Cotton and wool rags are recyclable, reusable and compostable, but when contaminated it gets tricky.

rag-recycling.jpg Like any good recycler, you turned your old towels and unwanted T-shirts into cleaning rags. But now you have a problem. You used those rags to clean up some motor oil, stain some furniture and wash your windows with some pretty heavy-duty cleaning spray. Is there a way to recycle them now that they have been exposed to toxic chemicals? In most cases, the answer is yes. Unless you have a lot of rags that you used to clean up a lot of hazardous materials (which is unlikely for the average apartment dweller or homeowner), you can wash them and use them again. Once those rags have outlived their usable life (which should take a long time since they are, after all, rags) you can see if anyone in your community accepts non-reusable textiles for recycling. These programs are few and far between, but they do exist.

What makes a good rag

Not all rags are created equal. To get the most from your cleaning rag, you want a material that is absorbent and durable. Anything made of cotton — old towels, dish rags, cotton T-shirts, socks or flannel sheets — will make an excellent cleaning rag. Linen and wool are other natural materials that tend to make good cleaning rags. Avoid using fabrics that are primarily made with polyester, rayon or other synthetic materials.

The first step to recycling rags: Know your substances

Whether you can clean and recycle your rags, or just throw them away, depends on what they were used for. There are some substances that are so dangerous that you will need to throw the rags away or take them to a hazardous waste facility for safe disposal if they are soaked through, including:
  • Solvents like turpentine and lighter fluid
  • Petroleum products like gasoline and antifreeze
  • Anything flammable
  • Pesticides
Here is a basic rule of thumb: If you have to dispose of a substance through your local household hazardous waste facility, the rag should not be reused or recycled. Here is another tip from Duke DeClue of the City of Eugene, OR’s Wastewater Management Division: Putting large quantities of substances that could change the pH of your water into the washing machine is a bad idea. Do not load up your washing machine with rags covered with things like drain cleaner, oven cleaner or baking soda (again, it is unlikely an individual will encounter this problem).

How to clean rags

If your home is connected to a city water system, you should be able to launder lightly soiled cleaning rags. Most municipal water systems are set up to filter out a small amount of contaminants like oil and chemicals. If you are connected to a septic system, it may be another story entirely. Check with the company that maintains your septic system to see if you can safely launder cleaning rags. One of the best ways to ensure you can clean your rags is to minimize the amount of potentially troublesome substances you get on them. A rag soaked in motor oil should not be laundered; the rag you used to wipe your hands after you changed your car’s oil is fine. Do not leave rags sitting in things like paint or fertilizer. It may be important to keep certain types of rags separate from one another. For example, combining chlorine and ammonia can create chlorine gas, which is extremely poisonous, so do not store rags soaked with these cleaners together. Also, it is a good idea to launder cleaning rags separate from clothing, sheets, towels and other items you plan to keep using. You would not want to ruin your favorite pair of jeans by getting oil on them, or a treasured tablecloth by imbedding a permanent odor of chemicals in it. It is important to note that the rules for laundering rags are different for households and commercial entities. If you own a business that generates a lot of rags with toxic substances on them, check with your local or state environmental services office to learn about their specific regulations. You may be able to hire a laundry service to wash your rags, or work with your local wastewater district to upgrade your water discharge system so it can catch all the chemicals.

How to compost rags

Kelly Bell, the Master Recycler Program Coordinator for Lane County, OR, says she composts old cotton and wool rags. The natural materials will slowly break down over time. Make sure rags are free of chemicals such as cleaners, but they can have cooking grease on them. Kelly keeps plenty of rags on hand to wipe out cast iron pans. When she finishes with a rag, it goes straight into the compost bin.

How to properly dispose of rags

Rags soaked in hazardous materials should be placed in a leak-proof container sealed with a lid and taken to your nearest household hazardous waste facility. Rags soaked in flammable materials that are not considered hazardous waste (such as the solvent toluene or water-based stains) can be laid flat and allowed to dry, then thrown away. It is very important to make sure the rags are completely dry; otherwise they pose a fire risk.

What if I have too many rags?

No matter how much you clean, there may come a point where you simply have enough rags and need to find another way to recycle old T-shirts, towels and linens. There are plenty of companies out there that want your old clothing for rags. See if a local nonprofit has a program to cut textiles into industrial wipers, or check with your solid waste district to see if they know of anyone looking for rag material.