Mountains of used clothing await sorting for recycling.

Is there a better way to get rid of old clothes?

You may think you’re keeping old outfits out of the landfill when you donate them, but that’s not necessarily true.

Clothes await sorting before they are recycled. Though clothes ending up at a recycling plant is better than a landfill, recycling often involves a lot water, CO2 emissions, and manual labor.
Photograph by Luca Locatelli, Nat Geo Image Collection

Need to get rid of old clothes? You’re not alone: With fast fashion, it’s easier than ever to buy into trends. But cheap clothes aren’t made to last and that excess often ends up in a long chain of carbon- and labor-intensive reselling and recycling, if not directly into a landfill. 

Per person, U.S. residents generate an average of 82 pounds of textile waste every year, with 85 percent of it going to landfills or incinerators even though 95 percent can be reused.

Donating is a popular alternative—but know that only about 10 to 20 percent of donated clothing gets sold at thrift shops. The rest goes through a series of sales, from resellers to textile recyclers both in the U.S. and in countries abroad.

(Fast fashion goes to die in the world’s largest fog desert.)

“Everyone has ‘skin’ in the supply chain, so there’s incentive to not lose items to landfill because that will be a loss of revenue,” says Amelia Trumble, CEO and co-founder of Retold Recycling

While all but five percent of donated textiles are resold for reuse or recycling, it’s impossible to know exactly how much ultimately becomes trash.

Deciding where to donate makes a big difference not only to your environmental footprint but also to your community. Here’s what to consider when cleaning out your closet. 

What happens when you donate old clothes?

When you drop off clothes for donation, they are first sorted so the most valuable garments are sold online and in thrift shops. Less desirable items go through a series of bulk buyers, repurposers and recyclers both in the U.S. and abroad. When donating to charitable thrift corporations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, every sale helps fund their programs. 

Job creation is also an important part of charitable thrifting: Staff does the important first step of sorting.

“After donations are dropped off at our facility, our team completes a thorough inspection to ensure items are not damaged with holes or stains or inappropriate, determines the proper price, and then stocks our shelves,” says Michelle Ness. She’s the executive director of PRISM, a Minnesota nonprofit that sells clothing donations in its Shop for Change Thrift Shop. 

Whether donated to Goodwill or a place like PRISM, the best items get diverted to eBay or Craigslist with the next best sold by the piece in thrift shops. “Items that do not meet our quality standards are passed along to the Salvation Army, where they may begin their larger, global journey for reuse,” says Ness.

The big thrifting organizations receive high volumes of donations and have the expertise, equipment, and partnerships to process and extract as much revenue as possible, says journalist Adam Minter in his book “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.” Labor, transportation, and environmental costs add up, but all donations (except for what’s landfilled, which has a disposal cost) earn revenue that’s funneled into charities’ and not-for-profits’ programs

“Goodwill and similar charities provide a channel for clothing disposal that is largely unmet by municipalities,” says Dr. Tasha Lewis, associate clinical professor of fashion and retail studies at The Ohio State University. 

About five percent of all textile donations go straight to the landfill, because of contaminants like mildew. Donations that aren’t sold on the sales floor or that bypass it altogether (still saleable but lower quality garments) go to Goodwill’s or the Salvation Army’s outlet stores where they’re sold by the bag or pound. 

The charities sell the rest to various resellers, recyclers, and salvagers. Both in the U.S. and overseas, some textiles get repurposed as rags for cleaning cars or machinery, recycled into “new” fiber, or converted into stuffing or insulation.

About 1.58 billion pounds of second-hand clothing gets shipped to low-income countries annually, with garments re-sold either to be re-worn, repurposed, or recycled. What’s unwanted ends up in landfills, though it’s difficult to know to what extent after textiles leave the U.S. Domestically and internationally, this circular textile economy creates some jobs and eliminates others—it can also ruin local clothing manufacturing and some countries are trying to limit it.  

What’s the best way to get rid of old clothes?  

The best way to ensure your good, usable clothing doesn’t become waste is to increase the chances it ends up with someone who wants it.

First, don’t wait too long if you choose to donate clothing to an organization, big or small. “The sooner folks donate their unwanted items, the more demand there is for them,” says Ness. 

Wherever you donate, ensure clothes are clean and dry. If it’s damaged or stained, don’t send it to thrift shops. They don’t have the capacity to do repairs and it just “creates a financial burden in addition to the eco burden, and defeats the purpose of the charitable action,” says Trumble.

Find an organization that focuses on the products you’re looking to give. I Support The Girls, for example, is a nonprofit that collects and donates millions of gently used bras. Founder Dana Marlowe says bras are “among the most in-demand but least donated products.”

You can also deal directly with people looking to use your clothes. This could be in a yard sale, your local Buy Nothing Project, or a local online giveaway group. You can also sell, swap, or rent individual pieces on apps like ReSuit or Vinted. It can take time and there’s a carbon cost: shipping is required to get to the buyer, or to the warehouse then to the buyer.

What can you do with ruined clothes? 

Clothes that are stained or damaged beyond repair will likely never be re-worn but can still be diverted from landfills. 

You don’t need to be crafty to cut up clothes to use as rags (though crafters, like at Quilts of Valor, might be happy to turn fabric scraps into usable art). 

You can send your clothes directly to recycling companies, like through Retold Recycling or municipal programs (check Earth911 for direct textile recycling programs near your zip code and know that for-profit businesses have varying degrees of environmentalism and charitable donations). Old clothes can be downcycled into upholstery stuffing, carpet padding, insulation, and wipers for car washes, and even generated into new textiles

Recycling is better than landfilling, but it often involves a lot of manual labor in low-wage jobs, poor working environments, “requires transportation and thus further CO2 emissions, and, in the case of recycled fabrics, a lot of chemicals and water,” says Nada Shepherd, co-founder and CEO of the peer-to-peer clothes sharing app ReSuit.

“It might take time to do a little research to find the right organization that can actually use the items you’re looking to give away,” says Marlowe. “But it’s more rewarding than throwing everything in a big garbage bag, dumping it into a bin, and hoping for the best.”

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