Donating and Recycling Old Clothes

In my home, when we’re through with clothes or shoes, we typically hold onto them a long, long time — not out of sentimentality, simply for lack of a convenient alternative.

Typically, most of the clothes are in good condition or even “like new” — so they are obviously not garbage material. But I have long suspected that even worn-out garments have life remaining in them. A little investigation shows this is true.

Clothing is one of the most reusable and recyclable products there is. Just get it to an organization or company that accepts old clothes and they will take it from there. (Some even offer pick-up service.)

Here’s what happens to the clothes next.

  • The best clothes — those that are still in fashion and top condition — are resold in thrift shops, or distributed to the needy, in our own country.
  • Second-best clothes are sold to secondhand clothing markets in less-developed countries. (Some people worry that this could undermine local textile industries there, but a study by Oxfam concludes that the used clothes trade is not the main obstacle to local industry. Meanwhile, it does create hundreds of thousands of jobs and benefit consumers in these nations.)
  • Clothes that are no longer fit to wear are turned into rags and polishing cloths.
  • The dregs are transformed into new fiber that can be used for other new products.

Find out how to dispose of clothes responsibly — through clothing donations, recycling, clothes swaps, resale and more — in my latest column for NRDC. (You’ll have to SCROLL to get to all the links.)

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33 Responses to Donating and Recycling Old Clothes

  1. Anonymous August 18, 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    Is there an organization like Wearable Collections in Los Angeles? I've spent the last 2 hours trying to find any company or organization in Los Angeles that will recycle textiles that are not suitable for donation. This issue has bothered me for years… HELP!

    • meredith November 14, 2012 at 7:59 am #

      I have several bags of unusable clothing but this website, which encourages recycling unwearable clothing into rags or new fibers does not give even one suggestion as to where I can bring them. I live in northern Connecticut. Suggestions anyone? NRDC?

  2. Anonymous August 18, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    Wow! I read TGB each month and usually learn something, but this month's entry really scared me. First of all, I was shocked that people need to be told what seems like second nature: I had no idea that these things were news. Then, the poundage of clothing per person is astounding (try lifting 68 lbs to get an idea). One thing I would add–which is sort of mentioned already–is recycling fabric within the household–as rags for cleaning, to mop up spills, etc. Once they are torn or worn out beyond hope, then send them off to the recycling folks with the capability of turning them into something new. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. Sheryl August 18, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    Los Angeles: I just called Wearable Collection and asked Adam, the founder, if he knew of any similar companies in L.A. or elsewhere. He just laughed. He said his company doesn't really do anything that different from Goodwill when it comes to recycling clothes. They just "package" the idea differently (and in fairness, handle the collection logistics differently, too). So call Goodwill — or any one of the other places I've listed. The end result will be the same — new uses for old clothes.

  4. Anonymous August 19, 2009 at 3:01 am #

    Your article on TGL regarding clothes recycling was great! It's one thing to share the word of being responsible, and another to give people the information on just how to do that – EASILY! Thanks!

  5. Green Wardrobe August 19, 2009 at 5:04 am #

    Wish there were swaps in all regions, I like many other people still use internet for it.

  6. Anahy Antara August 19, 2009 at 12:26 pm #

    There is also THE BOTTOMLESS CLOSET in NYC & CHI.

    VIDEO: NY ViewPoint on August 2nd, 2009 part 2 | Video | 7online.com | abclocal.go.com

    Bottomless Closet NYC | Executive Dir. Kendall Farrell and client Anahy Antara's interview w/ Ken Rosato on WABC TV's public affairs show 'Viewpoint'.
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bottomless-Closet…/62203976556

  7. Anonymous August 19, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    The one thing you didn't mention is that there are craftspeople out there making beautiful rugs that really last and can be very colorful. If you go to a craft show, especially your state's Guild of Craftsmen show you will find rugmakers there that are always looking for discarded clothes. Ask them how they obtain their rags. They probably couldn't take the donation of rags at the show because they usually have to travel a bit from show to show and pack up their stuff in their vehicle every night, but they'd probably be glad to tell you a great place to take those clothes that are just not usable anymore. Just a thought. I have bought some beautiful, washable rugs, they don't have to be professionally or dry cleaned and they are colorful with beautiful patterns.

    Janet from West Chester, PA

    • Maria July 11, 2011 at 2:25 am #

      That is such a wonderful idea! I’m sure there are people out there that also make quilts, accessories and purses etc… If you think about it the possibilities are endless.

  8. Anonymous August 19, 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    I think the key is in not buying more, but if we do have too much, the best thing to do is to give or exchange clothes where you KNOW where it's going. Also, art teachers and drama programs can always use clothes/fabric, for paper-making, costumes, etc.

    Davina from Napa, CA

  9. Anonymous August 19, 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    I don't discard of ANY clothing, anything not wearable makes great rags or new items like pillowcases and stuffed animals. I shop at the FreeStore, yes they really exist, or at Goodwill (and similar). I only buy new socks, underwear and shoes. Everything else is used (and in great shape, often used once or brand new).

    Camilo from Bastrop, TX

  10. Anonymous August 19, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    Encouraging our young adults to wear their clothing longer than one season would be a really good idea. I went to Buffalo Exchange — too snooty for me — and my three year old clothes hardly worn weren't new enough. Good grief! No wonder the female self-esteem as a woman isn't much better than it was when I was growing up. Parents have lost all control, no wonder we are in debt, and greed is not checked. I wore my clothes from 8th grade until I got married after college. When I outgrew them I stopped wearing them. Mix and match, add a little, give the worn out away or use it for rags to clean the house!

    Gemariah from Evanston, IL

  11. Anonymous August 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm #

    Nice to know that I have been environmentally friendly all my life!

    I’ve been a big supporter of recycled clothes since way back and I’m 58 years old. Most my pants for work and my dancing skirts, linens, costumes, some shoes, and such are bought at thrift stores and places like Buffalo Exchange. I have gotten many friends and family members to shop there, too.

    Thanks for all the good articles. As always, your info keeps on giving new insights!

    A devoted reader,
    Sherry from Cut Off, LA

  12. Laura, Los Gatos CA August 20, 2009 at 1:07 am #

    An easy way to get rid of clothing, towels, etc with stains or rips is to donate them to the local animal shelter. Animal shelters are in constant need of these kind of items for bedding in cages or even as rags for their own clean up.

  13. Ben DeGeorge August 24, 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    Hi! My mother sent this article along to me… Thanks Sheryl for writing it!

    My family owns St. Pauly Textile. we collect usable clothing in Western NY using clothing collection sheds. We then send it all over the US and world. I just joined the company in May after graduating from college and am very happy to be part of a environmentally friendly business!

    It is absolutely incredible how much clothing we collect every day, out of only one region in our country. Despite the fact that many organizations collect clothing in the US, there is still a massive amount of clothing that ends up in the landfills every year in our country. I often see brand new clothing donated to our drop off sheds.

    Keep up the great work Sheryl and feel free to get in touch.

    Sincerely,

    Ben DeGeorge
    St. Pauly Textile
    http://www.St-Pauly.com

    bendegeorge@gmail.com

  14. Felicia R. August 26, 2009 at 7:14 am #

    Since we live in the Florida Panhandle, we have many homeless. I give my used clothes to them, almost exclusively. Sometimes I take them to the Airman's Attic (along with big ticket items, like golf glubs/tvs/tables etc). WE NEVER throw anything away, and I am much happier GIVING things to people who need them than trying to make a few pennies on them.

  15. Sara August 27, 2009 at 7:32 am #

    In my opinion, the "dumps" need to do a lot more in the recycling arena. It is they who would have the most connections to recycling resources, they who can make sure 100% of the recyclables are recovered, rather than depending on individuals to find out where to go to recycle clothes, recycle batteries, recycle hazardous household waste…and then running around to all these different locations. Why not centralize these efforts to an area where the waste is collected? Why are they not doing it? It would seem to be a place where they could generate income. It would also seem to be an opportunity for those of limited intellect or English language abilities to have a valuable job sorting these things out.

    Certainly households can divide their waste into say, organic, chemical, paper, plastic, metal, given adequate waste receptacles to do so, to start the effort (although an intense public awareness campaign would need to happen as I notice the ESLs in my neighborhood have NO idea what the recycling bins are for other than another dumpster), but to depend on the public to recycle for everything is simply not going to work. The best place for it to be done is where it all ends up.

    Just some thoughts.

    Regards,

    Sara

    • Maria August 6, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

      Sara, what a great post. I have often felt the same way. I’m sure with the economy as it is, many would be happy to have a job sorting at the collection centers in each municipality. And how about food banks hiring people to sort as well? People need jobs more than people need to assuage their guilt working for a few hours at a food bank. They are, in effect, taking away a paid job from someone who needs one. And don’t get me started on all the junk food and white bread food banks donate.

  16. Sue Ann August 27, 2009 at 7:34 am #

    Good article on living green “clothes disposal”. My friend makes pants and skirts from used T-shirts. Check out http://www.pantaluna.com to see her apparel. It’s a very clever way of reusing clothes. I wish more companies would follow this way of life & reuse whenever possible.

  17. Susan C. September 22, 2009 at 7:38 am #

    I would love to see information on how to recycle old bed pillows.

  18. Anonymous January 13, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Well, I've spent months trying to get rid of my old, torn clothes, towels, socks, and bed sheets that are not even suitable for donation without throwing them away to waste in a landfill. I live in the Bay Area of California. I give up. This is ALL GOING TO THE GARBAGE. There is no where that will take it for recycling. I've called the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores and they say that they throw anything that's not suitable for donation into the garbage. So, I'll just skip the hassle of bringing it to them and throw it away myself . I'VE BEEN SAVING THIS STUFF FOR YEARS. Now it's finally going to the garbage. I give up.
    None of these sites on the internet ever tell you how to avoid throwing your clothes into landfills. They just say the most obvious things like give to goodwill or use your old rags as rags. I've got so many old rags that you could clean 1000 houses top to bottom with them.

    • Elizabeth September 13, 2010 at 6:44 pm #

      You can recycle old clean flat sheets, pillowcases, and towels to animal shelters or places like the Lindsay Museum in Walnut Creek.

  19. Anonymous February 21, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    I live in So. Cal and am at the same point in my search. I just can't bring myself to throw them in the garbage though. I saved Sharps for 10+ years and made countless phone calls before the county finally wised up and started taking them at the toxic waste site. Until last year no one would take them in bulk. I'm hopeful that someone will wake up to the need for fabric recycling locations. This is CA, I'm ashamed the state isn't more responsible about recycling.

  20. pat shelby October 1, 2010 at 1:45 am #

    As I have seen homeless folks walking on the sides of their feet in shoes which were too worn down or soleless and clothes which looked as if they had had no care for months, I used to send all my cast-offs, clean of course, to whatever charity called to pick up.

    I figured that some of the charities could at least supply something
    clean to put on while sleeping or while their clothes were being washed.

    I had previously been told by one charity’s solicitor that clean rags
    were used in the cancer ward or one of the areas they serviced,
    possibly Amvets or Purple Hearts.

    Then I saw some snooty director of one of the charities (can’t remember which), complaining on TV about people giving them things that were not salable and which were simply a waste of their time throwing them away.

    After that, I started keeping clothing in hopes of finding out WHICH
    organization could actually use them.

    It would be great if we had a real list of who can use what. I hope
    to never give anything else to the organization represented by the
    whiner who had no use for what he would not wear himself.

    I do tend to give as much of everything as I can to Salvation Army. They tend to beat everyone else I have seen on the news to disaster sites such as Katrina and Haiti, handing out food, water, etc. days before more business modeled organization appeared.

  21. auto donation program February 17, 2011 at 6:30 am #

    When donating such things, make sure that you are donating things that can still be used. What some people do is to donate clothes that are torn and are good only as rags

  22. Ched March 20, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    I send my old wearable clothes and worn out clothes to poor people in a third world country through friends residing there. Rags are made out of the worn-out and then peddled in the streets, sidewalks and markets. The shipping cost is very minimal.

  23. Angela October 4, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    One other option to remember is local consignment stores and sales. For seven years, I have been involved with a consignment sale run twice a year by the local parents of multiples club. We clean out our closets of the clothes our children can’t or don’t wear anymore. We freshen them up a bit, put them on hangers, put a price on them and bring them to the sale. Other parents can shop for clothing at rock-bottom prices and most of us usually make enough money to purchase clothing for the next season — usually at the sale as well. Many of the items go through three families or more before the clothes are donated to other causes. With kids outgrowing clothes before they’re worn out, this is a great way to recycle them and help each other as well.

  24. kimberly ann quito November 9, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

    PLEASE donate a old stock dress, clothes, shoes, toys, cd/dvd, bags etc.. to get a garage sale for a cause of the new build church here in PHILIPPINES, BARANGGAY PANIPUAN CITY OF SAN FERNANDO , PAMPANGA.. this church was build in 1980′s were they need for renovation.. so please if you have a good heart pls donate.. :) thank you.. and GOD BLESS.. contactus in +639351638990 or email us in kimberly_quito@yahoo.com

  25. fred December 29, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    I would like to receive used clothes for poor people in my country(DR congo)
    What can i do?

    • Sheryl December 30, 2011 at 8:56 am #

      Unfortunately, this would be hard to arrange. In the U.S. at least, used clothing is rarely donated directly to people in need, and when it is — generally through local clothing drives by churches and schools — the clothes are provided to poor people in the same community, not in other countries.

      Some of the clothes donated to large national organizations, such as the Salvation Army, do eventually make it to other countries, but not as donations. They are resold in the other countries at a reduced cost.

      My best suggestion is to find a church in the U.S. or other well-to-do country that has members who have emigrated from DR Congo. Such a church might organize a clothing drive for you.

      Best of luck.
      .

      • fred November 15, 2012 at 8:05 am #

        Thanks for the idea good bless

  26. Joe November 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    It is obvious that we should donate clothes that was washed and other items that are clean. Does the recycling place wash them before distributing?

    • meb January 23, 2013 at 11:57 pm #

      it’s a good question does the recycling companies wash
      the clothes before distributing?