A brief guide to clothes recycling – sustainability expert unpicks how your discarded garments get processsed

Have you ever paused to ponder the fate of those bags of old clothes you carefully deposit into the charity bin at the end of the street or within the bustle of a supermarket parking lot? It’s easy to imagine that those garments get magically transformed into fresh, wearable fashion, but in the UK, the reality is much more complicated.

The truth behind clothing donation and recycling is a journey fraught with complexities often not visible to the public eye. Textile waste – the clothing that we all buy, use and dispose of – is a significant environmental problem that often goes unnoticed.

Globally 88% of our clothing still ends up in landfills. The mountains of textile waste will be getting higher as garment production rises at an alarming rate. In 2000, global manufacturers churned out 50 million tonnes of textiles, according to the European parliament. By 2020, this figure had more than doubled to 109 million tonnes and global textile production is predicted to grow to 145 million tonnes by 2030.

While writing my chapter for the book Recycling and Lifetime Management in the Textile and Fashion Sector, I researched the policies and technological advancements that facilitate the process of textile recycling.

Used or unwanted clothing gets collected from various sources, including donation centres, textile recycling bins, charity stores or direct from consumers. Once collected, the textiles undergo sorting at UK facilities based on what type of material it is, colour and condition. Garments that are deemed reusable – those that aren’t stained, soiled or torn – are shipped to countries in Africa and Asia.

However, market sellers in these countries that receive these used garments often complain that the clothing is not fit for resale and ends up in a landfill.

A textile sorter and processor based in the east Midlands told me that approximately 40% of sorted garments were not fit for reuse and needed a recycling solution.

Fibre-to-fibre recycling is different to reuse. Reuse means that a garment is fit to have a second life and can be donated to charity or resold on websites such as Vinted. Fibre-to-fibre recycling is the process of breaking down the material of the garments so that it returns to its original state of a fibre, which may resemble pieces of fluff. That’s either done mechanically or chemically.

Mechanical recycling involves chopping up old clothes into tiny pieces – a bit like shredding paper. Materials are sometimes moistened with water to enhance the tearing process. The fibres are then separated using a process called “carding”, which involves using a machine to comb out and straighten the fibres, ready to be used to make new products.

To transform the fibres into textile yarn, mechanically recycled fibres are mixed with virgin fibres – because these new fibres are longer, they add strength to the yarn when spun.

Chemical recycling involves breaking down fragments of old clothes into smaller parts. These are then cleaned and purified using filters and separators. Chemical solvents are used to break down polymers, remove dyes and dissolve other additives. Once clean, broken down fibres can be spun to make new yarn, just like making cotton from scratch. This recycled yarn can be woven into fabric using industrial weaving machines.

Transforming textiles

Mechanical recycling produces short lengths of fibre and results in poor quality yarn. Relying on raw virgin fibre to add length and strength can be costly.

Chemical recycling of polyesters, which are made from plastic, can create harmful tiny particles of microplastics in the air and waterways. Volatile organic compounds – chemicals that exist in gaseous form – can be inhaled and cause health problems, such as damaged liver, kidneys and central nervous system, and cancers affecting the lungs and blood. The process also emits carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Expanding these recycling methods is expensive and potentially damaging to the environment. Systematic change begins when influential fashion brands reduce overproduction and waste by streamlining their production processes and designing products that are easy to recycle as part of a more circular economy.

While green chemistry and circular design solutions could make recycling textile waste more efficient, more effective and safer for humans and the planet, the issue of excess waste still needs to be addressed. As shoppers, we can all make a difference by being mindful of our purchasing habits, appreciating the clothing we already own and repairing items instead of discarding them.

Sajida Gordon is a researcher for the Clothing Sustainability Research Group and Lecturer Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham Trent University.

Published under a Creative Commons license from Theconversation.com.