Garbage Maven: recycling old clothes

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It’s one of the untidy truths of parenting that kids destroy their clothes. My 8-year-old son is particularly adept at ripping the knees out of his blue jeans and spilling Powerade down the fronts of graphic tees that were, invariably, brand new or blistering white.

So much for hand-me-downs.

Ripped, broken, stained or otherwise unwearable clothes, as well as frayed towels and torn bed linens, are a conundrum for anyone trying to reduce waste and recycle more. Textiles are one of the items that Los Angeles residents most commonly toss — by mistake — into their blue bins, according to the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. These items cannot be recycled in the curbside program.


Throughout the U.S., almost 13 million tons of textile waste are generated annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of that, just 15% is recovered for reuse or recycling.

Until recently, I was guilty of throwing more than a few pairs of torn socks and outgrown underwear in the trash. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I now divert them to my local Goodwill, which I seem to visit more and more often as my son gets older. Try as I may to end his propensity for tearing holes in pants or for using shoes as a skateboard brake, I’m generating almost one small grocery bag of clothing waste every month. According to the EPA, Americans throw away an average of 10 pounds of clothes each year.

Officially, Goodwill accepts only clothing donations that are “used” or “gently used.” It operates its resale shops with a Do’s and Don’ts donation policy. Washed or dry-cleaned clothes are a Do. Broken or soiled items are a Don’t. Yet in my experience, Goodwill has accepted broken and soiled items, even when I alert the staff upon drop-off.

That got me curious: What’s happening to this stuff, really, after I wheeled out of the parking lot?

According to spokeswoman Lauren Lawson, Goodwill sorts its donations according to quality. Broken and soiled items are sorted and sold to textile recyclers. Goodwill, along with the Salvation Army, work with the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Assn., a Maryland nonprofit with the admirable, if slightly clunky, slogan: “Donate, Recycle, Don’t Throw Away.” About 150 U.S. pre- and post-consumer textile recycling firms are members. SMART, as the association is known, diverts 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste from landfills globally, 45% of which is sent to developing countries that buy them, as is, for use as clothes. Thirty percent is cut into wiping and polishing cloths. Twenty percent is reprocessed into fibers used as furniture stuffing, insulation and sound proofing, among other things. Five percent is deemed unusable, according to the SMART website.

Were my son’s undies really traveling all the way to developing countries such as Bangladesh? SMART says its recycling is done with human labor that is less energy-, water- and resource-intensive than other recycling industries. Maybe so. But it seemed there had to be local options.

If 30% of the old clothes I’d been donating ended up in the hands of a janitor, enjoying a second life as a cleaning rag, I figured I could do the same thing at my own house. I recently repurposed my son’s irredeemably mud-stained Target T-shirt as a dusting cloth.

I decided to experiment with composting a 100% cotton sheet. I cut it into squares and threw it in my composter along with spent coffee grounds and banana peels. I recently added to my pile a cut-up pair of my son’s ripped-in-the-knees Levis. I’ll find out how well they break down when I harvest my composter next spring.

Still, certain items confound me, including undergarments such as bras, or shoes that are too damaged to fix. The nonprofit charity Breast Oasis collects old bras and donates them to shelters for homeless and battered women through drop-off boxes and a mail-in service. Nike has, since 1990, collected more than 25 million pairs of athletic shoes through its Reuse a Shoe program. Collected through drop boxes and the mail, shoes of all brands are ground up and turned into running tracks and baseball courts, among other things.

The Nike program doesn’t accept dress shoes, sandals or flip-flops, however. I have several pairs that are so far gone that they wouldn’t make the cut at even the lowliest thrift shop. But if 45% of these things are good enough for developing countries, perhaps someone within driving distance also would take them?

Many charities accept only gently used items and would prefer brand new, and certainly donating new clothes to people in need is a good thing. But what about options for recycling the old stuff? I called several Los Angeles shelters, and most said they didn’t accept clothing and shoe donations from individuals. Los Angeles Youth Network, a shelter for homeless, foster and runaway youth in Hollywood, was the rare exception, though the man who answered the phone said the group preferred hand-me-downs in good condition. So much for local options. Looks like my son’s socks may make their way to Bangladesh after all.

-- Susan Carpenter

Garbage Maven is Carpenter’s column on household waste and recycling. She can be reached at


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