What Happens to Clothes at Recycling Centres?

Brits are a fashion-conscious bunch, whether we realise it or not. The country has produced many fantastic designers and become renowned for everything from the flat cap and bowler hats to three-piece suits, trench coats, tweed, and tartan. But staying at the cutting edge of fashion means many people regularly throw away old garments.

According to Clothes Aid, we send 700,000 tonnes of clothing to recycling centres, textile banks, clothes collections, and charities every year in the UK. That’s enough to fill more than 450 Olympic swimming pools. But have you ever wondered what happens to clothes at recycling centres and how our old dresses, shirts, and even socks are reused?

Discover what happens to clothes at recycling centres and their possible journeys from your wardrobe to being reused and recycled.

three clothes banks in a row.

Can you put clothes 
in the recycling bin?

In most places across the UK, you should not put clothes in your recycling bin at home. Check with your local council or authority to see if they accept old clothing and textiles in domestic recycling bins first though. The majority don’t though as most household recycling bins are for dry mixed recycling like paper, cardboard, plastic, metals, and packaging.

If you put clothes or textiles in a recycling bin where they’re not accepted it can cause contamination. They’ll be removed during the sorting process at the recycling facility and if it doesn’t have the means to recycle textiles they could be sent to landfill or for incineration. It’s therefore best to recycle through the proper channels.

Can you take clothes 
to the tip?

You can take clothes to your local tip or household waste recycling centre (HWRC) in most parts of the UK. Check before you go that they’re accepted and recycled. There should be a specific clothing/textile waste container or area for recycling – don’t throw them into any general waste bins as they may end up in landfill.

Most tips/HWRCs only accept domestic clothes waste, not commercial clothing waste from businesses or other organisations such as old uniforms or stock. If you need to get rid of any type or amount of clothing/textile waste from your company then you’ll have to arrange commercial waste collection.

Many local councils and authorities also have clothing banks around the city or town. These are often found in supermarket and council car parks and other places where there are normally bottle banks and electrical waste banks. They offer a convenient option if you don’t live near a tip or have a car.

Textile recycling
pair of old boots.

What happens to recycled clothes?  

Only about 12% of clothes are recycled around the world. Many are donated, reused, or worn out, while sadly lots also end up in landfill or are incinerated. Very few clothes are recycled material-to-material (turned into new recycled clothes). The likes of cashmere can be recycled into suits.

Other old clothing can be recycled into materials used in carpets, insulation, car seats, and more. However, it takes lots of time and labour to sort and separate old clothing as today our threads are made from all sorts of fibres and materials that are tricky to recycle. These include blends of yarn, synthetic fibres, and even microplastics.

Any clothes sent for recycling go to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). These are the general steps of what happens to clothes at a recycling centre:

  • The clothing is sorted, separated, and graded (often by hand)
  • Any natural textiles are pulled apart, cleaned, and their fibres spun to form fresh yarn to form new fabrics
  • Artificial textiles are shredded into small parts
  • These are then sent to manufacturers for use in various applications, such as to create industrial blankets or polyester fabrics

What happens to clothes 
in a clothes bank?

Clothes banks and donation bins are big metal containers used by councils and charities where you can drop off all sorts of old items. Some clothes banks may only be for specific items, such as footwear, and there may be rules (such as clothes must be clean and bagged). Check any signs before popping your old clothing into a donation bin.

The waste management company in charge of the clothes banks will come and empty, remove, or replace them on a regular schedule. It could be weekly, fortnightly, monthly, or just when the donation bin is full. This may vary depending on where the clothes bank is, how much it’s used, and who’s behind it.

All the clothes from the bank will be taken to a facility for sorting and grading. Any grade A clothing (wearable, in good condition, no marks or stains) often goes to charity shops for resale. Grade B clothing (wearable but with marks, bobbling, fading, or tears) is usually sent for use overseas by people in need.

Any clothing that’s badly damaged, in no condition to be worn, and doesn’t class as grade A or B may be sent to a recycling centre. Items like bedding and some other textiles may be resold if in decent condition. Otherwise, they can go to garages and other organisations for use as dust sheets when painting.

woman holding pairs of old jeans.

What happens to clothes 
put in a recycling bin?

Check the label or sign on a clothing recycling bin and it should explain what happens to them. Normally they’re either sold for profit to help the charity, sent overseas, or used to support a local community cause. Any clothes put in a recycling bin that can’t be reused will likely end up at a recycling facility.

How to reduce clothing waste

Arrange clothes recycling 
with Business Waste

At Business Waste we collect a wide range of old clothes and textiles from all sorts of companies. This includes everything from unsold stock leftover at retailers to corporate workwear and uniforms. We can provide free containers to store your textile waste and recycle as much as possible thanks to our zero landfill policy.

We’re a national waste broker with great connections to recycling facilities across the country with the expertise and experience helping many organisations recycle. Get a free quote for waste clothes and textile collection anywhere in the UK today or speak to one of our friendly experts with any questions – call 0800 211 8390 or contact us online.

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