What do I do with old clothes and textiles?

How to responsibly clean out your closet


A change in season means you’re likely rearranging your closet to make room for spiffy new duds. In doing so, you may encounter some clothes you rarely don and feel tempted to toss them. In fact, the U.S. throws out around 68 pounds of textiles per person, which along with leather and rubber makes up more than 9% of all solid landfill waste.1,2

Our fashion trash may only grow in coming years due to our increasingly quick clothing consumption, which is largely driven by breakneck speed of fast fashion manufacturing. We wear the average piece of clothing 36% fewer times than we did 15 years ago, and clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014.3,4

“Clothing manufacturers are just making more clothing than we can even wear and we’re increasing at an unsustainable rate,” says Kathryn Horvath, an associate with the Waste is Out of Fashion campaign at the nonprofit organization Public Interest Research Group. “It’s important to cut the issues of overproduction and overconsumption and really take a step back and think about the impact that our fashion choices have on the environment.”

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid giving in to overconsumption and reducing the associated environmental harms. By keeping clothes for longer, donating them, and disposing of them sustainably, you can reduce the significant emissions and pollution of water, air, and soil associated with clothing manufacturing.

What is the environmental impact of fashion waste? 

Large-scale clothing and shoe production breeds various environmental harms. This is most apparent at the production phase, since the industry’s energy-intensive methods and complex supply chains contribute between 8% and 10% of the world’s carbon emissions—more than the aviation and shipping industries combined.5 

The vast majority of these emissions occur in manufacturing, because the process demands loads of energy at factories in nations such as China, India, and Bangladesh, which largely burn fossil fuels for electricity generation.6,7 By 2030, textile production could produce 2.7 billion metric tons of carbon emissions annually.8 That’s a stark increase compared to around 1.3 billion tons in 2015.9 For reference, total U.S. carbon emissions reached around 6 billion metric tons in 2022.10 

The fashion industry’s energy-intensive methods and complex supply chains contribute between 8% and 10% of the world’s carbon emissions—more than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

Frontiers in Environmental Science

Beyond carbon emissions, clothing manufacturing uses massive amounts of water: around 93 billion cubic meters per year, or roughly 37 million Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth.11 Factories also release harmful pollutants into surrounding communities.12 Chemicals and dyes end up in nearby bodies of water and can risk the health of plants, people, and wildlife.

Consumer clothing waste

The pollution doesn’t end once clothes make their way to consumers. Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year, or the equivalent of more than 50 billion plastic bottles.13 That’s because more than half of all materials used by the fashion industry are made of plastic, which is usually derived from non-renewable fossil fuels.14

This means that when clothes head to landfills—around 85% of textiles end up in the dump annually around the globe—they continue to release microplastics into the environment.15 “People don’t associate [plastic pollution] with clothing quite as often as they probably should,” Horvath says. Plus, clothing made from synthetic fabrics that’s trapped in landfills releases the harmful greenhouse gas methane (just as any plastic materials do when sitting at the dump).

Retail clothing waste

It isn’t only consumers who throw the contents of their wardrobes into the bin, though. Major retailers regularly throw out or burn unsold products. In fact, about 30% of all clothing produced is never sold.1617

To make less textile waste in the first place, Horvath says we should begin by buying less clothing. When you do opt for new outfits, do it responsibly and research brands before buying. “It’s really important for people to research the companies they’re buying from and make sure that they’re credible,” Horvath says. “A lot of companies are now greenwashing.” It’s best to prioritize companies that emphasize sustainable production and offer transparent information on their process. Here’s a place to start: The website Good On You rates brands based on their impacts on people, the planet and animals.

The impact of textile waste on global communities

Just as workers in the Global South assemble the majority of clothing worn by people in the United States, they must also deal with our clothing waste: The U.S. exported nearly 1.58 billion pounds of secondhand clothing in 2018, significantly more than other wealthy nations. These shipments largely end up in African and Asian countries, as well as in Latin America. 

Ghana, for example, receives around 15 million used garments from Global North nations in North America, Australia, and Europe each week. Around 40% of these items, which are sent to a large market in the capital of Accra, end up in the trash, burdening limited local infrastructure. And in Chile, you can find mountains of trashed clothing in the Atacama Desert; around 59,000 tons arrive in Chile each year).

How to get rid of clothes in good condition

If you’ve decided some of your garments need a new home, there are several ways to get rid of them sustainability instead of sending them straight to the landfill or incinerator. 

Donating relatively well-maintained threads can give them a new life and help families in need. In fact, about 2 out of every 5 children in America face clothing insecurity because their families can’t afford weekly expenses. But it’s important to research nonprofits and make sure your donations go where they’re intended. 


While you can find organizations that give clothing directly to people in need, many nonprofits collect donated clothing and sell it to fund charitable programs. To make sure your donations are used for good, it’s important to vet organizations by searching them on sites like Charity Navigator or Charity Watch

You can search for clothing donation opportunities in your area or look into respected national organizations such as Dress for Success (which provides work apparel to low-income women) and One Warm Coat. It’s also crucial to check which specific items a charity asks for and the condition required. 

While Salvation Army and Goodwill are popular options for clothing donations, the former has attracted controversy over alleged discrimination, while the latter has received attention over low wages and safety concerns.  


If you’re looking to sell your used clothing, you can find plenty of options both in-person and online. Dealing your duds to a local consignment store can cut down on the emissions associated with shipping, but you may be able to make more of a profit digitally because brick-and-mortar resellers often charge a fraction of the original price and take a large cut of it. Popular online consignment retailers include ThredUp, Depop, and Poshmark.


Perhaps you have a stylish friend group that’s looking to switch up their wardrobes—try hosting a clothing swap where participants bring clothing, accessories and shoes they’re looking to rehome.

Take-back programs

Some brands offer take-back programs to resell or recycle their products. You can use these to inform buying decisions and help close the production loop. Some popular brands with these programs include H&M, Levi’s, The North Face, Patagonia, and Reformation. You can find more of these programs here and here.

How to upcycle clothing at home 

To simplify the process and ensure your old threads are being reused, brainstorm ways to upcycle at home. You can, for example, dye, patch, or embroider older pieces, or even turn well-loved items into tote bags or scrunchies. Check out this article for more than 50 upcycling ideas.

What to do with linens and towels in good condition 

Before giving away linens and towels, check out some creative ideas to reuse them at home—like making a dog toy, curtains or beach blanket. You can also try to donate towels and sheets to local homeless shelters (or animal shelters if they’re looking ratty). 

How to recycle clothes in poor condition 

Recycling clothes and textiles should be a last resort. Overall, textiles can prove difficult to recycle, and less than 1% of textiles used for clothing gets turned into new garments.18 That’s because they’re often made of a blend of materials, which vary in how easily they can be recycled. While natural fibers like cotton or wool can be recycled mechanically, the process creates lower quality products and must often incorporate virgin cotton (an issue also prevalent with mixed-plastic items).

If you have loads of fabric scraps laying around, you can check whether your local recycling program accepts textiles. This also applies to any item of clothing or footwear you’re looking to recycle, since services vary in every community.

“People don’t associate [plastic pollution] with clothing quite as often as they probably should.”

Kathryn Horvath, Public Interest Research Group

Even if your garments have lost their luster, some take-back programs will still accept them. Nike donates or recycles certain well-worn items, such as athletic sneakers and athletic tops, regardless of the brand (your shoes could even become a basketball court).

As for your socks that have seen better days, GOLDTOE and Terracycle collaborate on a free sock recycling program that takes any brand (as long as they’re clean). Smartwool also collects any brand of clean socks to make new products.

What about recycling polyester clothing? 

A polyester t-shirt isn’t likely to ever become another polyester t-shirt. Most recycled clothing is made with polyester sourced from recycled plastic bottles, also known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It’s hard to reuse the polyester from garments because they also incorporate other materials like zippers and buttons, which are tricky to separate—so it’s unlikely that clothes made from plastic bottles will ever get recycled ever again. 

Some companies have found solutions, like taking pre-consumer 100% polyester waste from factories, or using chemical recycling methods to recover PET from clothes (such as wielding enzymes or hot-compressed water on fabrics).

What is the most sustainable way to dispose of old clothes?

The greenest solution may ultimately be donation or reselling rather than the more energy– and resource-intensive recycling process. No matter what, it’s best to make sure your old rags won’t end up in the dump.  “I think it’s a very complex question,” Horvath says. “Obviously, it’s better to donate clothing, or donate it to a credible recycling program—if that’s an option—versus just throwing it in your trashcan, where it’s just gonna end up in a landfill or being incinerated.”

If every consumer bought just one second-hand garment in lieu of a new one, the collective impact over a year could lower carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by more than 2 billion pounds (equivalent to taking 76 million cars off the road for a day), according to a 2023 report from the online resale market ThredUp. This would also save around 23 billion gallons of water and 4 billion kilowatt-hours of energy.19

How can I find a local textile recycling program?

If you’re looking for resources in your area, you can check with your municipality and state recycling programs or Earth911’s website.

Additional disposal and recycling tips

What do I do with old electronics?

Between 2010 and 2022, the amount of e-waste made per year jumped by 82%, reaching nearly 70 million tons, according to a recent United Nations report. When devices like old laptops, phones, and even cables get dumped into landfills or littered, heavy metals like lead and arsenic, along with flame retardants, can contaminate soil, water, and crops. Several states have gone so far as to ban sending any electronics to the dump. What are you supposed to do instead? Explore the best options for donating or recycling electronics.  

What do I do with old batteries?

Like e-waste, batteries hitting the bin can lead to serious problems. The materials that power our gadgets and gizmos can leach heavy metals into groundwater and soil after a trip to the landfill. Sometimes they can even spark water-resistant fires. The good news is that most batteries—from the single-use AAs in your remote to the rechargeable lithium power pack on your drill—can be recycled. You’ve just gotta know where to take them. Explore the best resources to know how to recycle household batteries.

What do I do with old cleaning products?

Getting rid of cleaning products can be quite messy. Some have the potential to rip through metal, burn skin, catch fire, and react violently to each other or just water and air. The key things to remember when getting rid of old cleaning supplies: read the labels carefully, never (ever) mix bleach and acid, and avoid dumping things down the drain. In many cases, household cleaners are considered hazardous waste, so if you find yourself with any excess, it’s important to understand how to dispose of cleaning products responsibly

What do I do with leftover medicine?

According to a survey run by Stericycle, nearly 40% of people say they hang on to leftover meds for future use, which means a lot of us have potentially expired scripts hiding in the back of the bathroom cabinet. Simply flushing those extra meds—as many folks do—can pose risks to people and planet. That’s why working through established take-back programs or using EPA– and DEA-recommended disposal methods is crucial. Explore what you need to know about how to safely dispose of medicine

  1. Textiles: Material-Specific Data, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  2. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2016 ↩︎
  3. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017 ↩︎
  4. Style That’s Sustainable: A New Fast-Fashion Formula, McKinsey & Company, Oct. 2016 ↩︎
  5. An Overview of the Contribution of the Textiles Sector to Climate Change, Frontiers in Environmental Science, Sep. 2022 ↩︎
  6. The Fashion Industry Can Reduce Emissions Across the Entire Value Chain, McKinsey & Company, Oct. 2020 ↩︎
  7. An Overview of the Contribution of the Textiles Sector to Climate Change, Frontiers in Environmental Science, Sep. 2022 ↩︎
  8. Fashion on Climate, McKinsey & Company, Aug. 2020 ↩︎
  9. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017 ↩︎
  10. Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Feb. 2024 ↩︎
  11. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017 ↩︎
  12. Effects of Textile Dyes on Health and the Environment and Bioremediation Potential of Living Organisms, Biotechnology Research and Innovation, Oct. 2019 ↩︎
  13. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017 ↩︎
  14. Fashion’s Tiny Hidden Secret, UN Environment Programme, Mar. 2019 ↩︎
  15. Fashion and the SDGs: What Role for the UN?, UNECE, Mar. 2018 ↩︎
  16. Fashion Merchandisers’ Slash and Burn Dilemma: A Consequence of Over Production and Excessive Waste?, Rutgers Business Review, Fal. 2018 ↩︎
  17. The Apparel Industry Overproduction Report & Infographic, ShareCloth ↩︎
  18. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017 ↩︎
  19. Resale Report, thredUP, 2023 ↩︎