What happens to the clothes you dispose of?

Have you ever wondered what happens to the clothing you send to the charity shops or place in a charity collection bag/collection bin?

This blog gives information on what happens now and what is likely to happen when new technology is developed in the future and shows the journey that recycled textiles take.


UK clothing consumption

The amount of clothing consumed in the UK in 2016 was 1,130,000 tonnes[i] - which is a rise of 100,000 tonnes per annum since 2010. The amount of clothing that is recycled is also rising. Most of this increase in consumption is due to the popularity of fast fashion and also because many clothes don’t last as long as they used to – they are less durable. The average life of a garment is now just 3.3 years.


Reasons why clothes are disposed of

In 2016 WRAP conducted some consumer research to ask why people dispose of clothing. The main reasons identified were because the clothing didn’t fit (42%), it wasn’t liked (26%), it was worn out (9%) or it wasn’t needed anymore (7%). [ii]


What happens to clothing that is disposed of?

Textile recycling begins with the collection of garments from consumers through a number of routes including charity shops, bring banks, door-to-door collections or local authority recycling centres. Many retailers also offer consumers the option to donate their used clothing -store. It was estimated that 650,000 tonnes of clothing were collected for re-use and recycling in 2014[iii] and that over 100,000 tonnes of clothing per year are sold for re-use or donated to charity shops for them to sell - this amount is increasing year on year.

Some of the textiles collected are only suitable for reprocessing. They are sold to distributors who sort and grade them into 150+ different grades. The grade depends on the type of garment, colour, quality, fibre composition and cleanliness and the price paid for each grade depends on market demand. Graded textiles take many routes – here is information on some of them:



The UK is the second largest exporter of used clothing in the world, after the USA. Clothing that is suitable for re-use is baled and exported to countries such as Africa, Pakistan and Russia, where they are sold for people to wear. Bras and football kit are always popular types of garment for re-sale abroad so these are some of the most valuable.

However, many countries are reducing the amount of clothes they are importing and some plan to stop imports by 2019, as they want to support their own textile manufacturing industries and because of the large volumes of clothing being disposed of and the decreased amount of wear that can be gained from them. The BBC have recently published an interesting article that explains more about this and also shows a London textile recycler in action.

Textiles that are not suitable for re-use are reprocessed or incinerated:

  • Cotton rich textiles, e.g. t-shirts, shirts, bedsheets and towels, are reprocessed and made into industrial wiping rags, as cotton absorbs liquids well.
  • Cotton/polyester blended textiles, e.g. workwear, duvets/sheets, shirts, are made into new items by pulling out the fibres and reprocessing them. They are used for items such as insulation panels for cars and washing machines, carpet underlay felt and mattress stuffing. A lot of research is currently being done to work out how to separate the polyester and cotton fibres so they can be re-used to make higher value items. Worn Again are doing work in this area.
  • Wool/acrylic/nylon and blends of these textiles, e.g. knitwear and coats. The fibres are pulled apart and reprocessed. Wool can be used to make house insulation panels (as it is naturally fire resistant). Acrylic and nylon is often sent abroad where it is colour sorted and used to make into blankets – the fabric these are made of is called shoddy. A BBC article describes how this is done in an Indian town called Panipat.
  • Polyester textiles, e.g. blouses, skirts, trousers, jumpers etc. As the melting point of polyester is relatively low, it easily clogs up reprocessing machines, therefore the majority of these fibres are currently incinerated. However, a lot of work is being done to work out ways of chemically recycling polyester. It is only a matter of time before this will be done commercially and Tejin are already doing this.


The future

Due to the decreasing demand for second hand textiles overseas and the increasing amounts of clothing discarded, we could have mountains of unwanted textiles here in the UK. But textiles are a great resource, so we need to find ways of re-using more of them to be made back into quality garments for sale in the UK (called closed loop recycling). A lot of research work is being done in this area currently and new technology is being developed, an example of this is ASOS sustainable jeans.


What you can do to help

  • Only buy items that you really like and will use, that will wear well and last. Refer to our best buy guides for advice.
  • If possible, buy clothes that are made of pure fibres rather than blends, as they are easier to recycle at end of life.
  • Look out for clothes that are made using recycled fibres - more of these will be available soon.
  • Extend the life of your clothing - care and repair.
  • Continue to donate unwanted clothes that can still be used to charity, either by placing them in a charity collection bag that is delivered to your door, or by taking them to your nearest charity shop or nearest charity textile bank.
  • Recycle any clothes that are past their best such as old pants, bobbly jumpers or threadbare socks by taking them to your nearest Household Waste Recycling Centre textile bank. Use the recycling locator to find out where your nearest one is. Did you know that currently 6% of clothes are still disposed of in general rubbish collections where their value is lost - this waste can easily be avoided.


Love Your Clothes will publish further blogs about textile recycling when new processes have been developed – watch this space!


[i]Table 2: Total clothing consumed in the UK for 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016: http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/valuing-our-clothes-the-cost-of-uk-fashion_WRAP.pdf

[ii] Figure 16: Reasons for choice of disposal routes for garments, on average, reported in a survey. http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/valuing-our-clothes-the-cost-of-uk-fashion_WRAP.pdf