Why Recycling Might Not Always Be the Best Option



Throwing away the clothes is never a sustainable approach - there we find ourselves thinking that recycling will be the best. However, there might be a better way: To donate rather than recycle comes up as a responsible option.


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On our journey towards a sustainable future, we often face some practices that we think applying these will take us to a more sustainable lifestyle. Especially in fashion consumerism, there are several examples of those misinforming green facts. There, the option of recycling our clothes comes up as one of those controversies. We often think recycling our worn-out garments is a better choice for the planet instead of the alternative ones, and yes, it is definitely less harmful than throwing those pieces away! However, still, we have to acknowledge the pros and cons of our actions to see if the things we adopt might lead to problematic processes. Recycling clothes might not be as unproblematic as you imagine, but there we run across another option – donating our clothes.



Though circularity is placed into the core of sustainable fashion, still, some processes of applying it can cause new problems. It is better to analyze the whole journey of a clothing piece, directly its life cycle: Consumers buy pieces because they liked them or found practical to wear, and unfortunately, fast fashion’s overconsumption effect on people often makes them get rid of these pieces before they run out of their lifetime – because for the fast fashion, it is enough to throw away a garment when it is out of so-called ‘style’. Being on the beat with the trends is always an attractive state for a person who enjoys fashion, however, there are various chances to do them with a more protective approach towards our planet. 


Because it is out of fashion, because it is damaged or not really fitting your body anymore; once you decide to recycle your garment and you think it is eco-friendly, here is the process that will happen: Most garments in the industry are now complex. They include different materials such as zippers or buttons and it requires labor to remove these materials from the clothing to recycle them properly. It is also an option to remove them by the consumers themselves, however, there comes a second problem. Considering the contemporary fashion trends that are formulated around the year 2000s, the colorful maximalist pieces that you get are generally a product of dyeing, and dyeing often requires chemicals to use. Degrading these pieces to the environment can let the toxic ingredients blend into the earth, while ‘recycling’ them comes up with the harmful process of bleaching which also requires chemicals to dye them again. So, recycling can result in the double, or triple use of chemicals. Considering a scenario where the consequences of zippers or buttons and dyeing/bleaching processes are somehow tolerated in the most sustainable way; still, garments in the industry are generally a blend of different materials. As the predominant recycling material, PET bottles for polyester production are a one-shot thing that cannot be recycled again, acknowledging that micro-plastics are spreading to any sphere even during laundry, and recycling them contributes to plastic pollution. On the other hand, the situation with cotton might come up problematic either: Most recycled cotton-made pieces require a blend of virgin cotton to maintain quality, therefore the production of cotton with huge amounts of water use becomes a case when recycling.


In addition, there are several problematic impacts after them, too. For most of the global brands, there is still a huge lack of accountability when it comes to recycling. Looking back to the investigation of H&M by Aftonbladet, it is observed that though promised to recycle, three of the garments are shipped to third-world countries. Big companies tend to do greenwash in various ways: They produce a ‘recycled’ collection when the rest of their production is based on unsustainable garments. They use false green claims on their labels, such as ‘made by recycled fibers’ though they include a very little percentage of them. They promote themselves as sustainable when they produce garments from the excess fabrics they have – but in the end, it proves they overproduce. Therefore, there is no promise of having your recycled garments reach the landfill. Even if it does, Collecton4Clothes states that carbon dioxide and methane are released by the garments that are decomposed in landfills. When natural fabrics cause these greenhouse gases to emit, synthetic fabrics like polyester are not biodegradable and they stay for centuries.



The overall problem of the fashion industry, then, is not limited to problematic practices of recycling but producing more than needed. Options to keep our relations with clothes appear various. Firstly, brands are responsible for creating garments that have longer lifetimes. Through that, consumers will find themselves buying less and investing in high-quality garments. Secondly, repairing and redesigning the pieces come up as a solution. Today, a high variety of brands offer their own repairing service when there are several redesigning workshops, services, and ateliers for clothing pieces also exist. Redesigning practices are not only good for the environment, but they also give our pieces a second life by interpreting a creative approach. Through redesigning, you can support local artists or explore your own creativity through workshops.

There comes the pretty popular option of second-hand shopping. Buying second-hand is always a good idea: For instance, what could be better than following the Y2K trends with pieces that are actually produced in the 2000s? Throughout the years, breaking free from the prejudice towards second-hand shopping and having it on a path to popularity in our culture contributes to the earth even more than we can imagine. But one more solution is possible, which is often undermined by the majority: Donating them. Donating pieces that are not damaged or unhygienic always appears as a good way to approach our clothes. With donations, no use of machines or labor is needed – the process itself channels the circularity then. It is not only better for the planet to give a second life to our pieces, but it also supports social equality. Just like sharing assets, sharing our pieces can act double-headedly by protecting our environment and strengthening our social interdependency.

An overall result shows that we have to be quite more focused when it is time to throw our clothes away. Firstly, reconsidering the act of throwing away is the key point – but even if it is still the case, our eco-conscious approach can have better options than recycling. Remembering the dyes and chemicals used in recycling, we have to ask ourselves: Why not repair, redesign, or at best, donate our garments instead of recycling – and especially if it will be a one-shot thing just like PET-recycled polyesters?


Highlight Image: © Annie Spratt via Unsplash


Tolga Rahmalaroglu

Luxiders Magazine