What You Do With Worn Out Clothes Matters For the Planet

Unless you’re a crafting visionary, the options of what to do with unwanted clothes and shoes are pretty limited. Still wearable? Maybe you drop them off at a thrift store or offer them up to your local Freecycle group. Unwearable? Well, that makes things more difficult. Besides cutting old garments up into cleaning rags, I’m at a loss. More often than not, they just end up in the trash.

Although it seems innocent enough, textile waste from the “fast fashion” industry is a big problem for our planet. Some startling facts:

  • The average t-shirt wastes 700 gallons of water during manufacturing; that’s 140 five gallon water cooler jugs.
  • The average leather shoe could take 50 years to break down in a landfill, and while decomposing in a landfill it releases the harmful greenhouse gas, methane.
  • If 300 million Americans recycle just one t-shirt we would recover 210 billion gallons of water and keep 1 million pounds of CO2 out of our atmosphere.

But it’s not just about consumers throwing away old t-shirts. Clothing manufacturers also produce waste in the form of irregular prints, stitching mistakes, and the clippings left behind when a pattern is cut. With huge amounts of energy and water used to create these items in the first place, just dumping them in the landfill seems outrageous. That’s why some cities are working on a better way to close the loop on textile waste.

San Francisco recently announced the Zero Waste Textile Initiative, just one element of the city’s larger plan to achieve zero waste by 2020 by recycling or composting. See, San Francisco sends more than 39 million pounds of textiles to the landfill, making it one of the top three materials that end up in the trash (a statistic that surprised me). The same is happening in hundreds of other cities around the world. The truly tragic part is that the vast majority of this clothing and these shoes can be reused or recycled into insulation material, flooring, packaging, or cushioning in stuffed toys, insoles, and bags–if only we could stop it before hitting the trash can. That’s where I:CO comes in.

The name stands for “I Collect,” and the mission is simple: provide the infrastructure to ensure that valuable raw materials from used textiles enter a closed loop production cycle and remain there.

To achieve that mission, I:CO has partnered with some of the biggest clothing retailers in the business, including large companies such as H&M, Puma, The North Face, American Eagle Outfitters, Levi’s and Forever21. The City of San Francisco is the company’s first municipal partner, but it certainly hopes to add more to the roster. Instead of wondering what in the world to do with those ripped up jeans or that badly stained blouse, the public can now simply deposit those garments in an I:CO collection bin, conveniently located at their favorite clothing store, library, recycling center, etc.

The textiles I:CO and its partners collect are sorted “using upwards of 400 criteria to allocate items as second-hand clothing, reuse as cloths, recycled into fibers and paddings or upcycling into a product of equal or higher quality,” explained Jennifer Gilbert, Chief Marketing Officer, in an email to Care2. “I:CO’s vision is for all products to be designed with future uses in mind, so materials can be 100 percent reused in a truly endless cycle.”

San Francisco residents can find drop-off locations for their unwanted clothing, shoes and other textiles at www.ico-spirit.com/sf and at www.sfenvironment.org/textiles. Not in San Francisco? Find other I:CO participating partners around the U.S. and worldwide, consumers can check the I:CO store locator at www.ico-spirit.com.

Image via Thinkstock


Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobets3 years ago

Thank you.

JOSE Honr4 years ago


Edo R.
Edo R4 years ago

Thanks for sharing!

Vivienne Schwarcz

What a brilliant idea. It looks like Australia is the only continent without any I:CO recycle bins or program in place. We should be more than a little embarrassed about that. Mind you we did vote a prominent denier of global warming into government.....even more embarrassing.

Laura Saxon
.4 years ago

Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Donate them to the needy

Yuliya Dalbunova
Yuliya Dalbunova4 years ago

Thank you: will look for partners of I:CO now!

Christine Stewart

My worn out t shirts and sweat pants become my next set of pajamas!

Alina Kanaski
Alina Kanaski4 years ago

Thanks for sharing!

Karen Gee4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.