Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Your Old Clothes Can Come Full Circle With Textile Recycling

Clothes rack. Sign in middle. Left pointing arrow says Donate with clothes hanging. Right facing arrow says "keep" pointing to other clothes.
Credit: ©Black Salmon/Shutterstock

I am an avid secondhand shopper. Clothes, shoes, furniture, household items, sporting equipment, you name it, I always check the secondhand market first. Beyond that, I am continuously donating outgrown clothing and any other unneeded and forgotten items lying around our house. However, despite my reputation of being an avid “Goodwill-er,” I recently learned that I’ve been doing it all wrong. 

I always assumed that I should only donate clothes, shoes and other textile products such as linens and towels that were clean, not ripped or torn, and had plenty of life left — that is, items that still had market value. But when working on a NIST report, Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles, I learned that, in fact, all unwanted textile products should be donated or recycled no matter their condition. Even if they’re no longer marketable for their designed purpose, there are many routes in place that can extend the life of those products. While thrift stores generally prefer “gently used” products, most will recycle textiles not sellable in their stores. The best approach is to donate items you consider resellable to those charities and take your worn underwear and ratty T-shirts to textile recycling programs such as municipally run drop-off bins and local transfer stations. SMART is a textile recycling trade group that can help you find recycling resources in your area. 

Other key takeaways from the workshop: 

  • Rubber-band shoes together when you donate them, so they stay together! There is no resale value in one shoe, and donation centers don’t necessarily have the capacity to search for missing partners. 
  • Similarly, bag or band together infant and children clothing sets, such as pajamas.
  • Keep in mind that pure-fiber textiles, such as 100% cotton or wool, are recyclable, while blended textiles currently are not.
  • New synthetic (e.g., polyester) clothing is a significant source of microplastics in the environment. But roughly 90% of those microplastics are lost in the first three launderings. Buying these items secondhand can help reduce the problem. 
Tips to Improve Your Clothing (and Other Textiles) Donations
Tips to Improve Your Clothing (and Other Textiles) Donations
Did you know that all textiles can be recycled... even ones that aren't in great shape? Learn some tips to ensure that your donations of clothing and other textiles are put to their best use. Find out more at

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans generate more than 15 million metric tons of textile waste annually, which is about 47 kilograms (104 pounds) per person per year. Only 15% of that is collected for resale or recycling. The remaining 85% is directly discarded in landfills or incinerated. This suggests that most people throw away unwanted textiles, regardless of condition. That said, only about 20% of textiles donated to charities and thrift stores are resold domestically, as these entities receive far too many donations to sell. The remainder is sent to sorters and graders who evaluate the textiles based on quality and sell to various end markets. This material is then exported for resale overseas, cut and packaged as wiping materials, turned into shoddy (shredded fibers used for stuffing and insulation), or recycled back into fibers. An unknown quantity of textiles are exported without being sorted or graded. The major importing countries are in Africa, Asia and Central America, and there is a lot of discussion and differing opinion around the benefits and detriments of exporting used textiles.

Flow chart showing clothes going from generator to 85% into landfill/incinerator and 15% to donation/collection.
This flowchart shows the fates of used textiles in the United States today. Question marks indicate flows for which reliable data are unavailable. "Shoddy" is a material made from shredded fibers and used for insulation and stuffing. Based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Resource Recycling Systems. From NIST Special Publication 1500-207: Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles.
Credit: N. Hanacek/NIST

The staggeringly low collection rate is the result of the current linear economic model, which is based on a “take, make, use, discard” approach to resources. This model is not unique to textiles but is the case for nearly all materials and products of the modern world. In NIST’s Circular Economy program, we are working to facilitate a more circular economy aimed at extending the life of products through reuse and repair and keeping end-of-life materials in the economy through recycling as opposed to discarding in landfills and incinerators, where the material and economic value is lost. To date, our attention has been on plastics, high-tech products (electronics, batteries, solar panels) and, more recently, textiles. 

The workshop identified several key overarching needs, including collaboration, system harmonization, and data and information sharing.  Transitioning to a circular economy requires nontraditional collaboration across industries and throughout the value chain. There is also a significant need to harmonize the system, with agreement needed on common language, definitions, classifications, industry tools and standards. Further, data and information gaps currently inhibit many efforts to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, design effective policy, and educate consumers about textile reuse and recycling.

NIST has the unique capability to serve as a convener of stakeholders across government, industry, nonprofit and academic institutions, all of which are needed to decide on common goals, language, metrics and tools necessary for the transition to a circular economy. NIST could also support the development of a unified system of publicly available databases, repositories and registries for collecting and managing the data needed for a circular economy. NIST also has exceptional capabilities in the areas of standards, laboratory research, economic assessment and manufacturing partnerships, all of which will be needed to grow a more circular economy.

I joined the Circular Economy program at NIST as a contractor in 2020 to help develop the program and identify NIST’s role in facilitating a circular economy in the United States. My interdisciplinary background in engineering and policy prepared me well for this position. It gave me an understanding of both the technical aspects of materials and recycling and a broad perspective of the systems, policies and management practices of various waste streams. I never expected to join NIST. Rather I envisioned myself in the state or EPA policy realm. But I was thrilled when this opportunity arose. Throughout my academic and professional career, I’ve been determined to focus on pressing problems and work for organizations where I can have an impact. In this role, I have learned so much, am constantly challenged, have met wonderful people across NIST and beyond, and truly feel our work is helping to address today’s most pressing challenges. 

Video: What Is the Circular Economy?

What is the Circular Economy?
What is the Circular Economy?
How do we go from a throwaway economy to one where we minimize waste, prevent greenhouse gas emissions, and keep resources in the economy for as long as possible? With a circular economy. Learn more in this animation. For more information go to:

About the author

Kelsea Schumacher

Kelsea Schumacher has a Ph.D. in energy and environmental policy from the University of Delaware, and a B.S. and M.S. in environmental and civil engineering, respectively, from Oregon State University. She joined NIST as a contractor in 2020 to help develop the Circular Economy program and identify NIST’s role in facilitating the transition to a circular economy in the United States. Kelsea’s research is generally focused on sustainable production and consumption and has spanned various materials and products including concrete, electronics, batteries, solar panels, plastics, textiles and organics (food waste). In her free time, she enjoys traveling, camping and hiking with her family.

Related posts


As someone who also loves secondhand shopping, this was a super helpful read! I hope it encourages others to shop and recycle responsibly, too. I wonder if there's any chance of a collection point popping up at NIST, but good to know where to go if not. Thanks!

Would like info re: where to donate used fabric in Queens NY. Thanks

Wow I am always kind of upset that when they ask for donations it has to be many when we do have so many clothes but that I'd never want the clothes he's wanting money that's good to know thanks for the info I've got a garage load of good clothes I'll be looking for information on your post to see if there's something in our area I have men's children's everything shoes brand new shoes thank you

A major drawback to this outstanding program; Goodwill is an easy 10 minutes from my house. Where on earth is one of these recycling centers? I am 74..this wonderful idea appears to be way beyond my reach.

I understand your frustration! Textiles collection is a real challenge. If the products still have useful life then by all means take them to Goodwill! But it's best to take other, non-sellable items to a recycling center. Contact your local waste management agency as they may host special collection events in your area.

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Please be respectful when posting comments. We will post all comments without editing as long as they are appropriate for a public, family friendly website, are on topic and do not contain profanity, personal attacks, misleading or false information/accusations or promote specific commercial products, services or organizations. Comments that violate our comment policy or include links to non-government organizations/web pages will not be posted.