Recycling Fabric: Essential Answer

Photo: Elisabethan

Q: We are a small manufacturer of sports apparel (Stanford rowers wear our garments!) and I am looking for a way to repurpose or recycle fabric scraps. Content varies... polyester/lycra, polypropylene/lycra, and already recycled poly/lycra. Thanks!

Asked by Joline Esparza, '81, Seattle, Wash.


First, thanks for keeping my wardrobe happy. I rowed for four years in high school. For the uninitiated, Joline heads up JL, which makes clothing and accessories for rowers, cyclists and all-around athletes. As a high school rower, I never missed a chance to raid the JL $5 bin at Northwest Junior Regional Championships. Now, at the end of my undergrad career, I am not ashamed to say that my closet is still full of JL shorts.

Second, great question—one that more businesses should ask. Fabric scraps probably don't feature prominently in your mental image of an overflowing landfill, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, textiles make up about 5 percent of American municipal solid waste (MSW). Recycling and reusing the roughly 4 million tons of textiles that head to landfills each year would go a long way toward reducing the industry's environmental impact. The Nitty Gritty gives more details on the process of manufacturing new textiles, but for now, let's just say that it ain't pretty. When it comes to providing a better afterlife for your fabric scraps, you have several options that range from reuse to recycling.

Secondhand clothing is one obvious and widespread example of textile reuse, but there's also a booming market for secondhand scrap material. Check out Sew Up Seattle, an arts organization that collects fabric scraps for use in their classes, or register for a consignment sale through the Seattle fabric swap community Stashaholics. Readers in or near the Big Apple should consider donating to Materials for the Arts, an organization that supplies New York City nonprofits with everything from office furniture to fabric paint. And no matter where you're located, it's always worth checking with the nearest public schools to find out if they're in need of bits and pieces for student art projects.

Of course, your business instincts might hint—correctly—that there's a way to turn those cast-off scraps into a bit of personal profit. American Apparel recently introduced a line of clothing and accessories made from fabric leftovers, and there are plenty of smaller outfits doing the same, such as Colorado-based Elisabethan, whose motto, "new, not more," pretty much sums up what can be achieved by reusing fabric scraps. A quick Internet search will give you literally thousands of sites that provide patterns and ideas for using up fabric scraps, such as those listed at TipNut.com. And I'll make a few rowing-specific suggestions of my own: What about matching headbands or scrunchies, sold in sets of five and nine (don't forget your coxswain, kids) and labeled with each seat number? Or a set of slipcovers to pop over your oar handles when you need to set them down in mud or sand on the beach? And I could give you a long list of names—mine included—of people who'd get a huge kick out of JL underwear.

When you've tapped out both your own and others' creativity, you'll probably still have a few odd pieces that just don't fit the bill for artistic reuse. That's where industrial textile recyclers come in. As described in this Kansas State University study, these businesses use mechanical processes to break down discarded textile products for reuse as upholstery, carpeting, sound absorption material or insulation. Some of the cast-offs are reduced back to yarn and fiber, which can then be woven into clothing-grade fabric (recycled polyester is an example of this). Retex Northwest collects recyclable textiles from Seattle-area residents, and Trans Americas Trading Company runs a similar operation in Clifton, New Jersey. For other locations, try searching for "fabric" on Earth911. Chances are there's a recycler accepting drop-offs in your area.

With a multitude of options for both reuse and recycling, you should have no trouble keeping your fabric scraps out of the landfill. But why stop there? Read up on Apparel magazine's 2010 Sustainability All Stars for more ideas on greening your clothing business, from environmentally friendly packaging to distribution strategies that reduce fuel use. I'll look forward to seeing JL's name on the list next year . . . almost as much as I'm looking forward to seeing JL underwear on the shelves.


Kate Johnson, '10, plans to receive her master's degree in Earth Systems in 2011.