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Recycling T-Shirts: What To Do (And Not Do)

Imri Merritt

May 3, 2019

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From that holey T-shirt that we are too attached to the jeans that we should’ve thrown out months ago, we all know how hard it can be to throw out our old clothing. 

With the rise of minimalism in recent years, decluttering is all the rage. If you feel its time to part with some old favorites, great! However, make sure that you dispose of things responsibly.

When it comes to T-shirts and similar garments, there are plenty of ways to recycle and repurpose them.

It’s time to get creative–and charitable! We’ll give you all the information and inspiration you need to revitalize your closet and show you some of the WORST things you can do with your old clothes.

What should you do with your used clothing? 

1. Recycle

Surprisingly, only around 1% of clothes are recycled in the truest sense, where the fabric is broken down and reused for something new. But that doesn’t mean the other 99% aren’t recyclable.  

When you have an item of clothing that is made of a blend of fibers–even if that is, say, 99% cotton and 1% spandex- these fibers can be difficult to separate out and recycle. However, this is still possible, provided you send them to the right place. 

RushOrderTees recommends: Marine Layer


Marine Layer accepts fabrics of all types, except spandex, and is a really outstanding choice when you’re looking to recycle your tees. Not only do they give you per shirt, but they pay for your shipping, too.

This recycling program, called Re-Spun, takes these old tees and recycles them into cool new ones in a true “closed-loop” production process. 


They break down the tees to fiber level, using technology that can recycle mixed fabrics. Then, they create new garments by combining this fiber with recycled plastic. They even create unique colors from the yarn, which means no water or chemicals are used in the process. These t-shirts are really soft too. (By the way, we’re not affiliated… just big fans.)

If you want to join the club, go to their site and simply sign up to get a Free Recycling Kit! You’ll get a prepaid mailer in which you can send your used shirts. You’ll then get worth of Marine Layer store credit for every t-shirt you send, up to 5! It’s basically a no-brainer.

 2. Upcycle 

If you’ve ever been on the upcycling side of Instagram or TikTok, you’ll know how popular it really is these days, and we’re here for it. Just make sure to properly wash and dry the tees first and remove any stains.

Upcycling, otherwise known as creative reuse, is “the act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function.” In fact, some of these pieces end up better in their new form. You can learn to make really cool things with thousands of tutorials online.

To start upcycling, you only need a few old t-shirts and a pair of scissors. It’s pretty easy to create pieces you’d pay for without spending a dime. 


What’s more, there are millions of things that you can make from just a simple t-shirt. From scarves to bracelets to belts, all you need is a little fabric and a little imagination. 

Here are a few of our favorite creative ideas.

Upcycling Idea: Frame your favorite used T-shirts

If you can’t (or don’t) wear a t-shirt anymore but can’t bring yourself to throw it out because of the memories attached, why not hang it on the wall? This can make for really cool and edgy wall decoration. Just imagine that band tee you got from a concert in the ’90s on your wall for years to come!

It’s really easy to do this. You can stretch the t-shirt out on a canvas, make your own box frames with the help of Google or simply buy a frame. 


Upcycling Idea: Make tote bags out of used clothing

We all know by now how bad plastic bags are for the environment. Plus, tote bags are just way cuter. So, why not make your own out of a cool graphic t-shirt? You’ll definitely stand out when you head to the farmer’s market.


There are plenty of instructions online on how to create a tote bag from used clothing, but it can be as simple as cutting a tee to form two handles and then cutting the bottom into strips that you will tie together. Super cute.

Upcycling Idea: Make this cozy cat tent out of an old T-shirt

We had to include this one. Cats are the best, but cat toys are way overpriced. Anything you make for your cat out of old stuff, they’re going to like way more anyway! Just think of how they react when they see an old cardboard box. 



This cute cat tent will cost you nothing. Takes only 10 minutes and uses up some old T-shirts in the process. Why not make more than one so you can switch them up when they get dirty?

Upcycling Idea: Make this classic dog toy out of an old T-shirt

We can’t forget the dogs in all of this! Whilst dogs might not appreciate the same toys as cats, there are several things you can easily make from an old T-shirt or two!


Our favorite is this tug-of-war toy made from a knotted t-shirt. This is sure to last any dog a couple of days at least! Just ensure you keep it away from the tote bags and accessories you made, or else those will become toys, too!

3. Donate to charity

Let’s not forget to donate to charity! This is a real go-to move when getting rid of unwanted clothes. You will feel good whether you donate to local charities, homeless shelters, or group homes. Plus, the rise of thrifting means people are probably scouting charity stores looking for something exactly like what you could donate!

Before you head to the charity store, call ahead or check their website to ensure they’re taking on items.

RushOrderTees Recommends: Goodwill Industries


Goodwill is still one of the largest charities in the United States, with over 3,200 locations. Goodwill was recently ranked among the top 5 brands with inspirational missions. We stand behind this for sure, since all the money they make in their thrift stores goes toward helping the community! They’re also very conscious of minimizing waste and damage to the environment.


4. Donate to a clothing collection company

Since the secondhand clothing market is vast and ever-growing, you may look for other places to donate your clothes. Clothing collection companies, for several years, have been taking over where charities have left off. These companies ensure that clothing is reused and make a small profit in the meantime. 

Some of the uses are really interesting, with clothing that is not resold or donated being shredded into stuffing used in car seats or combusted for energy production. 

RushOrder Recommends: Green Drop


If you’re looking for a clothing collection company that’s truly easy to use, try Green Drop! As well as dropping off your stuff directly, you can schedule pickup and simply wait for a truck to come around. You don’t even need to leave the house!

Green Drop’s proceeds go to programs for the American Red Cross, Military Order of the Purple Heart, National Federation of the Blind, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Philadelphia! You can find a location or schedule a pickup here.

5. Sell used clothing

If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet, you’ll know that the resale market is totally exploding. Whether on Etsy, Depop, or eBay, people are making a good amount of money from selling their used clothes! Some people make enough to live off and scout vintage finds to sell.

There is truly no shortage of websites on which you can sell your used clothing. If it’s in good shape and worth a little money, try consignment sites like Poshmark and thredUP. Facebook Marketplace might be better if it’s not a designer item and you’re just looking for a few dollars.

Getting good at re-selling will certainly change how you approach buying clothes! Whenever you come across a piece you like in-store, you’ll be assessing how long it will last, and what its value will be in a few years. Of course, to some extent, it’s difficult to predict trends, but it’s definitely worth keeping hold of those items that you think might come back into fashion. 

If your stuff is not officially vintage yet, but you think it might be someday, store it carefully. Think vacuum-sealed bags.

6. Down-cycle

If you still have t-shirts coming out of your ears even after these steps, take a look at this down cycling tip! Cut up your tees into rags, toss them in a bag and then use them for whatever you need over the next few days- polishing furniture or cleaning the car, for example. The options are endless! 


Of course, these might still end up in the landfill eventually, but at least you’re getting the most out of them while you can. Plus, this stops you from buying rags, saving yet more plastic and fabric!  

7. Hand-me-downs 

One of the best parts about getting older is that things that were once rubbish are exciting now. Receiving an old t-shirt from a friend is more likely to be seen as a cool vintage hand-me-down than an out-of-style, worn piece. This is hipster fashion at its finest! 

You never know who will want the pieces that you no longer wear. Maybe your teen cousin will appreciate that cool Motorhead t-shirt from the ’80s (even though they’ve never heard of the band). Perhaps your Grandma would like that wooly jumper that’s gotten too big for you. 

It’s also a great idea to give old clothes to friends and family members who do dirty work, like working with cars for example. Just think of how much your painter friend will appreciate your comfy tees!

Here at RushOrderTees, our printers definitely do not wear their finest threads to work. They know that on any given day, they could come home with ink all over them like a painting. Because we do test prints at the start of each job, we have these bins filled with different colored “test print tees” covered in prints, which sometimes get worn by our printers. Why not?

What NOT to do with your old clothing

1. Don’t throw it away


The first and most obvious rule is don’t throw clothing away! In a world facing a climate emergency, it’s surprising how many billions of pounds of consumer waste still end up in landfills each year.

According to the EPA, in 1980, the U.S. generated around 5 billion pounds of textile waste, with 4 billion of that going into landfills. In 2015, just 35 years later, post-consumer textile waste was over 32 billion pounds, with 21 billion pounds of that going into landfills. 


What’s more, we know that 95% of this could have been reused or recycled! Since the fashion industry is responsible for over 10% of global carbon emissions, if we’re going to address climate change, we can easily start by keeping our clothes for longer and recycling them in more sustainable ways. 


Fortunately, some organizations are already hard at work to address waste problems in the fashion industry. SAC,  the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, has positioned itself to play a pivotal part in changing how we approach textile waste. Originally formed by the fairly unlikely alliance of Walmart and Patagonia, they’ve become the textile industry’s leading alliance for sustainable production.

The SAC’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) is an amazing new tool that accurately measures the environmental sustainability impacts of individual materials. This gives clothing manufacturers the incentive to get the lowest score possible.

So while there is still a lot of material going into landfills, and a lot more needs to be done, things are heading in a positive direction.

2. Don’t make these things

There are so many cool things that you can make out of t-shirts, and we’ve touched on many of them in this article. However, there are also a few things that are just a waste of time and materials and that you definitely shouldn’t make. 

The following are actual examples from the internet.

Don’t use old T-shirts to make dinner napkins

Though the thought process behind this idea is somewhat understandable (since a single t-shirt could make a bunch of napkins) you still shouldn’t do this! Your dinner guests will ask many questions when they realize that your old t-shirt is now their napkin– even if it has been cleaned.


Don’t use old T-shirts to make pillows

There are far too many web pages with instructions on how to do this. Do you really want you or your guests to be sleeping on your old t-shirts?! Even if you get them totally clean, most of these instructions for pillows are “no-sew,” which means you’re just tying the edges, and it’s only a matter of time before they come apart and you’re left with stuffing all over your bed. 


So there you have it. Seven innovative suggestions on what to do with your used clothing and a couple of ideas on what not to do. As we move towards a more sustainable future, we must make better use of our old clothes! 

Imri Merritt

About the Author

A graduate of the Multimedia program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Imri Merritt is an industry veteran with over 20 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.