consumption and has spanned various materials and products including concrete, electronics, batteries, solar panels, plastics, textiles and organics (food waste). In her free time, she enjoys traveling, camping and hiking with her family.



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NIST promotes U.S. innovation by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.