Today, clothing not only responds to practical needs; fashion has become a form of self-expression and the sheer volume and variety of textile products available on the market have reached unprecedented levels. The textile industry is a $1 trillion worldwide business. But textiles are not used just for clothes - they are also in our homes, hospitals, workplaces and vehicles,in the form of cleaning materials, leisure equipment and so on..

Recovering and recycling textiles provides both environmental and economical benefits by:

  • Reducing the need for landfill space: Certain synthetic fibre products do not decompose, while natural fibre such as wool does decompose but produces methane which contributes to global warming.
  • Reducing pressure on virgin resources. This includes materials traditionally used in textiles such as cotton or wool, as well as oil and other chemicals employed to produce synthetic fibres.
  • Reducing pollution as well as water and energy consumption.
  • Reducing the demand for dyes and fixing agents. This, in turn, lowers the number of problems caused by their use and manufacture.

Recycling Processes

Textile materials for recycling can be classified either as

  1. post-industrial
  2. a by-product from yarn and fabric manufacture for the garment-making and retail industry
  3. as post-consumer, originating from discarded garments, household items, vehicles, etc.

The recycling processes are usually as follows:

Highly skilled manual sorting is still essential in processing textilesHighly skilled manual sorting is still essential in processing textiles

Textile chopping shear for fibre regenerationTextile chopping shear for fibre regeneration

  • Sorting: collected textiles are manually sorted and graded according to their condition and the types of fibres used.
    • Wearable textiles: Shoes and clothes are resold either in the same country of origin or abroard.
    • Unwearable textiles: These are sold to the 'flocking' industry for shredding and re-spinning.
  • Re-sorting: Mills-grade incoming material according to their type and colour. The colour sorting means no re-dying is needed, saving energy and avoiding pollutants. 
  • Shredding and pulling: Textile materials are shredded or pulled into fibres. Depending on the end use of the yarn, other fibres may be incorporated. 
  • Carding: The blended mixture is carded to clean and mix the fibres.
  • Spinning: The yarn is re-spun ready for later weaving or knitting. 

Special Processes

Depending on the final application, fibres sometimes do not need to be spun into yarns: They can simply be compressed to create new textile fillings.

In the case of polyester-based materials, the recycling starts by cutting the garments into small pieces. The shredded fabric is then granulated and turned into polyester chips. The chips are melted and spun into new filament fibres used to make new polyester fabrics.


  • Knitted or woven woollen and similar materials are reused by the textile industry in applications such as car insulation, roofing felt, loudspeaker cones, panel linings and furniture padding.
  • Cotton and silk is used to manufacture paper and to wiping and polishing cloths for a range of industries from the automotive to the mining sector.
  • Other types of textiles can be reprocessed into fibres for upholstery, insulation, and even building materials.

Recycling Facts

  • Of all collected textiles, approximately 50% are reused and 50% are recycled.
  • If everyone in the UK (60 million people) bought one reclaimed woollen garment each year, it would save an average of 1,686 million litres of water and 480 tonnes of chemical dyestuffs.
  • Nearly half of discarded textiles are donated to charities. About 61% of clothes recovered for second-hand use are exported.
  • In many African countries, over 80% of the population dress themselves in second-hand clothing.
  • With the re-use of recovered materials in manufacturing processes or in consumption cycles, there is a strong decrease of CO2 emissions compared to the production of virgin materials. Here is an example of the environmental benefits derived from a study of the University of Copenhagen (research sources 2008) which shows the environmental advantages resulting from the collection of used clothing. By collecting 1kg of used clothing, one can reduce:
    -    3,6kg of Co2 emissions
    -    6000 l of water consumption
    -    0,3 kg of the use of fertilizers
    -    0,2kg of the use of pesticides

Our Experts

For further information on technical issues, contact our experts working in the Textiles Commodity Division:

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