Cotton: Should we Recycle it?

Recycling, like many things, can be complicated. We’ve learned this in a previous article specifically about paper recycling. We’ve also learned how different materials can be recycled more efficiently than others.

This time let’s turn our attention to cotton and its ability to be recycled. Cotton, like every other physical thing in this world, requires resources.💧So it’s important that we do what we can to minimize our waste associated with cotton products.⚡️

The issues with cotton recycling


When we choose to recycle cotton, it will put the material through a less than perfect process. Unlike paper, which can be recycled into equal to or less than quality products, cotton will always lose its quality when recycled. This has to do with the length of the materials, as well as the process that can harm the fibers.

And much like paper recycling, when we recycle cotton it requires other resources like energy, water, chemicals, and usually an unused fiber to be mixed in as well. 

So, what are we to do when a cotton item’s life is fully over?🚮Should we always recycle cotton? Should we not recycle cotton and instead do other things? We know landfills are bad, so there have to be better options, right? First things first, let's look at how to recycle cotton. 

How to Recycle Cotton  


The best option for recycling is to always find the most local drop off. Textile recycling isn’t as common as paper, metal, and plastic. But, it may be worthwhile to do a simple google search for textile and clothing recycling pick up or drop off locations in your area. 🗑

If there isn’t a local pick up or drop off service in your area (it's common that there isn’t), TerraCycle Textiles and Clothing boxes could be a great option. While these boxes come at a price, if you don’t have enough to fill it yourself, consider splitting the cost with others!

If TerraCycle doesn’t suit your needs, there are other companies who you can ship your used products to. 

Other alternatives


Businesses especially in the fashion industry, are investing a lot of time and 💰money into figuring out how to close the loop on textile recycling. Much of this has to do with creating a recycling process that doesn’t harm the fabric. 

It’s nice to see industries pushing for this, but for now we are still left with options for recycling that are not very convenient or even that effective. But don’t fear, we still have alternatives. Let’s take a look at those.👀 

Reduce


Many of us know the zero waste movement focuses a lot of energy on reducing before anything else. Remember, reduce comes before reuse and recycle for a reason.

This being the case, those who are reading this and are trying to minimize their cotton waste should first focus on reducing the use of cotton as much as they can.

Our cotton use, for the most part, comes in the form of clothing. When we buy clothing that isn’t made in a quality way, we end up using more, wasting more, and spending more!💸 

And since stains and tears matter more on visual things like clothes as opposed to rags, or maybe even LastTissues, they tend to have a shorter life. That is of course, if the stain or tear isn’t removed or repaired.🧵

Many high quality clothing brands typically offer lifetime repairs. Which is a nice way to make your money go even further. 

Donate or gift 


This article tends to focus on what to do with cotton products that have reached the end of their life, but we are humans after all. We buy the wrong size, we grow, we shrink, and our clothes stretch and shrink as well.

Whatever the reason, donating to those in need is a great way to reduce waste. And it’s always nice to see your friends live out a piece of clothing or gear that you no longer get value from.🎁 

Repurpose


If our cotton (or any fabric) is beyond donating, we should see if we have a use for the salvageable parts. If there is still some life left out of other parts of the item, we should use them! As long as we have a need for them.

It doesn’t do us much good if we have a bunch of cloth scraps that we can’t find uses for.

Cloth scrap could be made into:

  • Rags.
  • A crazy looking blanket?
  • A cute string bag for bulk food and what not!
  • An official dip-stick checker for your car, if you have one.
  • A laptop sleeve?
  • Or literally anything else that can be made out of fabric. From here it all depends on your mad sewing skills, but the world is your oyster. 

Compost


We completely understand if recycling cotton products isn’t a viable option for you. Luckily, we can still prevent cotton fabric from going to the landfill and instead send it to a compost pile!🐛

Really any natural fabric can be composted, just be sure of what it’s made out of. Things like cotton, silk, hemp, wool, bamboo, etc. Can all be composted.

Synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, spandex and the works cannot be composted. Sadly, this means that if your fabric even has the slightest amount, it should go elsewhere.🙅‍♀️

Don’t forget to remove tags as they are usually made of a synthetic material.🛢

It’s better to shred the fabrics into small pieces. The smaller they are, the more surface area they will have to assist in turning into soil. 🌱

So, should we recycle cotton?


Now that you’ve spent all this time trying to answer the question posed in the title, it’s finally time to answer it. And that answer is...it depends.😂

We all wish solutions to these issues were so simple, but most of the time they vary depending on individual situations. They also vary depending on the quality of the product and what resources are available to you. 

For many of us, we don’t have the funds for, or the access to textile recycling. And some of us may not even have access to compost.☹️

It is situations like these where It’s important to focus on reducing our consumption of the unnecessary. Of course this doesn’t seem like the most popular or flashy option as donating or repurposing something, but it is certainly the most impactful. ✊

When it comes to choosing the most sustainable path, we have to do what works for us as individuals. Sustainability is flexible and malleable so we should treat it as such. This is the only way to maintain sustainable choices years down the line.

Written by Aaron Burr 

A writer dedicated to working solely with companies on a mission to help the earth and people on it.