When you donate a pile of old T-shirts to a local charity, they will not be recycled back into T-shirts. The fibers are usually too worn to be made into soft fabric. That doesn't mean, though, that these fibers go to waste.
Cotton, it turns out, is a lot like paper, at least when it comes to recycling. As you may know, paper is made up of fibers and can be recycled back into paper a finite number of times before the fibers become too short and must be downcycled into things like newspaper or tissues. Cotton is similar in that it is made from fibers (it is derived from a plant, after all), and eventually those fibers wear out.
Because the amount of textile waste Americans throw away each year averages out to 70 pounds per person, it's worth understanding what does happen to old clothes, as well as how buying recycled content clothing can help keep waste out of landfills.
The Fate of Donated Clothing
In 2010, the recovery rate for all textiles - which includes things like clothing, shoes, sheets, blankets, etc. - was 15 percent, according to the EPA, and unrecovered textiles amount for almost 5 percent of all landfill space in the U.S. Keeping your old clothing out of the trash can help solve this problem, but the ways that clothing gets reused aren't always clear to consumers.
Once your pile of T-shirts arrives at a charity, it is sorted based on quality. Any clothing that is still in good shape will be resold, either in local secondhand stores or in secondhand markets abroad. The rest of that clothing gets downcycled, meaning its materials are used for other purposes. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, 30 percent of textiles not resold locally will be made into rags, which are used in many industries for cleaning and other purposes. Meanwhile, 20 percent of these textiles will be broken down into their fibers and made into new products like carpet, insulation or stuffing for car seats. After all of this, only 5 percent of recovered clothing ends up as waste.
What "Recycled-Content" Means in Clothing
So if "recycled T-shirts" aren't made from old, used T-shirts, what are they made from?
At SustainU, those cotton scraps are grouped together by color, shredded and broken down into their fibers. This process shortens the cotton's fibers, which makes them less soft. To ensure the new t-shirts will be soft and durable, recycled polyester is added. This polyester is made from recycled plastic bottles, which are chipped, melted into pellets and then sent through a machine that turns them into very fine fibers that look a bit like plastic cotton balls, Dunham explained.
The cotton and polyester fibers are then combed together and spun into thread. From that point on, the materials go through a fairly standard manufacturing process involving knitting, cutting, sewing and eventually adding embellishments like text and images.
"The magic is in the raw material, in getting the recycled cotton and the recycled polyester. After that, it's a pretty traditional process," Dunham said.
Recycled polyester is a particularly interesting material because unlike cotton, its inorganic fibers do not degrade quickly. This means that while cotton clothing cannot be made into new clothing, polyester fabrics can. If you own fleece jackets or performance shirts made from polyester, they may be recycled into new polyester garments, Dunham said.
The U.S.-based company Unifi makes a recycled fiber called Repreve which typically contains post-industrial waste and used plastic bottles. Repreve fibers are used to make items like khakis, car seats and socks. The company also has a textile take-back program for some of their customers that recycles polyester-based fabrics into new fibers.
Whether recycled-content clothing is made from old clothing or from other waste materials, it helps reduce the need for virgin materials while also keeping waste out of landfills. Purchasing items that are less resource-intensive up front and making sure to donate your old clothing are both ways to help limit the environmental impact of your textiles.