Thinking about Textile Waste and Recycling

When IKEA opened up here in Halifax in September 2017, there were a ton of things that I was excited about: Getting the perfect rug for our living room, storage systems for my kids’ mess, and beautifully designed fabric. But so far, the most vital purchase for my studio has been PLUGGIS waste sorting bins. The top bin is for paper recycling, the second tier is for garbage, and the bottom is for textile recycling.

As I have ramped up my textile work in the last two years, I have had a few bags of unusable fabric scraps end up at the curbside. As this Huffington Post article states, our textile waste ends up in landfills and release a ton of greenhouse gas emissions. So I’m trying to keep my textile products and off-cuts in use for as long as possible. This includes clothing. What does this mean for my work and the way I think about textiles?

1) Being conscious of how much and what textile products get purchased.

Baby and kids clothing. The lowest hanging fruit is baby/kids’ clothing. They are used only for a few short months before they’re outgrown. And it’s easy to pass them to a friend. I happen to be a part of a church community where a baby is born it seems almost every week (that’s an exaggeration, but there are a lot of babies!). Clothing is easily given from one family and happily accepted into another, even if you don’t know them very well. The clothes I had for my Kid #1 got used by my Kid #2, and now has been passed on two subsequent families and is currently on a fifth child. This whole cycle has happened in 6 years. There is a low need to buy new.

Adult clothing. For myself, I have slowed down my clothing purchases in the last few years. I realized that many of the articles of clothing that I bought ten years ago are of good quality and I still really like them.  And thankfully, they still fit. When I’m buying clothes, I think about how long it is going to serve me in terms of style and durability. That likely means a higher price point, but if I’m buying less in quantity, I’m OK with that. I have not yet endeavoured into garment making, but it’s really appealing. If I’ve invested time, effort and fabric into making something for me to wear, I am certainly going to keep it for longer.

Fabric. I was raised frugal and it’s embedded my psyche. When I started quilting seriously two years ago, it was natural for me to only purchase fabric that I knew was going to get used in a project. Buying fabric that had no intended purpose was not something that I tended to do. I only really knew about Kona solids to start but now, my eyes have been opened! I have seen a lot of fabric that I really love (hello, Rifle Paper Co.!). But… if there is no specific purpose for it, I try really hard not to buy it. Last year, I built up my solids stash but I’ve now got a full spectrum and I’m going to try and only work from those.

2) Fabric scrap management.

I need to start sorting through mine and consciously use them. There are a ton of great scrappy quilting projects out there. And some very good posts on how to organize, manage and use up scraps. Amanda Jean Nyberg of Crazy Mom Quilts is the queen of scrap organization and projects; you can find some of her organization methods over on her blog and her book, No Scrap Left Behind. Bonnie Hunter also has a scrap management system that I’m going to look into. I think I will try to start organizing by 1.5″ and 2.5″ squares and strips. These will make good leaders and ender project.

3) Finding a place to recycle textiles.

And what about the unusable little bits? Odd shapes, strips that are less than 3/4″ wide? My province happens to have a decent textile recycling system. There are donation bins at many grocery stores where you can drop of used clothing and textiles of all sorts. As long as they are not contaminated with grease or hazardous chemicals, they can be reused or recycled. They are collected by a group of charity organizations and are sorted and sold, profits going to those charities. So where do they go?

Clothes are sorted and resold here in Nova Scotia or sold to companies for affordable resale overseas (I feel a bit weird about this, but that is another topic). Unusable clothing is sold in bulk and cut into rags and wiping clothes for various industries. Bits that are smaller than that are processed back into fibers and turned into paper, yarn, insulation (my favourite reuse!), and carpet padding.

I have yet to verify if this is in fact what happens to them, but I am definitely encouraged that this is available in my area. Here is an American resource on the same topic.

Do you have tips on scrap management? Is there a textile recycling program in your area?

19 thoughts on “Thinking about Textile Waste and Recycling

  1. Kim says:

    This was a very thoughtful post, Andrea. I understand and can relate to the concern over creating additional waste through our quilt-making. I am going to look into the possibility of textile recycling in my area. I know that some guilds collect smaller scraps to use to stuff dog-beds and other projects, so perhaps that is a possible use for your smaller pieces. Good luck and please keep us updated as your knowledge on the topic grows!

    • andrea says:

      I’ve heard of making dog beds, too! I will be keeping an eye out for more ways to recycle textiles and keep you posted.

  2. Julie says:

    In our guild we use these teeny-tiny bits to stuff dog / cat beds for the local humane society. Super easy — just sew a square, fill, then sew through to make some squares to keep it from shifting to one end. They love them. Easily washable!

  3. Brooke says:

    This is good to think about. I try to let my children use my off cuts for crafts, but even those will end up in a landfill some day. 🙁 Very good to keep in mind.

    • andrea says:

      Hi Brooke! My son’s preschool teacher has claimed some, too, for cutting practice. Crafts extend the textile’s life – even doing that for a little while makes a difference!

  4. Lisa says:

    As far as I know in my province of Ontario we don’t recycle the fabric scraps and mine end up in the garbage and in land fill. It’s something to think about for sure. This is a great article. At the moment I am trying to use up my stash that I have accumulated over the years in charity projects…but I hear what you are saying about intended purpose. I’m not much of a planner but perhaps that can change.

  5. Dolores Magargee says:

    I have a friend who is a Saori weaver, this is a freestyle kind of weaving. I save my smallest pieces of fabric for her, the narrow pieces from squaring up a block and anything narrower than one inch. I even pass on the tangled threads that twist together on the cut edges of yardage when I prewash my quilting fabrics, they add texture to her work. She is always happy to receive a batch and I am happy to know that nothing was wasted.

  6. Sandee Nisenfeld says:

    I use my scraps to make pet beds for animals in a local shelter or animal hospital. Since I prewash my quilting fabric, I save all scraps into an old pillowcase. When it feels deep and soft enough to be comfortable for a pet bed, I sew up the top and donate it

  7. Gayle Shumaker says:

    I live in a rural area where there is no fiber recycling. I checked with out county animal control department. They try very hard to find homes for the animals who end up there. Because animals are kept longer they need beds. I took this info to the artisan’s guild I belong to and they responded enthusiastically. We have now made and donated over a 100 pet beds made with scrap fabric and stuffed with unusable pieces of fabric and batting.

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