Frequently Asked Questions

Clothing and household textiles currently make up 6.3 % of the waste stream or the equivalent of 81 pounds per person thrown away annually in the US. Nearly 95% of used clothing and textiles can be reused and recycled. You can help reduce the amount of clothing and textile products going into landfills by reusing or recycling these materials.

The used clothing industry provides lower income people around the world with affordable clothing. Clothing that is damaged, is recycled into wiping rags or ground up into fiber to create new products like, paper, yarn, insulation and carpet padding.

  • Reduces the need to create more landfill space.
  • Reduces pollution created by incinerators.
  • Provides low cost clothing to low income households all over the world.
  • Recycling textiles saves the environment from tons of harsh chemicals, waste products and waste water used in the manufacturing of clothing as well.

Any clothing, household textile or commercial linen textile as long as it is DRY and has NO ODOR can be reused and recycled. Even if the item is stained, torn, overly worn or out-of-date, do not throw it away; it has a use in the clothing recycling industry. Only items that are wet (mildewed) or have been used with a solvent-type liquid (gasoline, Goof Off, etc.) cannot be recycled.

Click here for a list of types of textiles that can be recycled.

Nearly 100% of all used clothing and household textiles can be re-used or recycled: 45% are re-used as apparel; 30% are converted into industrial polishing/wiping cloths and 20% are processed into fiber to be manufactured into new products. 95% of all used clothing is recyclable, only 5% is unusable due to mildew or other contamination.

Companies in the textile reuse and recycling industry consist of collectors, processors and distributors of all types of used clothing, textiles and secondary materials.

Collectors are companies that collect used clothing and other household textiles from the public. In addition, recycled textile collectors gather materials from industrial laundries, healthcare institutions, hotels, and other businesses that utilize large amounts of textile products. Another source of textile products that is directed into the recycling stream by "collector" companies is textile waste from clothing manufacturers.

Collectors bale and sell these clothing products "as is" to clothing graders or other dealers. Used clothing "graders" sort the items assign a "grade" and re-sell the graded product. The activities of collectors, graders, and used clothing brokers are instrumental in diverting solid waste from landfills.

Processors sort, grade and reprocess used clothing and household textiles during the recycling process. At the facilities where the collected clothing and textiles are sorted, the items are then made into large bales to be re-sold. The newly created bales of used clothing may be re-sold within the United States, although most often the products are shipped overseas to developing markets in Asia, Africa, Europe, or Central and South America.

Textile processors also collect items from industrial laundries that are deemed to be unfit to be used by the laundry's clients. These items are sorted and bleached to make them more absorbent before they are cut into wiping cloths.

Some companies re-process used clothing back into their original fiber. These companies create blends of fiber that are sold in bales to companies that re-manufacture the fiber content into new products. These products include: home insulation (made from the denim of reprocessed blue jeans), stuffing for furniture, athletic equipment, pet bedding, automotive soundproofing, and carpet padding among many other new products.

Distributors take the used clothing or textiles that are cut or converted into wiping products and then sold to industrial, manufacturing, retail, and other end-use clients. Broker companies fall within the distributor category as well.  These businesses facilitate the transactions between collector companies, grader companies and buyers. Materials that are brokered within the used clothing industry include institutional mixed used clothing, clothing gathered by collector companies and materials that have been sorted by grader companies. The clients of brokers are often foreign businesses located in Africa, Asia, Europe, or South America. On occasion, brokers also facilitate transactions among companies within the United States, depending on the needs of their client companies.

  • Look for clothing collection boxes in your neighborhood.  SMART members must follow the SMART Collection Bin Code of Conduct
  • Check with your favorite local charity or thrift store about collection locations to see where you can drop-off your textiles. The local Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul, Savers or other Thrift Stores will recycle any textile that is not sellable in their stores.
  • Ask your town or city if they have a textile recycling program.
  • Call or visit the website of your local transfer station or town landfill or dump to see if they have collection boxes.
  • Check your mail for charities that offer curb side pick-up of clothing and textiles.

SMART members can assist with large quantities of textiles materials such as misprinted t-shirts, linen from hospitals, prisons, hotels, etc.

If you have large quantities and are looking for a textile recycling partner, contact SMART at 301-953-8200 for more information on how to recycle these items.

Yes! Worldwide, there is a big push for companies to promote "green" products. Many people are surprised to learn that reclaimed wipers are actually better for the environment than laundered shop towels because they decrease our global carbon footprint.

SMART encourages local jurisdictions that are seeking to expand their "green" sustainable programs to require the use of new or reclaimed wipers within their facilities. Local jurisdictions which operate clothing and textile recycling programs can "close the loop" by incorporating new or reclaimed wipers into their purchasing practices.

Many SMART members also handle rag-like disposable wipers, which are mostly converted product from pre-consumer waste from U.S- based non-woven textile mills that have strict requirements for the materials they manufacture. While these materials are often restricted with regard to application and usage, they offer a better alternative with regard to size, performance, i.e. highly absorbent, strong, low lint, and often offer a cost savings as compared to rental shop towels.

A few facts:

  • 17 gallons of water and 66 BTUs of energy are used to create one cotton shop towel where no water or energy is used when creating a reclaimed wiper (recycled rag).
  • Contaminants found in laundry waste water for cotton shop towels contain lead, toluene, xylene, zinc and other heavy metals. The EPA estimates that five million pounds of untreated contaminants per year flow into our waterways from laundered shop towels.
  • Most recycled wiper products are manufactured from recycled textiles that have been diverted from landfills.
  • Cotton, used to make shop towels, is the most pesticide-dependent crop in the world. In fact, most cotton shop towels are manufactured outside of North America from virgin cotton fibers.
  • When manufacturing cotton towels, dyeing requires a hefty amount of water and its fixatives often flow into rivers and sewers. Using recycled textiles promotes clean water and conservation.
  • EPA-commissioned data indicates that laundering industrial shop towels results in 10 million pounds of hazardous contaminants being discharged to our nation's waterways each year with many contaminants ending up in public sources of drinking water. [i] Specific examples of contaminants include: 1) metals such as cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, zinc, magnesium, and titanium; and 2) chemicals such as butanone, naphthalene, tetrachloroethene, toluene, and xylene. [ii]
  • According to the EPA's Office of Research and Development and Lockheed Martin Environmental Systems and Technologies, the laundering process sends more solid waste to landfills than disposable wipes.
  • As the Gradient Corporation noted in a 2003 peer-reviewed paper, laundered shop towels contain a variety of heavy metals that may be accidentally ingested in amounts exceeding California Environmental Protection Agency's (CalEPA) Proposition 65 limits for lead, and CalEPA Prop 65 limits, U.S. EPA toxicity criteria and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry toxicity criteria for antimony, cadmium and lead. [iii]
  1. Technical Development Document for Proposed Pretreatment Standards for Existing and New Sources for the Industrial Laundries Point Source Category, EPA Document Number 821-R-97-007, November 1997, Chapter 11, "Pollutant Loading and Removal Estimates."
  2. EPA Document Number 821-R-97-007, November 1997, Chapter 11, "Pollutant Loading and Removal Estimates."
  3. "Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels," Winter 2003.
  • According to peer-reviewed, independent study, laundered cotton shop towels routinely contain dangerous levels of lead, cadmium, and antimony that exceed government toxicity limits and these contaminants may be ingested by workers or anyone else who handles them. [iv]
  • Testimony from respected lawmakers and other groups have documented countless, repeated and flagrant health/environmental and safety violations involving industrial shop towel laundering operations.[v] The administrative record details hundreds of wastewater discharge violations, employee illnesses due to repeated exposures to known carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals, and numerous and accounts of dangerous working conditions, including citations for workplace explosions and fires resulting in injuries and deaths.
  • Disposable wipers, meanwhile, have been shown to contain no residual solvents or foreign objects.
  1. "Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels," Winter 2003.
  2. "Testimony of Hon. Rosa DeLauro, Sierra Club and UNITE during March 9, 2004 Public Hearing," Proposed Conditional Exclusions from Hazardous and Solid Waste for Solvent Contaminated Industrial Wipes.