how to recycle old clothes

We all know that fast fashion is a big problem: a staggering 21 billion tons of textiles make their way to landfill each year. If you don’t want your old clothes to add to this issue you don’t need to leave them cluttering up your closet – there are plenty of options if you’re wanting to figure out how to recycle old clothes. Options can range from reusing, upcycling, recycling and trading in!

Let’s take a look at how.

How to recycle old clothes

There are a range of methods for how to recycle old clothes; whether it’s donating, selling, upcycling, or recycling them. However, you may not need to get rid of these items at all – if you can repair, reuse or find a different use for them instead.

Repair them

Before you figure out how to recycle old clothes, first think about whether they can be repaired. Often, something like a ripped seam or a worn elbow on a jacket is easy to fix, even if you’re not an expert sewist.

a woman sewing in a clothing rivet on a shirt

Although there are plenty of options for recycling, donating, selling, or upcycling your old clothes, continuing to use them is always the most eco-friendly option. Repairing your old clothes means you don’t have to buy new ones, so saves on resources and avoids polluting the environment during the manufacturing process, not to mention you’ll save some cash too!

If you’re not handy with a needle and thread, don’t worry – basic sewing skills are easy to learn! Take a look at this tutorial for a step-by-step guide to how to sew on a patch.

Donate them

In actual fact, you don’t have to figure out how to recycle old clothes at all, if you opt to donate them instead. There are plenty of charities that accept old clothing in good condition, either to give to those in need or to sell to fund worthy projects.

Here are some of our favorite places to donate old clothing:

  • Goodwill – Sells donated items that are in good condition in their stores, and then uses the revenue to fund employment training and job placement programs.
  • Donation Town – All you need to do is schedule a pick up, and Donation Town will pick up your old clothes for free.
  • Planet Aid – This organization accepts old clothing, footwear, towels, and bedding and gives it to people in need worldwide.
  • Go Green Drop – With a network of donation locations across the US, all donations made to GreenDrop support various charities, including American Red Cross, National Federation of the Blind, St Vincent de Paul, and Military Order of the Purple Heart.
  • One Warm CoatThis charity will take your old coat and give it to a person in need.
  • Soles4Souls This non-profit accepts donations of gently-worn shoes and clothing – you can ship up to 50lbs of garments to them for free.
  • Creative Reuse – If you live in California you can contact this organization to arrange a pick up of your old clothing for free.
  • Fabscrap – This New York charity donates fabric for reuse to students, artists, crafters, and designers.

Only donate clothes that are in good or at least usable condition. The usable condition means that it has kept its original shape more or less, without tears, rips or stains.

Don’t give away clothing that is not usable as this just translates into a waste of time and manpower for the charity.

Sell them online

Another great way to give your old clothes a second life is to sell them. This does require a bit of time and effort, but allows you to earn some cash at the same time!

poshmark website home page

There are plenty of sites where you can sell second-hand clothes, including:

  • PoshmarkThis app is pretty much like Instagram, except you use cool shots to sell items of clothing you don’t want anymore.
  • ThredUp – ThredUp will photograph and list your items for you, saving a lot of time and effort compared to other platforms – all you need to do is ship them your items! However, they only accept about 40% of all items they receive and if you want to retrieve any pieces they reject you need to pay a fee.
  • Swap.com – This online consignment store allows you to list and sell women’s, men’s, children’s, and baby clothes for cash or store credit.
  • Depop This user-friendly app lets you share photos of your old clothes with buyers all over the world.
  • TradesyAnother platform that connects you with buyers and facilitates payment, Tradesy focuses on pieces from top designers.

Hold a clothing swap

This one is a super fun way to get rid of your old clothes! Organize an event with your friends and family to get rid of your unwanted items and maybe even pick up some new ones.

Have your besties clean out their closets, and have every bring their unwanted garments, shoes, and accessories. Everyone can go through each other’s stuff and are sure to find something they love, and have a lovely afternoon at the same time.

Reuse or upcycle

If you’re not ready to say goodbye to your favorite pieces, or if they’re not in good enough condition to sell or donate, another great option is to reuse or upcycle them. Cut up old t-shirts to make cleaning cloths or kitchen towels, turn a tee into a summer dress, or make an adult t-shirt from childrens’ leggings.

Here are some other cool ideas for upcycling your old clothing:

Compost them

Depending on the textile, you may also be able to compost your old items of clothing. Natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, and silk break down organically so can go straight in your compost bin.

However, it’s important to check that each piece is made of 100% natural materials and isn’t blended with synthetic fibers, as these are not compostable. Also be sure to remove all zippers, buttons, and labels before attempting to compost.

Want to start composting at home but not sure where to start? Check out our guides to apartment composting and composting pros and cons.

Recycle them

If your old clothes aren’t suitable to be sold, donated, reused, or composted, the next best option is to recycle them. Thanks to the growing awareness of the environmental impacts of clothing waste and fast fashion, there are now plenty of options for recycling textiles.

These stores accept their items from their own brands, and sometimes from any manufacturer, for recycling:

These programs also have drop off locations or pick up programs for used clothes:

Programs for specific types of items or certain locations:

You can also check these locator tools to find a recycling center near you that accepts old clothing:

How to responsibly dispose of old clothing step-by-step

1. Go to your closet and have a good old clean out!

It’s become a cliché to say “does this give me joy”, but take each piece of clothing in your wardrobe and think about if you really need it.

a woman looking through the old clothing pieces on hangers

Ask yourself when was the last time you wore each item and when you’re likely to wear it again. Make a big pile of everything you don’t need – the more you cull the better you’ll feel!

2. Sort the clothes you want to get rid of

Next, attack that nice big pile of clothes and sort them into three categories:

  1. Clothes in good condition that you can sell, swap or donate.
  2. Clothing that you can compost, upcycle, or repurpose.
  3. Anything that won’t fit into the other two categories will go in your “to recycle” pile.

3. Take your old clothes to a drop off point

Check the list above to find a recycling center or drop off point near you that will send your old clothes off for recycling.

3 clothing recycling containers on the street
Clothing recycling containers in Aschendorf, Germany
Source: Wikimedia / Donald Trung

Contact them first to see if you need to do anything in particular to prepare your clothes for recycling – some sites ask you to cut off the labels, for example.

Once prepped, drop your old clothes off at the center, shop, or drop off point and enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing they won’t end up in landfill!

Can you recycle ripped, torn, or worn out clothes?

There is a wide range of programs that accept clothing for recycling in any condition, even if it is ripped, torn, or worn out. These programs typically sort the items they receive and find ways to sustainably dispose of clothing that is no longer wearable.

However, you need to be careful when donating or selling old clothes – you should only pass on garments that are in good, or at least usable condition. Dumping your unwearable clothes with a charity will only give them more work and expense to deal with.

What happens to clothing when it’s recycled?

When you take your old clothes to a drop off point, the first thing they do is sort it into wearable and recyclable items, as well as sorting it by color and material type. Depending on the textile, it may be cut down and sold as rags, shredded for fiberfill or stuffing, or baled up and sold by weight.

Some retailers, like H&M, use recycling machines to shred and spin old clothes into fibers that they then use to make new garments.

What about footwear & eyewear?

Used footwear can be sold, donated, or recycled in a very similar way to old clothes. Many of the programs listed above which accept used clothing will also take old shoes and boots – just be sure to check with them before dropping off footwear with your other items!

If you have old reading glasses or sunglasses lying around the house, you’ll be happy to know you can recycle these too.

Global vision care non-profit OneSight has a program that collects used eyewear from large retailers like Target Optical, LensCrafters, and Sears Optical. The charity then sells the raw materials and uses these funds to create new prescription eyewear for those in need.

Final thoughts

Many people don’t know how to recycle old clothes, but it’s becoming easier and easier! There is a wide range of programs that will accept your unwanted garments for recycling, not to mention that you can also upcycle, donate, sell, or compost your old clothes!

However, sustainable disposal is only half of the story. If you want to reduce the amount of clothing waste you want to generate, it’s important to reduce the volume of clothing that you buy in the first place.

There are a few ways you can buy fewer garments overall: most obviously, you can reduce the size of your wardrobe. After all, do you need three or four pairs of jeans when one will do?

You can also shop second hand, as well as try to buy quality items that last longer, and decrease the amount of clothing you buy overall.

If you’re curious about the other household items you can recycle, take a look at our guides to recycling CDs, VHS and cassette tapes, as well as disposing of light bulbs responsibly.

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