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Recycle old clothing

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Nearly any old clothing item—your used sweaters, T-shirts, sneakers, shoes, coats, jeans, and even women's lingerie—can be donated to a thrift store or charity as long as it is in reasonable condition.

Find it! Thrift stores and charities

Donating to and shopping at thrift stores helps the environment because it is essentially a form of recycling! Nearly any piece of clothing can be donated to a thrift store or charity as long as they're in reasonable condition. Many organizations offer pickup services (check to see if there are any minimum bag requirements), or you can drop off donations yourself. Items should not be dumped outside a facility after hours because they could be stolen or damaged. You also won't get a receipt for any donations that are tax-deductible. The Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries publish valuation guidelines for donated items.

Recycling old clothing helps you go green because…

  • It cuts down on the amount of discarded clothing and textiles that end up in landfills each year.

Between 1996 and 2001, US consumers bought 73 percent more garments. The average consumer bought 48 new pieces of clothing in 2001.[1] Rates of consumer discard, meanwhile, rose by 10 percent a year throughout the 1990s, according to Goodwill.[2]

Donating to thrift stores helps to support the second-hand movement, where there are few, if any, environmental repercussions. New clothing, sustainable or not, always has some attached environmental impact. Consider the transport of bamboo fiber from China to a manufacturer in Canada, the lax environmental regulations in developing countries where many clothes are made, or the resources used in the cultivation and production of fibers.

Fiber cultivation and production

Synthetic fiber

Synthetic clothes can be made of petroleum-based products like nylon or polyester, or wood-based fabrics like rayon and acetone. The search for and procurement of petroleum has had major detrimental impacts on the soil, ground water, surface water, and ecosystems of the US and around the world.[3] Petroleum refineries release toxic, hazardous air pollutants, such as BTEX compounds, and criteria air pollutants, like sulfur dioxide. Wood-based synthetic clothes eat up a lot of water and chemicals during the extraction process. By choosing secondhand clothes, no additional resources, chemicals, or pollutants are required to manufacture what you wear.

Cotton fiber

Conventional cotton is considered to be the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. In the US, an estimated one-third pound of agricultural chemicals are used to produce a single cotton T-shirt.[4] The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock.[5]

The farming of cotton is also water-intensive. Approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton T-shirt.[6] Buying secondhand means that no additional cotton had to be grown to produce your clothes, keeping harmful chemicals out of the environment and saving water.

Landfill waste

An estimated 10.6 million tons of textiles were generated in 2003, with the average American discarding about 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per year—85 percent of which ends up in landfills.[7] The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shown that even state-of-the-art landfills, those with the latest technology for liners and operating
methods, will eventually leak, releasing potentially hazardous chemicals from discarded items into the groundwater.[8] Donating your old clothing to a thrift store or charity can help cut back on the amount of textile waste that goes to landfills, but even these organizations cannot use all the clothing donated to them. That's where textile recycling companies or textile materials recovery facilities (MRFs) can help.

The textile recycling industry prevents 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile product waste from entering the solid waste stream every year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling (CTR). There are other benefits too: textile recycling firms are able to recycle 93 percent of the waste they process without producing any new hazardous waste or harmful by-products, and export 61 percent of their products.[7] The CTR estimates that 48 percent of reclaimed textiles are reused as secondhand clothing, while 26 percent are converted into fiber to be used in new textile products and 20 percent become wiping and polishing cloths.[9]

Donating also saves the clothing and shoes from being incinerated. The incineration process releases different chemicals into the environment depending on the material of the garment or footwear. Burning rubber from shoes produces smoke containing cancer causing chemicals, acids, carbon monoxide, zinc, and lead.[10]


Some secondhand stores operate under the name of a charity, but are operated by for-profit companies that may not use the full amount of revenues to support the mission of the organization. Get the information you need about a potential secondhand store so that you can make an informed decision by determining whether the outlet is operated by a nonprofit or for-profit organization. Goodwill Industries International, Inc. has a checklist to make sure your money and donations go to a good cause.

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