Your favourite jeans, worn threadbare but so loved you couldn’t let go until they literally fell apart. In no condition to donate (you know what they say; if you wouldn't give it to a friend, don’t give it to charity) they’re headed straight to the bin.
It’s estimated Australians throw out more than 501million kg each year and charities spend $13+ million annually sending unusable garments to their landfill graves.
Textile waste is a huge problem
These tossed out garments rotting in landfills have a staggering environmental cost.
Clothing made from synthetic fibres or natural and synthetic blends can take decades to break down, or may never fully biodegrade and be left to languish in a landfill. Those old lycra gym tights thrown out in an activewear upgrade? They could take up to 200 years to decompose.
Greenhouse gas emissions pose a huge problem once clothes, especially those made with synthetic fibres, begin to decompose in a landfill.
Methane gas is released during the decomposition stage; which can mean decades of textile toxicity finding its way into the atmosphere from a single garment.
The dyes and toxic substances decomposing clothes produce also pollute surrounding soil and groundwater.
What is textile recycling?
Part of the puzzle to cut down on the unbelievable amount of textile waste headed to landfills is making the best of what’s left with textile recycling.
This solution goes beyond donation and wearing second-hand clothes and a step beyond reusing the fabric, textile recycling is about reusing the fibres of the fabric itself.
Textiles are mechanically or chemically opened back up or broken down to be returned to fibrous form then woven back together again to create a new piece of material.
The benefits of textile recycling for the environment include -
- Less decomposing fabrics in landfills
- Reduced use of virgin fibres
- Less demand on resources to produce virgin fibres. Cotton, for example, is known as one of the most water and chemical-intensive crops to grow.
- When recycled textiles are colour sorted, it reduces the need for dyeing fabric. Dyeing fabric has a huge environmental cost.
How are textiles recycled? Synthetic vs natural fibres
Textiles are made from two types of fibres; synthetic fibres or natural fibres and often a blend of both.
Synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are man-made and can be recycled back to their original form with a chemical process. Textiles made from synthetic fibres are melted down into small pellets which can then be spun into new fibres to create a new piece of fabric.
Natural fibres, materials produced in nature like hemp, linen, and cotton, are recycled with a mechanical process. The fabric is opened back into fibres by machines, blended together (it can be mixed with other fibres) and then woven back together into a piece of fabric.
The issue with recycling 100% natural textiles is fibre quality is compromised during the process; each time the fibre is recycled it loses length and durability. It’s widely believed the word ‘shoddy’ actually came about as a reference to the low-quality clothes made from 100% recycled wool in the 1800s that fell apart easily.
This is why recycled fibre is often mixed with stronger virgin fibre when recreating a garment to maintain a standard of quality.
Then there are those textiles made from blended fibres. These pose more of a challenge to the recycling process as the different fibres are difficult to separate and recycle to a high quality. They mostly end up as insulation or industrial wipes.
Old shirts become bathroom floor tiles
The process of textile recycling is an incredible way to save on resources and research in this area is moving ahead in leaps and bounds.
In Australia, researchers have developed a way of re-forming recycled textiles into building materials such as panels for walls and flooring.
Tackling the blended fibre issue, an Australian listed Israeli-tech company is developing technology with the ability to sort different threads in a fabric – whether they are cotton, linen, polyester or blends - with a molecular marking process. This could be a huge step towards closing the loop of sustainable recycling and reuse in the textile industry.
What can you do for a greener wardrobe?
Buy clothing made from recycled fibres
Make your wardrobe kinder to the planet by choosing clothes made from recycled fibres. This not only minimises the environmental impact, it also shows your support for innovative brands who are front-runners in sustainability.
Choose clothing fabrics that are easier to recycle
100% natural fibres like cotton, linen, and hemp are well suited for recycling.
Finding where to send old clothing for textile recycling in Australia can be a bit of a challenge, as we don’t (yet!) have widespread options but you can search Planet Ark’s online directory - Recycling Near You - for clothing recycling options. King Cotton also offers recycling options for worn and damaged clothing.
Learn to love a smaller wardrobe
In the words of legendary designer Vivienne Westwood: Buy less, choose well, make it last.
In the environmental stakes, having a smaller wardrobe with high-quality clothes that are made to last beats a wardrobe of fast fashion garments that are thrown away or donated every season.
Old clothes may be melted down and recycled - new Atlas https://newatlas.com/melting-down-old-clothes/48749/
Chemical recycling of textiles - documentary
Textile recycling may give a new life to clothes that can’t be donated to charity
Fashion’s huge waste problem
Australia recycles paper and plastic so why does clothing end up in landfill?
Tech targets global fashion’s recycling woes