Recycling Tees: What To Do (And Not Do) with Your Used Clothing
01/15/2020 by Imri Merritt aka M
We all love our clothing, even those old ones we don’t wear anymore but we’ve kept around for some reason. Lately, everyone is learning to declutter their stuff– which is a good thing. But too many people are trashing their stuff– which is a bad thing. When it comes to T-shirts and similar garments, it’s simple: do not throw them out! There are plenty of options.
So get ready to gather up the used clothes that no longer “spark joy”, and do something creative or charitable with them. This post will give you the information, the inspiration, and the instructions. I’ve compiled the top 7 things you should do with your old clothing, plus examples. After that, we’ll look at 2 things you should definitely not do.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR USED CLOTHING
1. DO recycle used clothing
When people say recycling, what they usually mean is repurposing, reselling or upcycling (I’ll be getting to these). Only a very small percentage of clothing is actually recycled. Like less than 1% small.
The reason is that apparently, it’s really, really hard to do. Most fabrics are made of a blend of materials these days, so the challenge has always been to find a way to separate blended fiber materials so they can be recycled according to their own system. The technologies being created to recycle more than just cotton and polyester are still new, and rare– which means that a T-shirt that’s 99% cotton and 1% spandex can’t be recycled today.
What about the rest of them? I got you.
RushOrder recommends: Marine Layer
Marine Layer is my new favorite. My only issue is that I didn’t find them sooner. When I went looking for a place that I could recommend to you all, I kept coming up short. What I wanted to find was somewhere you could send your used clothing and know that it was going to actually be recycled. What I didn’t expect is to find a place that will give you money for those shirts and pay for shipping as well. Yes, you read that right. You get $5 per shirt, up to $25.
The company had already created a sustainable product (their signature fabric is made from recycled beechwood) and decided to “kick it up a notch.” So they came up with a revolutionary recycling program they call Re-Spun. The program takes old, worn tees and recycles them into new(ish) tees, creating the coveted “closed-loop” production process. To date, they have created over 25 custom fabrics. They also have a cool logo, which this graphic designer appreciates.
How does it work? First, they break the tees down to the fiber level by Marine Layer’s partner, RecoverTex in Spain, who have been recycling textiles since the 1960s and are one of the only companies in the world with the holy grail: the technology to recycle mixed or “blended” fabrics.
The new(ish) garments produced are composed of 50% recycled tees and 50% recycled plastic, and unique colors created by putting different colors of the recycled tees together so that no water or chemicals are needed to dye the yarn.
And softness– don’t get them started on the softness. They claim to have the softest fabrics money can buy, and judging by their reviews alone, lots of happy customers agree. They achieve this by “sueding” the fabric– essentially brushing the surface to slightly raise the fibers.
Their commitment to softness dates back to the start of the company when the founder’s girlfriend threw away his favorite– and softest– T-shirt. He became a man on a mission. (Don’t get any ideas, all you girlfriends out there).
By the way, if you’re thinking this sounds like an ad– it’s not. We have no affiliation with this company. I’m just really hype about it, so I’m highly recommending it.
Ready to get started? Go on their website and sign up to get your Free Recycling Kit. They send you a prepaid mailer (made with recycled materials of course) to put your used shirts. For each tee, you will receive a $5 credit up to $25. (Yes, it’s just store credit, but check out their high-quality clothing and chances are you will want something.) Plus it will feel good. The only material they can’t accept for recycling is activewear fabric because spandex is hard to break down.
2. DO upcycle used clothing
Upcycling is all the rage these days, and I’m 100% for it. Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is “the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value”. This is what websites like Etsy and Pinterest were made for.
And DIY culture (do-it-yourself) has been an exploding trend for years thanks to the internet. There has never been a better time to learn how to craft your own new creations out of materials that might otherwise be trashed.
In my city of Philadelphia, we have a thriving scene of people doing it themselves. Go to any of the Punk Rock Flea Markets or the Art Star Craft Bazaars and you’ll see a wide variety of innovative and beautiful upcycled fashion and art objects. So even if you don’t have the time or the skill (or patience, in my case) to make these things yourself, you can support the DIY scene (and the environment) by purchasing these items.
There are a million projects you can come across online that could of interest: scarves, bracelets, hats, necklaces, belts, you name it. I’m just guessing at a million, don’t hold me to that. There’s probably more. Below are a few of my picks– a small sample of easy DIY projects that anyone can do to upcycle used tees.
Upcycling Idea: Frame favorite or sentimental used T-shirts
This is the way to go if your tees have a sentimental value, but you never wear them anymore: Frame them and hang them on the wall. Maybe it doesn’t fit anymore, maybe you don’t want to still wear a concert tee from the ’90s, maybe you think the design is truly a work of art.
Upcycling Idea: Make tote bags out of your used clothing
We all need to grocery shop, but plastic bags are so over. Especially with more cities and countries cracking down on single use plastics. Good riddance! If you’re like me, you have a small collection of tote bags in a drawer somewhere, but they say things like Trader Joe’s or Pretzel Factory. Maybe it’s time for something way cooler, like a handmade T-shirt tote?
Upcycling Idea: Make this cozy cat tent out of an old T-shirt
I’m including this one because 1) I love cats, 2) cool idea and 3) cat stuff is way overpriced.
And as any cat owner knows, they can find more interest in empty cardboard boxes and loose pieces of string than they do store-bought stuff. So anytime you can make something yourself it’s going to pay off.
Like this simple tent, which costs nothing and takes about 10 minutes. If you have two cats you better make two, so they’re not fighting each other for it. And when it gets dirty, you can just switch out the tee for another.
Upcycling Idea: Make this tug-of-war dog toy out of an old T-shirt
My aunt’s dog, Buddy, is notorious for shredding anything you put in front of him. Unless it’s assembled with some kind of reinforced Teflon fibers and industrial strength glue, the thing will be coming apart in three minutes.
And there go three bucks. Luckily, there are DIY dog toys like this that you can quickly make from your used tees. And they hold up surprisingly well. Tie those knots at the end tightly and you have a toy that could last days. Just don’t put it near the scarves or tote bags or bracelets you also made out of shirts. Or all your other projects could become toys too.
3. DO donate old clothing to charity
Donating to a charity is most people’s go-to move when getting rid of unwanted items. Look into local charities around you (and avoid for-profit companies). Homeless shelters, group homes, and senior centers may have a need. Many animal shelters will take T-shirts, believe it or not.
Regardless of what you plan to donate, and before you leave your house with the items, be sure that the place you’re donating to will take it. Call ahead or check the website– don’t just show up with your arms full of stuff and assume they want it. Here’s what I recommend:
RushOrder recommends: Goodwill Industries
Goodwill is still one of the largest charities around, with over 3,200 locations. Although they have fallen victim to internet rumors about where the money goes, what they pay their workers, and even whether they are a nonprofit, it turns out those claims are mostly false.
With their reputation is back on track, Goodwill was ranked among the top five brands that inspired consumers the most with its mission in the Brand World Value Index for the past three years.
Each region is independent, with its own board of directors, and the money its thrift stores make goes towards the community. In 2017, Goodwill helped more than 288,000 people train for careers in industries such as banking, IT and health care, to name a few — and get the supporting services they needed to be successful — such as English language training, additional education, or access to transportation and child care. Plus, their system for processing donations is a long-established, well-oiled machine designed to reduce waste.
HuffPost LIFE has a great list of other legitimate charities doing good work that will take your gently used clothing.
4. DO donate to a clothing collection company
With the secondhand market exploding and textile waste becoming a bigger problem than ever, over the past two decades there’s been a rise in for-profit companies jumping into this space and taking over where charities leave off. These companies are diverting a growing percentage of this material from the landfills, and the process is getting more efficient all the time, especially with the growing sustainability movement and increased environmental consciousness of consumers.
Clothing that is not resold or donated is turned into rags, shredded into stuffing used in car seats, among other things. The rest is combusted for energy production. There are dozens of companies out there trying to collect your used stuff, but here’s one that we endorse:
RushOrder recommends: Green Drop
We love GreenDrop. What’s great about them is they make it so easy. You can drop off your donation, or you can schedule a free pickup. They have trucks that come around, so you don’t even need to leave the house. Let the binge-watching continue!
The other great thing about them is their proceeds go towards charitable programs for American Red Cross, Military Order of the Purple Heart, National Federation of the Blind, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Philadelphia. In 2015, charity proceeds from the sale of the donated goods to the thrift stores exceeded $2.5 million, supporting charitable programs locally and nationwide. Find a location or schedule a pickup here.
5. DO sell used clothing online
The resale market is exploding, and the good news is that it’s projected to grow to almost 1.5 times the size of “fast fashion”, hitting the 64 billion dollar mark in 10 years, according to this enlightening report.
There is no shortage of web sites you can sell your used clothing. If it’s in good shape and worth a little money, you’re going to get some interested buyers– whether its from consignment sites like Poshmark and thredUP, or apps like DePop, LetGo, and Mercari, or the (huge) new kid on the block, Facebook Marketplace. And of course, there’s always eBay.
“In fashion, the shift to new ownership models is driven by growing customer desire for variety, sustainability, and affordability. In 2019, we predict more consumers will see a growing proportion of their wardrobes made up of pre-owned or rented products.” – McKinsey x Business of Fashion, The State of Fashion 2019
This is something to keep in mind when you buy new clothes: How many times will you wear it? Will it go out of style soon? What’s the resale value? If you want to learn more, I suggest reading through the thredUp report. If you’re in the resale market, this essential info.
However, you might not be able to sell your used tees on sites like these, depending on the graphics and the shape they’re in. This option is here for people who have high-quality, barely-worn shirts to move, or who happen to have those sought-after vintage tees that are big right now.
This guy raised almost $1500 selling his amazing vintage concert T-shirt collection at well below market value. You might have heard of the Netflix show Slobby’s World, where he gets big money for ’80s and ’90s T-shirts, and even the knock-off versions sell.
If your stuff is not officially vintage yet, but you think might be someday (it probably will be), make sure to store it carefully. I would suggest those vacuum-seal bags.
6. DO repurpose old clothing
You could call this down-cycling, I guess? Being in this business, I go through a lot of tees as you would imagine. Repurposing has been my go-to for old T-shirts that I can’t donate (or make cat tents out of). I typically cut them into rags, and toss them into a bag. A bag o’ rags. And then those tees spend their final days wiping down furniture, ceiling fans, my car, or my bike. Or that mystery gunk on the bottom of my shoe.
There are many, many ways you can repurpose clothing– too many to mention. The last time I went camping, I brought a bag of old tees and used them for tent floor padding. Recently I moved, and my old tees were valuable for wrapping valuables. Those are just a couple examples off the top of my head. I’m sure you can come up with your own uses.
Yes, they still end up in landfills eventually. But every little bit helps. So cut some rags. (It’s super easy but for some reason there’s lots of step by step instructions online.) Keep that bag o’ rags somewhere for whenever need them. The idea is to extend the life of these tees, well past their use as a garment. The only limit is your imagination. And the laws of physics.
7. DO hand-them-down (or up)
As a kid, no one wanted hand-me-downs. They never fit right, they were out of style, and/or eww– someone else already wore them. Luckily, I was the oldest sibling, so I was usually the one handing down. Nowadays, it’s different. Hipster/DIY fashion is about finding your own unique style. Thrift store threads and secondhand style is trending in a big way. Your used clothes could be cooler than you thought.
Give it away now
Irony as a fashion statement is still going strong somehow, and now kids are wearing concert tees of bands they’re not fans of. If you have any teens in your family, they might appreciate your Motorhead T-shirt from the ’80s (even though they’ve never heard the first chords to Ace of Spades). It could even become their most coveted item. So think about handing those down. If you can deal with feeling that old.
Another way to hand down (or maybe hand-off?) is to give them to a friend or family member who does a dirty job. My stepbrother works on cars, where grease and grime is a part of daily life. So every once in a while, I give him a few of my used T-shirts and he gets great use out of them.
Same for my aunt, who paints signs and houses, and is always interested in clothes she can get messy wearing. They end up looking like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Here at RushOrderTees, our printers are not wearing their finest threads to work. They know that on any given day, they could come home with ink in any given place. We also do test prints at the start of each job. So we have these bins filled with different colored “test print tees” covered in prints– which sometimes end up getting worn by our printers. Why not?
Who else wants some?
Finally, handing down doesn’t have to be younger siblings– what about friends? Co-workers? Grandparents? Think about all the people in your life who might want your used shirts for some strange reason. What about your pets? They take hand-me-downs, right? Ok, that last one was just an excuse to post these pictures of dogs wearing T-shirts.
WHAT NOT TO DO WITH YOUR USED CLOTHING
1. DON’T throw used clothing away
Seems obvious, right? It should. Yet billions of pounds of post-consumer waste is going into landfills each year. (Post-consumer textile waste includes products like clothing, towels, bedding, footwear and fashion accessories that have already been purchased.)
Textile waste is a serious and growing problem. Wrap your head around these numbers: According to the EPA, in 1980 the U.S. generated roughly 5 billion pounds of textile waste in the public waste stream alone, with 4 billion of that going into landfills. These numbers have grown considerably in recent years. In 2015, post-consumer textile waste was over 32 billion pounds, with 21 billion pounds of that going into landfills.
The crazy thing is that almost all of this stuff– upwards of 95%– could have been reused or recycled. What a waste of waste. And considering it takes about 2700 liters of water to produce a single T-shirt (not to mention the giant carbon footprint) there are major opportunity costs.
It is estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the global carbon emissions and according to UNFCCC, the sector’s emissions are to rise by more than 60% by 2030 if transformation towards a sustainable fashion industry doesn’t make some big moves.
What about the rest of it?
Some of it gets recycled (again, this category is mostly repurposing– not actual recycling), some of it gets combusted (burned) for energy, and some unknown number gets “composted”, whatever that means. Probably piles of clothing left in vacant lots that are slowly becoming dirt.
Check out this chart to really see what’s happened from 1960 to the present. And keep in mind, this doesn’t account for the past three years, which I imagine only grew more:
So is anyone doing anything about this?
Funny you should ask. There’s a group called SAC, or The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, originally formed by the unlikely alliance of Walmart and Patagonia, and they’ve become the apparel, footwear, and textile industry’s leading alliance for sustainable production.
The SAC’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) is an amazing new tool– and has become the apparel industry’s most trusted tool– to accurately measure the environmental sustainability impacts of materials. It’s essentially a score. And what you want is the lowest score possible.
So while there is still a lot of material going into landfills, and a lot more needs to be done to achieve the goal of zero waste and a closed loop textile economy, things are moving in the right direction. I’m not trying to bum you out. I just couldn’t write this post without mentioning the facts. It boils down to three words:
2. DON’T make these things out of T-shirts
As I mentioned, there is no shortage of ideas for upcycling used T-shirts. Many of these ideas require time and effort, so before you get to work on something, think about how much your time is worth, and what the quality of the finished product will be. Lots of projects are truly neat, like the ones I suggested. But now, let’s take a look at a few that are not so cool.
Don’t use old T-shirts to make dinner napkins
It’s easy to see the appeal of this idea: T-shirts are soft, and you can easily make a whole bunch of napkins out of just one tee. But a crucial question will be asked: Why does my napkin say Knoebels Family Trip 1995? In other words, your dinner guests might not appreciate wiping their face with your old shirt. Even if it’s been washed, there’s the eww factor. By the way, which one of you got the armpit? No thanks, Martha.
Don’t use old T-shirts to make pillows
There are too many web pages with instructions on how to do this one. But the same eww factor applies here. These might be a cute conversation piece as you explain how you wasted a day of your life making them, but if a guest is chillin’ on your couch, do they really want to rest their head on your old T-shirt? Plus, most of these instructions are “no sew” which means you’re just tying the edges, which means it’s only a matter of time before they come apart, the stuffing comes out, and you’re back to square one.
Don’t use old T-shirts to make quilted blankets
When drawers are really overflowing, people have asked themselves, why not sew them all together into a blanket? I’ll tell you why not. Once again, it’s that eww factor. But now multiplied by twenty. I wouldn’t want to wrap myself in my own old T-shirts, let alone offer that experience to a guest. Although if you made one out of your old concert tees, you could tell people you slept with all those bands.
There is an endless number of DIY projects online to make you marvel at the time these people have– or wonder what were they thinking. (DI-WHY?) But then there are lots of projects that are genius, and you could easily spend an entire day going down the rabbit hole that is Pinterest to find this stuff. It’s a deep hole. I’ve been there and back.
So there you have it. Seven great suggestions on what to do with your used clothing. Hopefully, you learned a few things like I did. And hopefully, you never throw away used clothing ever again. If we want a sustainable future, the fashion industry will need to be a big part of the solution, but we all need to do our own part. Right, grampa?
About the Author
Imri Merritt aka M Imri (pronounced em-rye), also known as “M”, joined RushOrderTees in the spring of 2015, bringing over 10 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry. Over the next three years, he helped transform the Art Department, improving the overall quality, efficiency, and customer service of the team, while making some beautiful T-shirts along the way. A graduate of the Multimedia program at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he has explored various creative pursuits, including art and design, marketing, DJing, and even producing comedy shows. He brings his well-rounded skill set and forward-thinking approach to every project he's involved with at Printfly / Rush Order Tees. He is a contributing writer for Impressions Magazine, Printwear Magazine, and ASI Central. He loves roller coasters, music, and fried pickles.