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Textile Recycling in the UK

Textile recycling is key to building a more sustainable world.

More of us are becoming aware of the impact we’re having on the planet and are actively making choices which reduce this impact – but textiles are some of the most damaging items for the environment simply because many people aren’t aware of how best to dispose of them. In recent years, we’ve heard stories of fashion brands burning or landfilling their unsold items and how fast fashion in particular is having a devastating effect on both the environment and the people who make the items. As sewists, knitters, crocheters and crafters, many of us are quite capable of avoiding the pitfalls of fast fashion and creating our own clothing – but even this has it’s impact. So what do you do with the scraps of fabric, interfacing, batting, yarn ends and other materials that form the waste from our hobby?

I’ve discussed previously the different types of fibres to look out for and which are more environmentally friendly in each textile category of synthetic, artificial and natural fibres, plus I’ve also discussed choosing to use deadstock fabrics in your projects. While selecting the most sustainable options in each fibre category is a great way to go, there will still be tiny scraps which can’t be made into anything and eventually most textiles get worn out if they’re used a lot. That’s why it’s important to understand how textile waste can be damaging to the environment and how we can each ensure our textile waste is responsibly recycled.

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How textile waste is damaging to the environment

Many textiles end up in landfill
Landfill is a poor solution to combatting textile waste, but one that has been a popular option over recycling

We’ve all become more and more aware of issues with waste and understanding how it can end up in our rivers, seas and oceans, thanks to programmes such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II. An extraordinary amount of plankton has been found to have digested some form of micro or nano plastic, and as plankton form a large part of the marine food chain this plastic – along with other dangerous chemicals which have been dumped in the rivers and oceans in the past – is accumulating in other marine creatures. This is then passed onto us when we eat a contaminated animal or even contaminated plants; we’re not as separate or excluded from the issues we’re creating in nature as we think.

While Mother Nature is canny enough to come up with her own solutions in the form of bacteria and fungi which are able to digest and dispose of plastic based waste, humans are producing it at a far greater rate than nature can keep up with. In terms of textiles, an awful lot of textile waste is burned, landfilled or shipped overseas for the same things to happen there. (Britain is brilliant at making our waste other people’s problems…) Many people aren’t aware that textiles can even be recycled and so throw their clothes in the bin – which is a big problem when they’re made from synthetic fibres, as an awful lot of cheap fast fashion items are.

It’s estimated that 1.13 million tonnes of clothing was bought in the UK in 2016 alone, which were produced using the equivalent of 26.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. There’s also an estimated 800,000 tonnes of clothing waste processed each year. (These figures are from Wrap UK.) It’s clear that clothing and textiles are a big cause of several environmental problems and it’s about time we (collectively) dealt with these problems.

Burning textiles releases potentially damaging chemicals which were used in the production and dyeing of the textile – especially if it’s a synthetic fibre being burned. Even natural fibres will release a certain amount of carbon dioxide when burned, and many items of clothing are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibres – such as polycotton (polyester and cotton blends) or many jersey fabrics which contain varying amounts of elastane.

Landfilling textiles just moves that problem underground – we humans have an incredible capacity to ignore problems that we can’t see. While natural fibres will eventually biodegrade, this still takes a long time and there’s a lot of textiles out there which are blends of different fibres; even if your waste is a t-shirt made of 95% cotton and 5% elastane, it’s going to cause an awful lot of problems because elastane does not degrade, is not currently recyclable and despite it comprising just 5% of the t-shirt, it’s been blended with the cotton and so can be found in every single thread that makes up the t-shirt.

Even waste which was disposed of in bins and at waste processing centres can make its way into the oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a testament to how much waste can end up in our waters, though there’s also more and more textile fibres being found in the ocean too. This is why we each need to think more about the waste we produce and where it goes.

Repairing and mending

The first thing to consider is whether you really need to get rid of a piece of clothing or whether you can repair it. There are more and more repair stations appearing, with well known outdoor brands leading the way – for example, Worn Wear by Patagonia, who will repair clothing and outdoor gear from any company. If you don’t have the time to repair your stuff yourself, taking it to someone like Worn Wear (or – even better – a local repair business) is a great way to save your favourite pieces of clothing. If you can repair it yourself there’s two main ways of doing this: invisible repairs and visible repairs.

Fabric patches have been used in these jeans to repair holes
Fabric patching can be a really beautiful way of repairing clothes and extending their lifespan

Invisible repairs are as you would expect – mending your clothes without drawing attention to the mend. This is particularly useful for repairing seams and small holes (we’re talking tiny holes that are only a couple of strands of thread across). Visible repairs are any type of repair where you can see it has been repaired – the traditional one being sock darns. It’s becoming more and more popular to visibly repair clothes as part of a mindfulness exercise, as visible mending utilises visually beautiful techniques which require concentration while also being extremely calming. These techniques include embroidery, Japanese sashiko and fabric patching – and each technique can give a different effect. Lily Fulop has written a book all about this and has a great Instagram feed all about mindful mending, and I really recommend you check her work out.

Donating to charity

When sorting through their wardrobes, many people will set aside some clothes to be donated to charity. While the idea is in theory helpful – people will want to buy the clothes and it raises money for charities which desperately need it – in practice it doesn’t work all that well. Many charities struggle to sell clothes, or find that the clothes that have been donated are of too poor a quality to be able to sell them. In these cases, the clothes can end up in landfill or being burned anyway.

The alternative to this is to take the long, slow approach of selling the clothes yourself – at car boots, flea markets, on eBay or any other online marketplace. Yes it takes forever to take photographs and upload listings online, yes it’s inconvenient to go to the post office every other day, and yes it costs money to sell at a car boot and there’s no guarantee anyone will buy anything from you (true of online marketplaces too), but if you can’t sell it then what makes you think that a charity will be able to? When you do sell something, you have the choice to keep the money or you can donate it directly to the charity you would have donated the clothes to. It’s a far more responsible way of doing things, even if it does take time and effort.

We've all got clothes that we no longer wear for whatever reason, which are perfectly suitable to be passed on to someone else

Refashioning items and upcycling

If you’ve got some items which perhaps don’t fit you any more or you can’t mend, you can refashion them. This can also be done with items you find at charity shops, carboots, online marketplaces etc. The typical example is turning a pair of jeans with unmendable holes in the legs into a pair of shorts, though I appreciate that not everyone likes the look of denim shorts.

The idea behind refashioning is you take something you wouldn’t use in its current state for whatever reason but you like the fabric it’s made from and you turn it into something new. Typically this refers to clothing, but in reality you can refashion things into bags, cushions, or anything else which you find useful. Some people have even refashioned old jeans pockets into hanging storage by putting the denim in embroidery hoops and hanging them on the wall. For knitters and crocheters, it’s possible to unravel the yarn from items and use it to knit or crochet with rather than buying new yarn. You can also turn old t-shirts into yarn to be used in other projects, such as bathmats, storage boxes, wall hangings and rugs.

Refashioning is becoming more and more accessible, with several books, blogs and even online competitions being run based on refashioning. It’s a great way to give life back to an item and so it’s no wonder that it’s become so popular.

Clothing swaps

This is an idea which seems to have taken hold of teenagers and those in university in particular. The idea is that instead of buying or selling clothing, you swap it with someone else. This could be especially useful for those with young children, given that they grow out of clothes quickly. The clothes which are swapped go to homes where they’ll be loved and it’s at no cost to anyone, which helps if you’re short on cash.

Scrappy projects for textile recycling

If you’re a quilter you’re probably used to working with scraps of fabric for foundation paper piecing. If you’ve got no idea what I just said – this might be a new way of using up your scraps.

Foundation paper piecing is used quite widely in quilting, though it’s also worth saying that not all quilting is great big bed covers. You can quilt little patchwork purses, cushion covers, yoga mats – almost anything you can think of which might be useful. The idea behind foundation paper piecing is to use pieces of fabric of different sizes and shapes to piece together a design. Many of these designs (certainly in the more modern forms of quilting) are also designed to use up little fabric scraps you have. Check out Leila Gardunia and Lillyella Stitchery for some great ideas on how to make scrappy projects with foundation paper piecing.

Patchwork is a form of textile recycling
This lady shows how patchwork clothes can make a statement and be comfortable - wearing a jumper made from multiple different colours and styles of knitting is a great way to recycle old knits

You could also make clothing from patchwork pieces – indeed some patterns and clothing types work quite well like this. T-shirts and tops can look great if patchworked together, while you’d likely need bigger offcuts to make trousers and dresses.

There’s also lots of smaller projects you can make with reasonable sized offcuts. If you’re like me, you’ll probably have excess fabric from deliberately overbuying as a backup in case you make a mistake and need to cut out a piece of your pattern again. These offcuts can be used for a wide range of projects, which I’ll go into in depth in a future post – especially if your offcuts are around the size of a fat quarter or more. Even if your offcuts are smaller than this, there’s lots of things you can make from them, so don’t go throwing them out just yet!

Where to recycle textiles in the UK

UPDATE 05 December 2022

As this is one of my most popular posts overall and I often get messages asking for help with difficult to recycle items, I had to add this update when I came across it.

Thanks to an advert on Instagram, I discovered the company Terracycle, who run Zero Waste Boxes for UK households and businesses, and they seem to hold the answer for the many people who have contacted me about difficult to recycle textile items – like lanyards.

They have multiple different options for the boxes for all sorts of difficult to recycle items, though the ones which are likely to be the most use to readers of this post are the Fabrics and Clothing box and the Name Tags and Lanyards box for those who run events. There are of course many, many more boxes with the option to recycle different items, though I suspect a lot of households will find the All-in-One box extremely useful, as it’s a catch all for most of the items Terracycle can process – including art and craft supplies (I’m looking at you, plastic sewing thread spools and needle cases), fabrics and textiles, and other hard to recycle items we use on a daily basis like toothpaste tubes and beauty product packaging.

Each box has three size options – small, medium or large – and includes a return shipping label for when the box is full. You do need to pay for these boxes, but technically we all pay for our local recycling facilities through our council tax, too. Terracycle provide an end-to-end option which not only accepts and sorts the items for recycling, but also processes them back into raw materials at a plant here in the UK which are then used to create items like outdoor furniture.

I hope this update helps those of you trying to recycle those really tough items! Now, back to the original article.

If you still need to recycle clothes or textiles, there’s a few options available here where it does actually go for recycling.

The first place you might think of is the big textile bins in a supermarket carpark or at your local waste recycling centre. Not all of these are actually recycling bins – some are charity donation bins – so you need to check carefully what kind of bin it is before putting your scraps into it. Recycle Now can tell you where your closest textile recycling bins are based on your postcode, though during the current pandemic these bins aren’t being collected nearly as often. If the bins are full, don’t just leave your textile waste next to them! More often than not, damp gets in (or some enterprising critters do) before the next collection and ultimately the clothes just end up in landfill or being burned as they can’t be recycled anymore. The Bureau of International Recycling has some interesting content about where your textiles go after they’re put in textile bins, as well as some rather shocking statistics about the levels of textile recycling in different regions around the world.

More and more shops are now offering recycle points for textiles including clothes, bed linen and towels. H&M are the worldwide leaders in this, as they’ve been offering this since 2013, though Marks and Spencer are running a similar scheme which includes bras too.

H&M offer textile recycling in their stores
H&M offer a textile recycling facility in their stores, accepting everything from teeny scraps to towels

Where to recycle clothes in the UK

H&M’s recycling scheme works like this: you bring in a small bag of unwanted clothes, pop them in the recycling bin and they give you a £5 voucher towards your next £25 spend. In reality, they’ll accept anything from teeny offcuts and scraps to old towels – as long as it’ll fit in the recycling bin – and they guarantee that none of it goes to landfill. It has to be in small bags though, as their bins don’t have particularly wide openings. If you don’t need the voucher then I’m sure you could just give it to someone you know or even give it to someone else who’s shopping in store at the time. Marks and Spencer’s scheme is more or less the same, there’s a textile bin called a Schwop Box and they send clothes collected in these to Oxfam, who own a recycling facility in Yorkshire. Any clothes that can be sold on will be, while any that can’t get recycled.

For those wondering what to do with your scrap yarn ends and random bits of thread, Hedgehog Fibres are accepting them and turning them into new yarn in their Tweedy range. They’ll only accept clean pieces which are free of insect damage, but the more yarn and thread ends you send, the bigger the discount voucher they’ll give you. You do need to post the yarn ends to them, and they are based in Ireland, so it might cost a little, but it’s a great initiative that I hope more yarn brands will take up. The discount you get on their yarn may well cover the cost of posting to them anyhow – especially since if you send them 1kg+ you’ll get 30% off your next purchase with them.

Perhaps the best option in the present pandemic – especially for those of you still shielding – is to arrange for someone to come and collect your waste for recycling, particularly if you’ve got a lot of it. There are a few companies who will do this; some are local only collections while others can arrange nationwide collections – and the best bit is that these guys can often recycle other bits of textile waste that you might not have thought of. Got an old carpet or rug which needs getting rid of? No problem, these can be recycled by some companies. Perhaps an old sofa or mattress? Some companies will take these for recycling too.

Combating needless textile waste

Ask not what your planet can do for you. Ask what you can do for our planet
We all need to think like this more and ensure we're responsibly disposing of our textile waste.

There’s a great deal that we as individuals can do – indeed many of you reading this already make most of your own clothes and things around the house. We can learn from one another and teach others how to make their own clothes, whether by sewing, knitting or crocheting. We can encourage ourselves and others – of all genders and ages – to learn how to repair their clothes and where to recycle their textiles when they’re worn out.

We can adapt from buying new each season to buying vintage or recycled – this goes for fabric and yarn too. Wherever possible check out deadstock fabrics first, and look into digitally printed fabrics whereby only the amount you order is printed. Use recycled yarns and make your own yarns from old clothes.

We need to get out of the current disposable mindset and back into the mindset of treasuring our clothes and making them last. Wherever this isn’t possible, be sure that your clothes, towels, scraps, yarn ends and other textile waste are actually getting recycled. This simple act is something each of us can and should do to help alleviate the pressures on our environment caused by humans.