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Can a T-shirt really be recycled?

Recycled T-shirt: really possible? Let's go behind the scenes of textile recycling to find out if your T-shirt can actually be transformed.

The clothing industry is one of the worst polluters in the world, responsible for 20 % of industrial wastewater and 10% of carbon emissions worldwide (source).

And apart from the fact that clothing manufacturing generates large amounts of waste and pollution...most of these products also end up being incinerated or disposed of in landfills.
Recycling is subsequently often presented as a solution to reduce the environmental impact of the clothing industry. What is the reality? Is it possible to recycle textiles? What are the environmental benefits? Let's explore this topic.

Textile recycling: there's the theory, and then in practice.

It is a complicated issue. So, yes, in theory, it is possible to recycle clothes. But in practice, it's a great deal harder.
Among the main challenges linked to recycling clothes are:
- the variety of fabrics used. Clothes are very often made from several different materials (natural fibres, such as cotton, wool, and linen… and as synthetic fibres, such as polyester, nylon, elastane, etc.), making sorting and recycling complicated.
Clothes' composition can vary considerably. A basic t-shirt can be made up of cotton, polyester and elastane. And when tackling something like jackets, these include metal zips, for example.
This composition poses a problem: it makes it harder to sort clothes (they need to be sorted by material to be recycled properly), and some materials used are not recyclable. And if that were not hard enough, recycling certain fabrics (such as polyester) can be a source of pollution… and emit greenhouse gases.

- the presence of toxic substances. Some clothes can contain toxic substances for the environment, such as dyes and chemical products (waterproof, stain proof,… chemical agents).

The technology and regulations for recycling textiles

Several types of technologies exist to manage textile recycling. These include:
Depolymerisation: this technique lets you separate textile fibres into their chemical components, that can be used afterwards to manufacture new textiles.
Mechanical recycling: this technique consists of shredding textiles into short fibres to be afterwards spun to create new yarns.
Chemical recycling: this technique uses chemical products to break down textiles into their molecular components that can then be used to manufacture new textiles.

Recycling post-consumer cotton

The recycling of post-consumer cotton is the process of transforming clothes and other used cotton items into new products. This type of recycling helps to reduce the amount of textile waste sent to landfills and incinerators and preserves natural resources by limiting virgin cotton growing.

The post-consumer cotton recycling process takes place in several steps:
Collecting: The used cotton clothing and items are collected from consumers, companies and charity organisations.
Sorting: The textiles collected are sorted by material, colour and quality.
Defibration: The textiles are sorted and then shredded into separate fibres.
Cleaning: The fibres are cleaned to eliminate dirt, dyes and chemical products.
Carding: The fibres are carded, in other words, fibres aligned to make them parallel with each other to create a yarn.
Spinning: The carded yarn is then spun to create a new recycled cotton yarn.
Manufacturing: Recycled cotton yarn can be used to manufacture new clothes, accessories, household items and other clothing products.

Can a T-shirt really be recycled?

Key textile recycling stats

Over 715,000 tons of clothing, shoes and home textiles are put on the market in France, meaning 2,76 billion items, representing over 10 kg per year and inhabitant, of which only 3.4 kg are collected.

If reuse seems to have already overtaken recycling in the used textiles sector (source: Refashion indicates 60 % of textiles.
The remainder is upcycled in other ways: recycled as building insulation, cut into wiping cloths or transformed into new textile yarns. 9 % is transformed into energy, and only a negligible part (0.5 %) is incinerated without being upcycled), it is worth reminding all materials cannot be endlessly recycled. The recycling process may alter the materials' properties, making them less effective or durable after several cycles.

Reuse instead of recycling?

It is the reason why it is essential to prioritise waste treatment methods (as advocated, in particular, by the French Environmental Code of Practice). Reuse, which gives products a new lease of life without transforming them, is subsequently preferable where possible. Recycling then comes into play for materials that cannot be reused as is, enabling their transformation into new products.

So, can a t-shirt really be recycled?

Well, yes… and no. As we saw, in theory, you should be able to recycle a 100% cotton T-shirt. In practice, it still has to be collected and then sent to the right recycling network. So, ideally, make it last as long as possible and et de repair it if necessary. Recycling should be when a T-shirt reaches the very end of a long and distinguished lifespan. And when its time comes, make sure to leave it in a container corresponding to the right recycling process, to actually give it a chance of becoming somebody else's favourite new t-shirt…

Key points to remember

- The textile industry is one of the most polluting in the world. It is responsible for 20 % of industrial wastewater and 10% of carbon emissions worldwide.

- It is possible to recycle textiles, but it is hard. There are different technologies, but not all are adapted to all types of materials.

- Reuse is preferable to recycling. Reuse actually gives products a second life without transforming them, which has less of an environmental impact.

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