Skip navigation
Share via:


We love our apparel, but when the time comes and our love has faded, let’s not forget that there is remaining value in these items.



Ask just about anyone what they would do with a piece of apparel that has either sustained un-repairable damage or has been worn to shreds and you’ll likely get the all too familiar response that they’d throw it in the trash. This is, of course, far from ideal.

Value is instilled within a fabric or textile product as it is manufactured. However, only part of this value gets utilized by the consumer. The rest is lost, exacerbating the overall industry and energy inefficiencies, contributing to unnecessary waste, and perpetuating an archaic “throw-away” mentality. But fortunately there exists a solution to enable the full value of a fabric or textile to be extracted while simultaneously driving a cultural revolution in society’s understanding of what is possible with apparel that has reached its expiration date.

A missing component is the guidance, education, and understanding by consumers and manufacturers of fabric and textile products that, as with plastics, metals, and paper products, it is no longer acceptable to just throw these items in the trash when we are done with them. Getting this message out requires a multifaceted approach, but one key item is essential in the success of seeing that the energy, material, and the full value of a product gets utilized. In fact, this item is already well established as an icon of humanity’s efforts change the way we think and feel about the products we use in our everyday lives. The triangular recycling symbol.

Fabrics and textiles can and must be seen as recyclable and having a second life but largely lack the clear and concise indication that it is possible. A simple tag that has the familiar recycling symbol on it can do for fabric and textile products what it has done for plastic bottles. Couple this with the support from the fabric and textile industry and utilize the existing single stream recycling infrastructure and we can not only divert massive amounts of items away from landfills but also reuse them in new products

What actions do you propose?

Key to the campaign to divert fabrics and textile products away from landfills and enable their remaining value to be repurposed resides in getting attention to the topic and in the wide commercialization of second-life products. The problems and quick win solution proposed here needs to be highlighted. This is where the alumni can take action and increase opportunities. Proposals to local, state, and federal levels of legislation to expand their current recycling program to include fabrics and textiles can be undertaken. Authoring literature describing the need and benefits of recycling fabrics and textiles to media and publications can be completed. Alumni can also put forward suggestions or recommendations to implement fabric recycling programs at their work places. Alumni with connections to individuals in the industries can convey the mutual benefits to all parties involved as a way to get the message inside the companies of interest. Additionally, alumni can further the positives by completing further research into the financial benefits of the recycling (for cites/towns and companies), additional uses of recycled fabrics and textiles (second-life products), and how to improve the recycling process to result in less impact on climate change.

In addition to bringing awareness to the topic of fabric and textile recycling, alumni may take a more direct approach by interfacing and engaging with the manufacturing, retail, and consumer industries. One approach would be to start a fabric and textile recycling company that collects, processes, and makes second-life products from discarded or unwanted fabric and textiles. To facilitate the increase in demand for recycled items, both recycling companies and academic institutions can conduct research into new and novel consumer products that would be made from the recycled materials. Further, to aid in the collection and to incentivize consumers to participate in the recycling and second-life program alumni can approach both manufactures and retailers with a “take back” program that rewards consumers with some discount or credit for unwanted fabrics or textiles that they can then apply towards future purchases. This would clearly benefit in the collection of items through the utilization of the existing retail infrastructure. Also, the significant imperative of driving consumer acknowledgement and understanding in the recycling of items can be facilitated during the interfacing with fabric and textile manufactures. Alumni would be able to convey the importance of having the recycling triangle (a highly recognized symbol) visible to the consumers on either a label, tag, or another equivalent.

An additional action alumni can take would be to start a consulting company that works with government or municipality bodies to either implement or expand a single-stream recycling program to include fabrics and textiles. The company would demonstrate to the city/town officials the landfill costs savings and the possible revenues generated from selling collected recycled materials to a recycler. The addition of specifically located and targeted cities/towns to the recyclable materials supply market should play favorably into the logistics of a cross-country effort.

MIT is a world-renown entity and the work associated with them will get society’s attention. Therefore, it is paramount that MIT alumni come together and utilize a common message on how advantageous it is to extract all remaining value from our fabrics and textiles.

As previously indicated, there are a manifold opportunities to champion, initiate, and progress the recycling of fabrics and textiles. Key to their success is voicing the value of such a recycling program. Of course the “value” will take many forms and some examples are as follows.

In the arena of landfill:

Less items going to landfills results in less energy expenditure to get them there. This will impact the total costs required to process a city/town’s waste generation.

For the recycling industry:

Although fabric and textile recycling already exists to some degree, the increased material availability will permit new facilities to open, products made from recycled materials to be produced in higher quantities (ideally driving down prices to consumers), and strengthen or grow the existing recycling infrastructure. To ideally lessen the adoption resistance by all entities involved, capitalizing on the existing single-stream recycling system is a fundamental aspect of this proposal.

For the fabric and textile industry:

Ever more pressure is being placed on industries and companies to be mindful of how their products are produced, utilized, and meet their end-of-life. Promoting that their products have the ability and capability to have a positive impact after their design-intended useful life is reached would allow producers to demonstrate their care and consideration for how their products impact the world. This lends to their image as a company and can be used to market their goods. Manufactures would additionally benefit from repeat customers participation in a “take-back” program. However, as with the items most frequently recycled now, there needs to be some on-the-product indication that the product can be recycled and possibly information how it can be recycled (possibly a link to a company or MIT website that lists places where fabrics and textiles can be recycled). The proposal put forward here suggests using the easily recognized and understood recycling triangle to drive commonality and adoption.

Who will take these actions?

Manufactures and retailers of textiles and fabrics should implement a “take back” program to incentivize consumers to participate in the recycling program.

Government, city, or town officials should initially adopt the implementation into any existing recycling program, while ensuring that they are educating their constituents on the advantages and outlining how everyone can play a role in the recycling.

Businesses that have an existing recycling program can likewise implement an extension to accept fabrics and textile materials.

State and federal government agencies can promote the effort and adoption while stating the benefits to society.

All individuals who are consumers of recyclable fabric and textile goods would now choose to place their unwanted/unneeded items in a recycling bin and not a waste bin.

Where will these actions be taken?

The repurposing of used fabrics and textiles can be undertaken wherever any existing recycling program is in place. This will capitalize on the success of the single stream system already existing. Further locations can follow suite as recycling programs continue to be established in new areas.

Take back programs could be situated at retailer locations as needed to maximize the participation and collection of no longer needed fabrics and textiles.

What are other key benefits?

Consumers will feel empowered that they are contributing to the reduction in landfill waste, playing a part in the development of recycled products, and helping reinforce a less wasteful society. Consumers will also benefit from programs where their unwanted items can be utilized for a discount/credit towards a future purchase from a participating manufacture or retailer

Recycling facilities get to make use of their infrastructure already in place and get another set of products or materials to sell.

Cities/towns/municipalities can reduce their total landfill volume and reinvest any savings back into the recycling program to expand or improve it.

The environment will experience less influx of unnecessary waste and benefit from utilizing the value still in fabrics and textiles to make new products through less demand for raw goods.

What are the proposal’s costs?

Manufactures will incur costs from the inclusion of a recycling triangle on their products tag or label, with costs being tied to product lines and quantities. Additional marketing costs will be realized for any additional communications of a “take back” program or other recycling program. Product margins will be impacted if a discount or credit is applied for a recycled item but could be off-set by increases in repeat customer sales or market share. Specific costs estimates will vary from manufacture to manufacture.

New recycling collection, processing, and second-life companies will require start-up capital to enable each of the value-stream steps to be established. Specific costs estimates will vary based on numerous factors and intended scopes.

Potential negative side effects could manifest in the contamination of the recycling stream of unwanted items either associated with or apart of fabrics and textiles.

Time line

Short term actions (5-15 years):

  • Implement recycling program with manufactures and retailers as seen fit
  • Put recycling triangle on recyclable products
  • Start second-life product companies
  • Conduct further research on second-life recycled products (both manufactures and academic institutions)
  • Advocate government bodies to implement fabric and textiles into single-stream recycling programs
  • Optimize recycling logistics to reduce costs and burden to recycling companies


Medium term actions (15-50) years:

  • Expand recycling program to full manufacturer product line
  • Optimize second-life product manufacturing to lower costs
  • Conduct further research on second-life recycled products (both manufactures and academic institutions)
  • Expand single-stream recycling programs to new regions


Long term actions (50-100 years):

  • Extend single-stream recycling programs globally
  • Ensure all new fabric and textile products are manufactured to be recyclable

Related proposals