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EarthTalk: How to recycle those threadbare duds

Even when a garment is too shabby to resell, there are still good ways to keep it out of a landfill.

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Kylee Burrows, of Daytona, Fla., takes a break from visiting her sister in Richmond, Va., to sift through mountains of clothing and other items left behind by college students during a sale put on by volunteers and Sierra Club members at the University of Richmond on Friday, May 18, 2007.

AP Photo/Lisa Billings

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Q: How or where can I recycle clothes that are too old or worn out for Goodwill?– Tim Cheplick, Perrineville, N.J.

A: Just because that old shirt you used to love is too threadbare to wear anymore doesn't mean it has to end up in a landfill. "Consumers don't understand that there's a place for their old clothing even if something is missing a button or torn," says Jana Hawley, a professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Ninety-nine percent of used textiles are recyclable."

Nonprofits like Goodwill and the Salvation Army play a crucial role in keeping old clothes out of the waste stream. When they get donations of clothes that are too threadbare to resell in one of their shops, they send them to "rag sorters" that specialize in recycling pieces of fabric large and small. Says Ms. Hawley, these textile recyclers sell about half the clothing they get back overseas in developing countries, while unusable garments, especially cotton T-shirts, are turned into wiping and polishing clothes used by a variety of industries and sold to consumers. She adds that other textiles are shredded into fibers used to make new products, such as sound-deadening materials for the automotive industry, archival-quality paper, blankets, and even plastic fencing.

Outdoor clothing and gearmaker Patagonia, which plies a strong environmental mandate in key aspects of its operations (from sourcing of raw materials to managing waste to making grants to environmental nonprofits), in 2005 launched its innovative Common Threads Garment Recycling program. The program was originally begun so customers could return their worn-out Capilene long undies for recycling, but has expanded to taking back Patagonia fleece and cotton T-shirts as well as Polartec fleece from other manufacturers. Consumers wanting to unload items that meet the program's criteria can do so at any Patagonia retail store or by mailing them into the company's Reno, Nev., service center.

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