Even though nearly all textiles are recyclable, only about 15% of the 14.3 million tons of textile waste generated in the U.S. every year gets recycled.
Leftover fabric comes in many forms. Perhaps you are a seamstress with scraps from cutting out clothing, or a quilter with lots of trimmings from quilt blocks. Maybe you possess some worn-out clothing, or some sheets and towels that no longer fit with your décor. Whatever the case may be, there is a lot of unwanted fabric out there. The Council for Textile Recycling
estimates that 5% of the waste currently sitting in landfills is textile waste. And, even though nearly all textiles are recyclable, only about 15% of the 14.3 million tons of textile waste generated in the U.S. every year gets recycled.
How easy it is to recycle fabric depends largely on its form. Clothing is very easy to recycle; just about every community has a thrift store or a vendor with a clothing drop box. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to find anyone who wants to recycle fabric scraps. In most cases, your best bet is to find a reuse store that can take your small bits of fabric, or put those leftovers to work yourself.
The most important thing to bear in mind when recycling fabric is that it must be dry (and preferably clean). Wet textiles can get musty or moldy, and one piece is enough to spoil everything in a storage bin. In addition, if textiles are put in bales for shipment, wet materials can breed bacteria that can cause bales to spontaneously combust (yes, really).
How to recycle fabric
Your local curbside recycling collector is unlikely to take fabric, but various companies in your community might. GrowNYC
is one example of an organization with a mission to take all kinds of fabric. They take pieces of fabric 36 square inches and larger and get them to companies that can sew them into clothing, turn them into rags or chop them up and use them for products like insulation.
There are lots of arts organizations that take larger pieces of fabric and get them to people who want to reuse them in various craft projects. Examples include the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse
in Oakland, CA
, and the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse
. There may also be charities that can put your fabric to use making quilts, dolls or other items for people in need. See if your community has a chapter of Quilts of Valor
, which makes quilts for service members, or Project Linus
, which donates quilts to children.
If you have small scraps of fabric and nowhere to send them, think creatively about how you can put those tiny pieces to work. Plenty of people use fabric scraps to make miniature quilts or table runners for home décor. Pieces of brocade or other fancy fabrics left over from upholstery projects make lovely handbags or holders for smartphones. Even the smallest pieces of fabric can be used to make jewelry.
If you are working with 100% cotton fabric and have only small pieces left, you can put them in your compost bin. Cotton is a natural fiber and will break down over time.
How to recycle clothing
The business of recycling clothing is just that: a huge, global business that rakes in millions of dollars a year. Clothing is one of the top-selling items in most thrift stores. Old T-shirts and pants that cannot be sold in thrift stores get baled up and shipped overseas for resale. Some companies even cut old clothing into rags, which are used to clean cars and machinery.
To put your old clothing back to use, take it to your nearest thrift store or see if you can find a clothing donation bin in your community. Some transfer stations, such as the ones in Emmet County, MI, and Prince Frederick, MD, have textile collection bins on their sites.
Curbside clothing recycling programs are rare, but they do exist. Residents of St. Paul, MN
, and parts of Philadelphia
can put clothing on the curb on certain days. The companies that do collection also take items such as shoes, belts and purses.
Here is a cool way to recycle denim: Send it to Blue Jeans Go Green
, which turns old jeans into insulation. The program even donates a certain amount of insulation to low-income communities every year. To donate your jeans, box up old items and send them to the address listed on the program’s website
. The program does not charge for its services (although you are responsible for paying the cost of shipping).
How to recycle sheets, towels and other fabric household items
Most thrift stores will take your old linens, including sheets, towels, bedspreads, duvets, tablecloths, napkins and more. These items can also be reappropriated for other uses. Tear towels into cleaning rags. Put old tablecloths and napkins aside and keep them for outdoor use during the summer months. Cut out the part of the tablecloth that is stained and sew napkins from the rest. Large swaths of fabric can also go to other home projects such as bedskirts, cushions for dining room chairs or even clothing.