Skip Landfill: 7 Ways to Upcycle Your Totally Worn-Out Clothes
During this crazy time, we’ve been chatting a ton about how we could all live a little better, thriftier, and greener. We’re so happy to see more people adopt more sustainable habits during this time, like taking up thrifting (welcome, newbies!). So far, we’ve covered a lot of ground on how to refresh your clothes and make them feel like new (all the ways to tie-dye, sustainable summer tips, clothing care tips, and style challenges, to name a few). But lately, a lot of thrifters have been asking us, “That’s cool and all, but what do I do with clothes that are too dirty or damaged?”
Good question. We’re all about extending the life of every garment—even if it begins its second (or tenth) life as something else! And the fact that 1 in 2 people throw their clothes straight in the trash makes our mission more important than ever. Landfill is never the answer!
Got a pile of worse-for-wear items? Don’t trash it, try these ideas instead:
1. Use As Cleaning Cloths
Cleaning with paper towels can be pretty wasteful, and why buy cleaning cloths if you have plenty of wipe-friendly fabric lying around? Wipe the next spill using your (very) old tee instead. Clothes too worn for wear or have too many stubborn stains serve as perfectly absorbent cleaning rags. Wipe up messes, throw them in the laundry, and store for the next cleaning day.
2. Start a DIY Project
For clothes too damaged to be passed on or resold, let them live a second life as a cool DIY project. Here are just some (of thousands!) of easy upcycling solutions for your old clothes:
— A much-loved sweatshirt looks just as cool framed on your wall as it did on you.
— Turn some worse-for-wear graphic tees into a patchwork quilt.
— Make use of a favorite patterned top or bottoms as patches on an item you frequently wear. Learn how to make a leaf patch with our DIY tutorial with Zero Waste Daniel.
— Cut out old fabric and turn them into cute scrunchies.
There are sooo many ways to turn your clothes into scrap fabric for another project. And with more time spent at home, it’s a great excuse to get crafty.
3. Recycle Your Clothes
Yes, most clothes can be recycled (even your undies). But it’s our responsibility to do some research on where recycled clothes go. According to the EPA, 95% of textiles can be recycled, but only 15% of unwanted clothes are actually recycled (!!). So make sure you know where you’re sending your clothes. While there isn’t a recycling box conveniently located at every corner, you can look up recycling resources in your area, or check out these sustainable organizations that will take your stuff. Check out these great recycling programs and find one near you:
Terracycle: From plastic bag collection to clothes recycling, Terracycle offers a variety of recycling programs. The idea is: you buy the program, they send you a box, you fill the box with stuff, send it back to be reused, recycled, or upcycled by Terracycle. This isn’t really for individual use, but a great resource for your company or community to chip in together to go zero waste.
American Textile Recycling Service: Like Terracycle, ATRS offers companies and communities drop-off recycling services, but you can also mail your clothes (although they cannot be TOO worn) too! About 20% is used for upholstery and automotive stuffing, and 30% is used for industry wiping rags.
The Bra Recyclers: Did you know? Bras are worn an average of 6-9 months before they’re tossed. Support women in need and send your gently-used bras to a new home. All you have to do is wash your bras and pack them in any box, print out a paid mailing label, and send them along!
Green Tree: Based in New York City, you might have seen Green Tree’s bright recycling boxes at your local farmer’s market. They’ll take your old clothes and put them into the hands of people in need, and the textiles that are no longer wearable are sourced as fibers and rags for manufacturers.
SMART Association: Our go-to resource for up-to-code textile recyclers, SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles) is an international trade association whose members use and convert recycled and secondary materials from used clothing. Although their memership directory isn’t widely available, keep an eye (and ear) out for SMART-approved bins in your neighborhood. Your local thrift and charity stores are likely to have one!
4. Brand Exchange Programs
A lot of our favorite brands offer exchange programs that give you major incentives to keep your too-worn stuff out of landfill. When it comes to supporting the circular economy, these brands are doing it right.
The North Face: Their Clothes the Loop program lets you drop off clothes and shoes from any brand at their stores, in exchange for $10 credit toward a purchase of $100 or more at The North Face. Clothes are sent to their non-profit partner, Soles4Souls, to create sustainable jobs and provide relief.
Patagonia: On top of offering secondhand Patagonia apparel, our favorite brand for planet-loving adventurers also lets you mail in any Patagonia gear and they’ll responsibly recycle and repurpose them. You don’t get credit, but you do get the satisfaction of knowing your stuff isn’t ending up in landfill or being incinerated. Check out their repurposed ReCrafted Collection!
Nike: Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program has been running since 1993 and to date, they’ve upcycled more than 32 million pairs of shoes! Your beat-up old Nike’s will get shredded and turned into Nike Grind materials, which are used to transform community spaces, from basketball courts and playtop surfaces to running tracks and more. Find participating locations and drop off your sneaks.
H&M: The fast fashion giant may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we’re talking sustainability, but their Garment Collecting program is the perfect stop for all your worn-out looks. Drop-off boxes are located at every H&M store. Your clothes will either be resold, reused as cleaning clothes or material for a new collection, or repurposed for insulation materials by H&M’s partner I:CO.
Zara: Zara’s program sends your unusable clothes to non-profit organizations that manage garments and develop projects in local communities. Clothes are recycled, donated, transformed into new fabric, or sold to benefit social projects. This initiative isn’t available worldwide yet, so check their website to see if there’s a drop off near you!
Levi’s: Our favorite denim also happens to be the most pollutive item to produce. Levi’s partnership with Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green™ program, an initiative focused on recycling denim, ensures every pair lives out their full potential. Drop your denim at any Levi’s store, and they’ll repurposed as building insulation, community-oriented projects, and more! Bonus, you’ll get 20% off your next pair of blues.
Madewell: Another Blue Jeans Go Green™ partner, Madewell will recycle your well-tattered jeans from any brand into housing insulation for communities in need. In exchange, you’ll get $20 off new ones! Bring them into any store to start.
Girlfriend Collective: Send your old Girlfriend compression leggings so they can make new ones! Our fave soft-girl activewear brand is making new stuff out of old stuff… out of old stuff. Help keep their business circular and you’ll get $15 toward a future purchase.
5. Donate to Your Local Animal Shelter
Fuzzy, comfy textiles are in demand at animal shelters. If your fave sweater is on its last legs, consider donating to a pup or kitty in need! Shelters can turn fabric scraps into bedding for cats, an engaging rope toy made out of old tees, and of course, cleaning rags. Towels and washcloths are also perfect for puppy bathtime.
6. Compost Them (Yes, Compost!)
This only applies to a small portion of clothes, since many clothes have gone through chemical treatments, but it can be possible! Clothes made entirely of natural fibers (wool, silk, linen, cotton) will compost down, but it takes a very long time. Cut them up to accelerate the process.
Some garments may be advertised as 100% cotton (like T-shirts and jeans), but might still contain a blend of polyester for that extra stretch. You can either pick out the polyester bits once composted, or skip composting them.
7. Donate Responsibly
“Too worn to wear” is subjective, but generally we should only donate clothes that we’d be willing to give to a friend or family member. Donations shouldn’t be a guilt-relieving way to get rid of stuff that you simply cannot wear anymore. That, and only 20% of donated clothes end up being put back on shelves! If you’re considering giving back to communities, turn your clothes into cash for charities with our Donation Program instead. We’ll reuse or recycle the stuff that won’t sell.
Bonus: Thrift More, Buy Less!
At the end of the day, the fewer NEW things we bring into the world the better. Throwaway fashion is a problem that needs to be solved at its source. While we should all be recycling more, we should also be consuming less too. Let’s maximize the life of each garment in our closets and beyond.
Got any more downcycling/upcycling ideas? Have a conscious recycling resource to recommend? We’re listening. Let us know in the comments below!