15 Underrated Ways to Recycle Old Clothes You Can’t Donate
Sometimes, you love a piece of clothing so much that it completely falls apart over the years. Whether it’s leggings with massive crotch holes, shirts coming apart at the armpits, shoes whose soles have worn through, or something else—we all have clothing that’s in too poor condition to be donated.
You don’t need to throw ratty clothing in the trash, though. These days, there are more and more recycling programs that will turn your old clothing into something useful. I’m a sustainable fashion blogger, and I’ve used several of these programs myself. Here’s a comprehensive guide to repurposing and recycling your clothes that are falling apart.
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FAQs About Recycling Ratty Clothing
Why can’t I donate ratty clothing to thrift stores?
Some thrift stores have textile recycling programs, but unless they specify, they most likely don’t. In this case, donating ratty clothing doesn’t help the thrift store—it only hurts them. They have to spend time and manpower sorting through the clothing that can’t be sold, and then figure out how to get rid of it (which may cost them money).
You generally should only donate clothing that you think someone would want to buy and would enjoy wearing.
Can I just throw ratty clothing in the trash?
It’s not ideal to trash old clothes since they take years and years to decompose, all while releasing greenhouse gases into the air. Most times, clothing will not decompose into organic matter since a lot of it is synthetic, which pollutes our water.
Of course, sometimes there aren’t great recycling options accessible to you, or there’s nothing for that specific type of clothing, so you have no choice. I’ve unfortunately had to throw away worn pairs of everyday shoes (though I just learned that there is a recycling program for everyday shoes, which I’ll cover next).
What’s the easiest way to get rid of clothing you can’t donate?
For Days is a sustainable brand that offers a take back bag for clothing from any brand. This bag costs $20 and holds up to 15 pounds of clothing. They take all textiles in any condition, including including socks, underwear, sheets, pillow cases, towels, linens, shoes, and handbags.
This is the most versatile bag I’ve seen, as it takes underwear, shoes (all types), and handbags. In return for sending the bag in, you get $20 in credit to spend on For Days’ organic cotton streetwear.
Ways to Reuse Ratty Clothes
1. Repair the clothing
Clothing that’s falling apart may still be able to be salvaged. If there are holes, try sewing them up or darning them (darning is where you interweave thread over larger holes). You could also try boro, a Japanese style of artistic visible mending.
If you don’t know how to sew or don’t have time to learn, your local tailor can likely help you. In the US, people think of tailors only for fancy clothing, but they can help with everyday items as well. For basic mending, the cost will probably range from $10-30.
Finally, for shoes, don’t forget that there are still some cobblers around. They can replace the soles of your shoes to extend their life. I’ve had this done with a few pairs of shoes and it allowed me to wear them for years after. The cost is usually much lower than a new pair of quality shoes.
2. Repurpose the clothing
Ratty clothing can be pretty useful. You can turn it into cleaning rags, stuffing for pillows or stuffed animals, a reusable Swiffer pad, a rag rug, and more.
Before getting rid of the clothing, see if there’s something creative you can do with it!
3. Post in Buy Nothing groups and other forums
You might think that your clothing is trash, but others may be able to use it. Try posting in local Facebook groups and forums to see if anyone needs the clothing for art projects, rags, or pet bedding. The best part is that people will come to your house to get these things!
I’ve actually been able to get rid of a bag of 20+ cotton t-shirts (the kind you get from events) in the same day by posting in a local Facebook group. The woman who picked them up said she cuts them into rags to use for waxing antiques that she sells.
Some groups and platforms where you may have the best luck include:
- Buy Nothing groups: these are hyper-local Facebook groups across the world where you can give and get things for free (they also have an app).
- Everything is Free or Freecycle groups: if you don’t have a local Buy Nothing group, try to search “everything is free” or “freecycle” and your city on Facebook. Chances are, if you live in an urban or suburban area, there’s some type of free group.
- Freecycle.org: local forums where you can give and get things for free.
- Bunz: local trading app that’s most popular in Canada.
Recycling Programs for Clothes You Can’t Donate
4. Manufacturer-specific programs
Some manufacturers have take-back programs for their clothing specifically. If your clothing is from a sustainable brand, they may have a recycling program.
For example, these brands have recycling programs for their clothing or shoes in any condition:
5. Local textile recycling
Many cities have textile recycling programs where they even pick up your clothing. Just Google “textile recycling near me.”
You may need to schedule a pickup or purchase a specific kind of bag from the city for your textiles.
7. For Days take back bag
As I mentioned earlier, the For Days take back bag is probably the easiest way to get rid of ratty clothing. The bag costs $20 and holds up to 15 pounds of clothing. That $20 later becomes For Days store credit that you can spend on their organic cotton clothing.
They take all textiles in any condition, including including socks, underwear, sheets, pillow cases, towels, linens, shoes, and handbags. 45% of the items are resold, 50% are downcycled into things like insulation, and 5% are sadly just trash.
When you’re ready to send the bag, scan the QR code on it, and get a code to scan at USPS or print out your label.
8. Retold Recycling bags
Retold Recycling has a similar style of take back bag to For Days, but they also offer a subscription.
They take all clean and dry household textiles and clothes, including underwear. They don’t take shoes, however, unless they’re gently-used and could be resold in a thrift store (and not pointy as they could puncture the bag).
Their bags are much smaller than For Days’ though, as it’s $14.50 for up to 5 pounds of clothing. The bags are pre-labeled though, so you don’t need to go to the post office and can send it right from your home.
9. Terracycle Zero Waste boxes
Terracycle has mail-in boxes where you can send in any clothing or textiles (no shoes or other items).
They are very cost-prohibitive though, as the smallest option starts at $136 for an 11″ x 11″ x 20″ box. You’re probably better off using For Days or Retold.
10. Marine Layer t-shirt recycling
Marine Layer has a t-shirt recycling program where you can mail in your old tees or drop them off in-store. They prefer cotton but will take any material. The recycled material is used in their Re-Spun collection, or if it can’t be made into new clothing, it’s downcycled.
In return for sending in your old tees, you get a $5 store credit per shirt, up to $25. There’s no limit on the number of shirts you can send in though.
11. Ridwell clothing pickup
If you’re in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Texas, or Minnesota: Ridwell picks up used clothing from your doorstep (just double-check since they only service certain cities). They also take shoes, towels, sheets, and fabric scraps.
What’s cool about Ridwell is that they specialize in hard-to-recycle items, so they also take batteries, light bulbs, plastic film, and seasonal items like holiday lights.
You do have to pay for a subscription, which costs around $12-16 per month, depending on the duration and location.
Ridwell works with local partners whenever possible to redistribute/reuse the usable clothing, and what isn’t reused is downcycled. Only 5% gets sent to landfills.
12. Knickey underwear recycling
Knickey is a sustainable underwear brand that recycles undies from all brands and turns them into insulation, cleaning rags, and yarn.
Each recycling label is $5, but in return, you get 300 rewards points (the equivalent of 15% off an order). You can also recycle bras, socks, tights, and cloth face masks.
Before getting your label, you’ll be asked to count the number of items you want to recycle so they can estimate the weight for the label. The cost is the same for the customer, and you can send up to 200 items (and you need at least 5). You can then print the label and use any existing bags or boxes to ship your undies in.
If your underwear is in good condition, then you might want to give them away instead of recycling. For more info and orgs to donate to, I have a post about getting rid of undies, bras, and socks responsibly.
13. Madewell jeans recycling
Madewell is not the most sustainable or transparent brand, but they do have a denim recycling program that turns old jeans of any brand into housing insulation.
14. Hylo sneaker recycling
Hylo is a sustainable running shoe brand that recycles its own sneakers and those from other brands. You can request a free shipping label for a box of up to 5 pounds (3 pairs of shoes). The shoes must be athletic shoes.
15. Nike Reuse-a-Shoe
Nike isn’t a very sustainable brand, but they do have an athletic shoe recycling program, turning them into sports surfaces like basketball courts and tracks.
Call your local Nike store to make sure they’re participating in the Reuse-A-Shoe program.
If you know of any other programs that recycle ratty clothing, let us know in the comments. If you have gently-used clothing to donate as well, check out my post on places to donate clothes besides Goodwill.