What happens to my old clothes?

As with any other waste stream, reducing the amount of clothing that is bought or disposed of is the best option. Reuse and recycling are the next best choice. Even worn out clothing and rags can usually be recycled. If these options are not possible, only then should energy recovery be considered to harness any energy stored within the clothing. Disposing or sending clothes to landfill should be a last resort. Leeds City Council actually no longer send materials to landfill but rather sends black bin waste to incineration (energy recovery). It is estimated that 4,000 tonnes of clothing and textiles end up in Leeds householders’ black bins each year. Most of this could be have been avoided through reducing, reusing and recycling.

Each level of the waste hierarchy represents the value in terms of energy and effort put into making the product – as can be seen, at each level the value extracted decreases.

We have gathered abstracts of academic research that cover specifically postconsumer textile waste – i.e. after you and I (as consumers) have used the garments we bought. There is substantially more written about textile waste arising from industry processes. We’ve grouped them according to the waste hierarchy – Reuse (and Upcycling), Recycling and Energy Recovery.

Reuse

Garments are used in their entirety. The garments are not cut up or amended but sold on ‘as is’. They may be resold through vintage fairs or charity shops or they may be put into fashion ‘lending libraries’.

Upcycling

A garment may be amended, restyled, or made into a product completely unrelated to clothing.

Recycling

Garments are dismantled into their constituent parts or elements to form the raw materials for another industrial process.

Energy recovery

Energy can be recovered from clothes through incineration i.e. the thermal treatment of materials to decompose them. There are two methods of incineration – gasification or pyrolysis.

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