How to Recycle Clothes That Can't Be Repaired, Donated or Resold

pile of clothing

Most of us don't think twice before we put something in the garbage. We're not taught much about recycling in school (even though it's a critical lesson we could use in this day and age), and I for one used to assume the people who handled the garbage would make sure it ends up in the right places. But unfortunately, that's just not the reality we live in.

In Canada, the average person throws out 81 pounds of textiles annually, while North Americans send 10 million tonnes of clothing to the landfill every year—most of which could be reused or recycled, according to statistics compiled by Waste Reduction Week in Canada.

That's CRAZY! And quite disappointing to think about...

Could you imagine how much energy we would save if everyone just took the time to recycle? Even in the case of an old stained t-shirt or pair of old underwear, there are textile recycling programs that exist to keep even the most unwearable items out of the garbage and in turn, out of landfills.

Let's get into it, shall we?!

Why Clothes Don't Belong in the Garbage

I'm guilty too. I thought clothes that were stained and ripped would be fine in the garbage, but fuck I was wrong. Not a single item of clothing belongs in the trash. If you've done it before too, no hard feelings (except for the big corporations who are cutting up their returned clothes and throwing them in the trash—there' some hard feelings there). I'm writing this to help us all learn from our mistakes because when we know better, we can do better. To begin, let's learn about the different fibers that make up our clothes.

Clothes are made of various fibers that fall into two groups—natural and synthetic.

  • Natural fibers such as cotton, Tencel flax, hemp, wool and silk are a renewable resource and will eventually decompose. They’re also carbon neutral, which means they absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide they produce.

  • Semi-synthetic fibers fibers such as viscose (rayon), modal, or lyocell will also eventually decompose, but they produce release greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide—both of which contribute to climate change.

  • Synthetic fibers such as polyester, spandex, acrylic or nylon will never biodegrade. Like plastic, textiles made of synthetic fibers will fill up valuable space in our landfills and remain there forever. Like, foreva eva.

Here's the hard truth—we buy TOO MUCH clothing. In fact, 60% more today than we did 20 years ago, and we keep our clothes for half as long. This overconsumption, fueled by fast fashion, has led to a significant increase in the number of textiles showing up in our landfills. The most important thing we can do is BUY LESS and reduce the amount of clothing we consume. But there are many other ways you can be a part of the solution!

Please note, all of these options take your time and energy. And I think that's the big cause of why mother nature is suffering so much—many people are too busy, have too much on their schedules, and can't be bothered to take the extra steps to ensure our ONE and only planet lasts longer than we do. The first step YOU need to take if you want to help save the planet, is to spend more time caring about it through your actions.

In today's post, we’re going to answer the question: how can you responsibly dispose of the items you can no longer wear, donate, or sell?

Option One: Upcycle!

If your old undies or t-shirts can't be donated as a pre-worn vintage (kidding), there are a few clever ways they can be repurposed:

  • For stained items that are still wearable, you could dye the fabric with natural materials to give it a new life and turn it into something usable—like a headband or hair elastic.

  • For items that are unwearable and natural fibres, you can cut them up to become kitchen rags. Just wash them first, of course. If any lingering stains gross you out, you could naturally dye them.

  • Cut them into garden ties, plant holders, pillow stuffing.

  • Wear old, stained clothing and scuffed shoes for yard-work or painting.

  • Donate to fashion designers who upcycle clothing. A few tips for finding these designers: use Google (upcycle clothing + fashion designers + your city), turn to your social networks and ask if anyone knows someone. For example, PohoBoho in Port Hope upcycles old clothing. Wyatt Design house in Ottawa does too.

  • If an item is stained or has a hole and this is no longer why you can wear it — consider having a local fashion designer reimagine the piece. For example, adding patches or pins to the areas that need care.

  • You can follow this link to learn a few other creative ways to reuse old clothing, old underwear, and bras.

I you just can’t get behind repurposing your clothing, the next best options are below—and they don't include throwing your clothes in the trash.

Option Two: Recycle!

Yes, it takes time. Yes, it can be a pain in the ass to take time out of your day to recycle properly. But only if you think of it that way. I consider the time I spend recycling and living consciously as a way to create the world I want to live in, because I would want someone else to do the same.

Unfortunately, not all recycling is treated equally, and there are only a few options I’ve found that are trustworthy. Items to be recycled are worn-out beyond repair—like a sneaker with a worn-through sole, a stained and holey T-shirt, or, yes—stained underwear and socks. Depending on the textile recycling options near you, you might be able to combine this pile with your donation pile, but it’s important to keep these items in a separate bag and label them ‘To Recycle’.

The following recycling resources will ensure your clothes are diverted from the landfill and will either be given another purpose or recycled properly.

Tip One: Compost Your Natural Fibres

Cotton and other natural-fiber clothing can be composted as long as they are not blended with synthetic fibers like polyester. Make sure to shred it finely and remove attachments like zippers and buttons. Read more about how to do this here.

Tip Two: Look for Donation Bins, Charities and Thrift Shops

Not all clothing donation bins are created equal. either! There are a lot of intruders out there and not all items in bins are properly disposed of. Always check the bins for a contact number and vet the website before donating. To find one near you, a quick Google search should do the trick.

Check to see if your local charity or thrift stores take items in any condition to be recycled. Charity policies vary from community to community (particularly because charities like Goodwill are run independently, by region), so it’s wise to either look online at the acceptance policies or call your location and ask. Many local organizations (like Value Village) claim to give back to the community they’re in, but don’t.

Below are three trusted options that I use in the Kingston area for recycling my clothing. If you're not in Kingston, you likely have a Goodwill or Diabetes Donation Bin near you. As mentioned previously, be sure to keep these items in a separate bag and label them ‘To Recycle’ as a way to help sorters!

Diabetes Canada Donation Bin (includes pick up option) Each year, the Diabetes Canada Donation program diverts more than 100 million lbs. of clothing and household items from landfill sites across Canada. This translates into savings of 1 billion kWh of energy - Equivalent to removing 212,087 cars from roads - Saves 7,257.44 mature trees- Conserves 167,828.30 liters of water - and reduces our carbon footprint by 280 million pounds of CO2.

  • Click here for what you can leave in a donation bin.

  • Click here to find a donation bin near you.

  • Click here for how to prepare your Diabetes Canada donation.