Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Upcyling, Downcycling, Recycling

Mar 14, 2016 by Julia L F Goldstein

When I replaced the cushions on my glider (see previous post), I dropped off the old cushions at the upholstery shop for a few days. When I came to pick up the new cushions I wondered what the shop did with the old ones. The answer was just as I feared. They threw them away, along with all the miscellaneous torn, stained, and faded fabrics their customers bring in for replacement. Wouldn't it be better to recycle them? Of course, but that takes time and money. The shop owner would be happy to separate recyclable materials into a specific bin if someone would come by and pick it up. That's the story behind a lot of do-good actions. Make it easy, and preferably free, and people will do it.

I have fond memories of my first foray into recycling. When I was in elementary school, seamless aluminum cans were newly recyclable, and recycling paid 17 cents per pound.  My school started an annual contest to see which classroom could bring in the largest number of cans. Although my 5th/6th grade class was small, we won both years because of our teacher Mr. Riley's unique strategy. He took us on a field trip to the beach to collect cans.  All 18 of us loaded into his VW Bus - this was in the days before seatbelt laws - and, armed with giant trash bags, gathered hundreds of discarded cans to bring back to school.

Today many cities encourage curbside recycling by tying cost of service to the size of trash bin the customer orders. They provide large recycling bins (and sometimes bins for yard waste and compost) for no extra fee. Consumers can feel good about reducing trash while lowering their monthly bill, and communities can recycle paper, plastic and yard trimmings to make new products. This type of service has been in place for long enough that an entire generation has grown up assuming that recycling is an everyday activity.

Textile recycling  is newer. According to a King County (WA) study, 95% of textiles that consumers discard could actually be reused. Its Threadcycle program gives consumers a way to do that, but not with curbside recycling. They can drop it off at thrift stores or in specific drop boxes.

Many people donate old clothing to Goodwill or various thrift shops, but the assumption has been that such agencies only want clothing that they can actually resell in their shops. For people who buy a new wardrobe every year, this isn’t a concern. They may even be able to resell last year’s fashions in high-end consignment shops. But for the rest of us, who keep our clothing until its embarrassingly faded, damaged, or out of style, we may feel a bit guilty donating some of it and decide to throw it in the trash instead.

The new message is to donate everything you don’t want – even clothing that is stained, torn, or missing its mate (socks, gloves). Backpacks, household fabrics and fabric scraps are useable, too. The only items that thrift stores won’t take are those that are mildewed or contaminated with hazardous material.

So, don’t throw stuff away, donate those old textiles and give them new life. (Note: if you don’t live in the Seattle area, check with your local garbage and recycling company or thrift store to confirm the policies.)

What happens to the donated clothing and fabrics? This probably varies depending on where you live, but in King County, 80 to 90% of donated items cannot be sold locally. They are either sold to secondhand markets in developing countries, recycled into rags, or processed into fiber that is used to make new products. The King County website gives more details.

The fiber from recycled fabrics is typically only suitable for lower grade materials such as mattress stuffing or insulation. This is sometimes called “downcycling,” reusing materials for a lower quality product. Consumers are sometimes hesitant to buy recycled products because of a perception – or the reality – that the result doesn’t look or feel as nice as products made from 100% virgin materials. The term “post-consumer waste” also conveys an image of something that may not be totally clean or safe. Such products are actually just as safe, but perception is important when it comes to sales.

The trend of “upcycling” promotes recycling old textiles into high quality products. For crafty folks, the web is full of ideas to use parts of old clothing to make new fashions. This sounds like a win-win if it’s done in the right way and creates products that people want to wear and are even willing to pay a higher price to own. This is a real business opportunity. What if upcycled clothing enjoyed the same cachet as a Prius in the early 2000s? Sustainable chic, a market waiting to explode.