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Part 6: What happens to donated clothes that can't be resold?

by
Kate Sanner

There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes in the secondhand industry that the average consumer likely never hears about— but they should know about it! When clothes can't be resold, they have to go somewhere, and one of those main places is textile sorting and recycling facilities. Let's explore the inner workings of what happens to the clothes no one wants.

The Business Model

Collecting, sorting, redistributing, and recycling are all vital functions of the business model. Some companies may solely engage in collection, sorting, and redistribution of clothing to other disposal methods, while others may mainly offer reprocessing and recycling whereby sorting is the mechanism to determine what to recycle and how. There is much diversity in model and sourcing of the clothes that end up in sorting and recycling facilities. In some cases, the consumer offers their clothing directly to recycling businesses via a drop-off program, most familiar may be those big brightly-colored collection bins you see in random parking lots. Consumers may also engage in recycling through a branded take-back program where a brand will be responsible for passing the clothing onto their recycling partners.

Alternatively, sorting and recycling facilities will also get clothing from other industry players with excess clothing. For example, the unsold inventory of thrift stores is sent to sorting facilities to be categorized based on possible next pathways. In some cases, discarded textiles are pre-consumer and come straight from brands themselves (overstock, damaged pieces, or production scraps). A portion of the received clothing is sorted out to be recycled, but the reality is that most clothing isn't recycled in the technical way even when “recycling” is the term used to describe what is happening. Recycling has become the catch-all label for any type of clothing disposal system that attempts to capture value from waste. More often than not, if clothing does go through an industrial process, it's downcycling, not recycling. Textile-to-textile recycling (the type of textile recycling you likely think of first but is actually the rarest) is the process of breaking down a material into fibers, mechanically or chemically, which will contribute to a new textile. The textile “recycling” or downcycling that is happening more is shredding fibers into a product of lesser value like insulation or rags. That which isn't recycled or downcycled will be categorized and bundled up to be sent to other countries around the world to enter their secondhand clothing markets.

Overseas Secondhand Markets

When clothing is being sorted and graded (by material, by condition, and by where it will have the most value in its next stage), these sorters are specifically considering what overseas markets the clothes will likely go to. The clothing will be wrapped into large bales, weighing anywhere from 100 to 1,000 pounds, and sold to overseas secondhand sellers.

Unfortunately, these clothes have already been rejected and deemed undesirable by our own market, therefore, the likelihood they will be usable in another market is low. Many of the secondhand entrepreneurs in the Global South (where most of our clothes get sent) go into debt to buy these bales to attempt to resell, but much of it is unusable and ends up in landfill in that country. By sending our excess to other countries, we undermine their local textile economy and burden their environment. You are likely familiar with the viral images of piles of clothing in the Atacama Desert and on the beaches of Ghana. These clothing “landfills” are a direct result of these used clothing exports and are full of clothes that have been sent by the Global North. This is commonly viewed as a suitable reuse solution and many sorting centers include exporting secondhand around the world as a core redistribution channel, but it has significant harmful consequences.

Industry Role

This segment of the fashion industry is vitally important because we need solutions for garments that have reached the end of their life. Without recycling, the “circle” of circular clothing systems cannot close. Without recycling, there will always be unusable waste. At the rate of current fashion production and consumption, the recycling infrastructure we have cannot keep up. Less than 1% of post-consumer textiles is actually recycled into new clothing.

In an ideal world, the textile recycling industry supports a circular economy by mitigating waste by using it as an input to create valuable materials for brands to work with. The collection and sorting side of the business model allows for clothing to be redistributed to the places where they will actually be wanted and used. This is currently flawed since most is being sent problematically to the Global South. However, imagine if sorters became industry networkers and connectors and could rehome garments strategically to upcycling designers, recommerce businesses, and emerging recycling businesses where the clothes can be put to use valuably instead of using other countries as their dumping grounds.

Major Players

The American Textile Recycling Service is one of the fastest-growing donation bin operators in the United States. With bins being their main service, ATRS functions mostly as a collection and redistribution business. I:CO (short for I:Collect) and SOEX are in a strategic alliance that offers more comprehensive clothing recycling services from collection to sorting to recycling to reselling and has worked with brands like H&M and Mango.

There are also many recycling startups who are working on more innovative solutions.

  • Circ has developed technology to separate and recycle poly-cotton blends.
  • Worn Again is also working on recycling polyester and cotton and building a commercial plant to do this at scale.
  • Evrnu has created a durable recycled and recyclable lyocell fiber from cotton waste that is up to two times stronger than virgin cotton or polyester.
  • Infinated Fiber has created a cellulose-based fiber they claim to rival cotton.
  • Tersus offers a whole suite of recycling solutions including cleaning, repair, and reworking options on top of the typical recycling and reselling models.

Challenges

Many textiles are difficult to recycle. When fabrics are created with a blend of fibers (most are, often with synthetics) recycling becomes difficult or even impossible. Sorters won't always be able to tell what material a fabric and all its components (thread, tags, etc) are, what it may have been blended with, how it was dyed and chemically treated, and so on. Without this knowledge, it can be really hard for recycling facilities to categorize and recycle materials.

The complications add up with garments like jeans with metal hardware or shoes with its glue and many components that require various levels of deconstruction before certain elements of the garment can even be recycled. With the complexity of recycling, and the time, labor, and expertise needed to sort textiles, and the tech required to finally recycle them, it’s often cheaper to make new textiles than it is to recycle existing materials. And to make matters worse, when materials are recycled, they typically lose some of their quality and have to be blended with new fibers to reinforce durability. This limits the amount of times textiles can be recycled or in the case of many synthetics, recycling can only be done once. This is why true textile-to-textile recycling is rare and why most industrial processes in this area are actually downcycling.

Without being able to recycle textiles at scale, there's just way too much clothing to deal with which is why this whole overseas secondhand business exists behind our own secondhand markets.

Opportunities

All of these recycling shortcomings are also opportunities for improvement and innovation. Thankfully, as demonstrated by the startups listed above, there are brands putting in the work and technologies being developed to address the shortcomings. One of the biggest opportunities itself is scale. We need more companies working on textile-to-textile recycling and more investment in the existing businesses so that we can actually address the sheer amount of clothing that needs recycling. Recycling is an expensive, tech-heavy business. We need ways to make it more accessible, affordable, and scalable.

There is a lot of room for better sorting and recycling practices. [RFID technology] has been proposed as a solution for unknown materials. If garments had a tag that could identify every material and treatment involved in production, recycling facilities would be able to sort much more efficiently and accurately. Additionally, hyperspectral imaging cameras can be used to detect fabric type and automate material sorting. There is much opportunities for brands to come alongside the recycling industry and support it with these types of tech innovations.

To improve recycling and reduce waste in fashion will require industry-wide collaboration. The ability to address many of these recycling dilemmas and reduce waste lies with the fashion designers crafting the clothing to begin with. This is why that's the role we will be exploring next week!