The Textile Recycling Chain

Textile recycling material can be classified as pre – or post consumer waste. Pre-consumer waste, is waste arising during the manufacture of a product post-consumer waste is “any type of garment or household article made from manufactured textiles that the owner no longer needs and decides to discard."(1) The textile recycling businesses world wide are able to divert 1 250 000 tons of post consumer waste annually.(2)

In the UK, the collection of used textiles is largely carried out by charity organisations through a combination of doortodoor collections, textile banks, and receipts at the high street charity shops themselves. Items that are saleable in the shops are retained and the surplus is sold to textile merchants for sorting and onward sale, either as reuseable clothing to export markets, or as recycling grades for pulling and conversion into felts, textile processors.

Whilst the industry sorts and distributes used textiles into some 140 different grades, it is easier to understand the market simplified into the following 

five categories:

UK Reuse. Wearable items resold in the UK through retail shops / charity shops.

Export Reuse. Wearable items exported for resale in secondhand

‘retail’ outlets and markets.

Wiper Grade. Material suitable for use as rags and wipers with little or no further processing.

Recycling Grade. Material suitable for pulling or shredding into fibres for use in new end products.

Waste. Material that cannot be resold or recycled which is disposed to the UK waste stream.(3)


Clothing that has been donated to charity shops such as Oxfam, PDSA or TRAID is sorted within the shop. Garments are chosen for the sales floor and everything else and the clothes that don´t sell are sold to textile recyclers. The price per pound for used clothing ranges from 3 to 6 cents.(4)

The unwanted clothing is picked up by the recycling companies and taken to the warehouses, where the clothes are emptied onto a conveyor belt and hand sorted into hundreds of categories.


Export of second-hand clothing

The biggest amount of clothes donated to charity or sorted for the second hand clothing market is exported to developing countries such as Africa and countries in Eastern Europe.(5)

Western second hand clothing is highly valued and in some countries the only source of affordable clothing. The world supply of used    women´s clothing is at least seven times that of men´s because women in the West tend to buy much more clothing and discard it more often than men.(6)

Once sorted in the warehouse the clothes are compressed into large bales, wrapped and left in the warehouse until exported.

Orders are placed by brokers who then sell the bales of clothing to traders who sell it on at local markets.(7)

clip_image003AP Photo/Khallil Senosi

While this reuse of clothing brings resource savings and provides people in developing countries, who have little or no income, with affordable clothing there are concerns that those second hand exports are a threat to local textile industries and the traditional dress.  “There are some concerns that the influx of cheap, second-hand clothing, particularly in Africa, has undermined indigenous textile industries….with the result that clothing collected in the West under the guise of charitable donations could actually create more poverty”.(8)

Conversion to new products

A small amount of the clothing and textiles collected are converted into new products (recycled). Such products could be industrial wipers or the textiles are carded and mixed with other fibres to be re-spun into yarn.


Fabric can also undergo shredding, cutting in order to breakdown the fabric which then can be used as insulation, stuffing, carpet underlays and much more.(9)

Garments and textiles used for these products are usually stained, torn or unusable.

A small proportion of the second-hand clothes are also reworked / re-designed into something new by TRAID Remade or Designers like Junky Styling and Goodone.(10)


Landfill and incineration for energy

Some of the textiles recovered are used to recover energy through incineration. For some reclaimed fibre no value added market has been established, so the used goods are sent to landfill. This comes at a cost for textile recyclers, as they have to pay for each pound sent to landfill and therefore they work hard in order to avoid this.(11) Clothes can be stained but not soiled, they have to be dry and uncontaminated in order to be reused or recycled. Another big problem for textile recyclers are donated shoes. “..1000´s of tones of single shoes go to landfill each year..”,(12) shoes must be tied together in order for them to be reused rather than become waste.



The smallest category but the one that accounts for the largest profit for most textile recycling companies are “Diamonds”. Diamonds are mostly vintage clothing and couture clothing. Diamonds mostly have global markets for example Japan is the largest importer of used American diamonds, especially interested in Levi´s jeans, Harley Davidson, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger garments.(13)


Future trends / Threats to the textile recycling Trade

Our love for `fast-fashion´ doesn´t only provide the second-hand market with plenty of material but also poses a big threat to it.

Falling prices in new clothing coupled with reducing product quality of used clothing being collected, and rising costs at all levels make the future for this market look difficult.

„..ironically, the way we shop could eventually drive them (textile recyclers) out of business. Our love of disposable fashion means that by the time a lot of the clothes reach LMB (a textile recycler) and similar companies they have passed their sell by date. It´s convenient for us to pass on our worn-out, stretched, shrunk or colour-dulled £5 garments to charity, but these clothes could be given a second lease of life. This has two big impacts. The second-hand trade in clothes loses out financially – as the quality of clothes gets lower and lower and the disposable-fashion phenomenon means that our clothes have increasing environmental costs.(14)

In the longer term there is likely to be a decline in textiles being recycled due to falling prices in new clothing coupled with reducing product quality of used clothing being collected, and rising costs at all levels. Indeed, prices of new clothing are likely to continue to fall over the next five years. This has a double effect of placing higher volumes and lower qualities of used clothing on the markets, which in turn is driving used clothing prices down thus affecting the long term viability of the textile recycling industry.(15) We are losing out from both an environmental and an economic point of view. Clothes given a second lease of life are less polluting – they save energy, lessen pressure on virgin resources and reduce the need for landfill space.(16)


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(1) Quote, Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.1

(2) Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.10

(3) Oakdene Hollins Ltd, Salvation Army Trading Company Ltd, Nonwovens Innovation & Research Institute Ltd, Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste, p.18-19

(4) Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.12

(5) Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.14 & Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.98-99

(6) Luz Claudio, Waste Couture, p. A 453

(7) Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.99

(8) Quote, Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.100

(9) Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.15

(10) Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.15 & Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.98

(11) Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.16

(12) Michelle Barry, The LMB Lets Recycle Textiles Book, p.7

(13) Youjiang Wang, Recycling in Textiles, p.17

(14) Quote, Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.36

(15) Quote, Oakdene Hollins Ltd, Salvation Army Trading Company Ltd, Nonwovens Innovation & Research Institute Ltd, Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste, p.7

(16) Quote, Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.42