Recycling riddle: can you recycle underwear?
When it comes to making your closet more eco-friendly, a lot depends on what you do with your clothes at the end of their useful life to you. We urge you never to throw clothing into landfill. Textile recycling is alive and well in the United States. Almost always, nonprofits that accept clothing donations recycle items that cannot be reused.
Underwear is sometimes an exception to clothing donations for obvious hygiene reasons. And there are grades for all textiles: Is the underwear reusable or worn out? Sometimes underwear is still in very good shape and is supposed to find a new user. This is especially true for children’s underwear, which they quickly outgrow.
Nonprofit organizations that accept underwear
Many nonprofit organizations use donations of clothing and household goods to fund their mission while providing clothing to those in need either cheaply or free of charge. Some of these are USAgain, Easter Seals, The Purple Heart Foundation and the Salvation Army. Others, like PlanetAid, provide vendors in other countries with useful clothing to distribute in their stores.
All of these groups report that unusable clothing is recycled. The textiles can be shredded and processed into soundproofing appliances, floor rags, carpet underlay, commercial insulation and more.
The above are all large, national non-profit organizations. You may have a homeless or transitional shelter in your city that is looking for clothing. I promise you they need underwear. Call or email to ask if they accept gently used underwear.
More recycling options for underwear
If you’re shopping for new underwear, maybe check out a few forward-thinking underwear companies that accept used underwear for recycling. Knickey will give you a free pair of organic underwear if you recycle underwear (any brand) through them. Hanky Panky, a lingerie company, also accepts all brands of bras and panties for recycling upon purchase. In addition, clothing retailers H&M and Zara accept all brands of clothing for recycling.
You might be lucky enough to find a textile recycling group near you in the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association database. Also, check out Earth911’s recycling quest to find places near you that accept “clothing” or “cloth” — be sure to call to confirm the organization accepts used underwear.
There are some companies such as B. Simple Recycling and Ridwell, which collect clothes for recycling in some areas. But if you have a lot of textile recycling along with your underwear, you might want to turn to TerraCycle, a company that believes everything can be recycled and makes it possible. You can purchase a TerraCycle Fabrics and Clothing Zero Waste Box to fill and return to the company. One caveat: this valuable service doesn’t come cheap, but it works well if you pool resources with others. You can also search for TerraCycle’s free clothing recycling programs; these change regularly and are usually limited to specific clothing types and brands.
Bra recycling and donation
You have a few more opportunities to directly donate and recycle your bras than you have for other underwear. The Bra Recycling Agency (BRA) accepts discarded and unusable bras for recycling. The bra recyclers recycle discarded bras and donate all usable bras to those in need.
There are a number of non-profit organizations that provide bras to girls and women in unfortunate situations. Send your bras that are still usable to I Support the Girls, Bras for Cause or Free the Girls.
Even more options for your underwear
If you’re more of a DIY recycler, there are even more options for your underwear. Consider recycling your underwear fabric; If it’s a cute pattern, turn your underwear into an accessory or patch.
If your underwear is 100% cotton, you can try cutting it into strips and see what happens in your backyard compost heap.
As a last resort, you can always extend the life of your underwear by using them as cleaning rags.
This article was originally published on April 27, 2021 and updated in November 2022.