What happens to old clothes when we throw them away?

The circular economy is an over-heard concept, but the real question is: may we apply it to the textile sector? To answer this question, we first need to ask ourselves what happens to old clothes when we throw them away.

Most of all: is it possible to entirely recycle them?

Let’s now follow the journey of old clothes in a fashion-iconic country, Italy. We will find out which clothes survive and become marketable again.

Step 1: collecting old clothes in Italy

The beautiful woolen jumper you’ve worn all your life has become old and pitted. You now have to find an environmentally friendly way to dispose of it, i.e. in a special bin or collection box for old clothes. This is where your jumper ends up, piled up with hundreds of other items of clothing, belts, and shoes in a wide variety of conditions.

This box containing real waste will be emptied by an authorized vehicle and taken to the nearest textile treatment plant. The transport is carried out by a company which has won a municipal contract. They are accountable for what they are delivering.

Step 2: Recycling old clothes

We now move on to the facility that sorts this huge pile of clothes collected from the pits. In Italy, those clothes are now sanitized, and then subjected to a visual and tactile examination and sorted into 3 categories:

  • Second-hand clothes: clothes that meet certain parameters are put back into the second-hand market;
  • Recyclable clothes: these will be sorted into groups. They will return fibrous material, and then be changed back into textiles;
  • Discardable clothes: these clothes and shoes are unusable. They are sent to incinerators or landfills.

The ratio of old clothes that are recycled

Of these three mountains, the hugest in Italy is the second-hand-mountain: that’s 60% of the total. These clothes are partly sold at second-hand markets and partly sold to developing countries, such as several African countries.

On the other hand, recyclable clothes make up around 40%, and only a very small percentage (around 2%) is considered irrecoverable. Recyclable clothes are now ready to undergo the fascinating process of being spun, then woven, and finally put back into the fashion market. They are no longer a waste: they are now a resource. Let’s take a brief look at how this process works.

How to obtain recycled fabrics from old clothes

There are a few companies in the world that can properly deal with recycled fabrics obtained from old clothes. Still, as we have said, we can recycle 40% of the total amount of discarded clothes.

Recycling a yarn requires specific know-how that few companies possess: one of these is Comistra, which has been dealing with fabric recovery since 1920, and today employs a highly technological method that makes it possible to optimize the recovery of used clothing with a prevalence of wool. At the same time, Comistra can obtain a high-quality end product. We will focus on wool, which, unlike polyester, allows a greater recovery of material and has a much lower ecological impact.

Wool recovery in Comistra’s plants

1) The old clothes are delivered here, together with the textile processing waste from the fashion companies. They are sorted by color shade;

2) Each huge pile of clothes – same-colored- is put by Comistra workers into the smoke charcoal maker (Carbonizzo a fumo). This machine is unique in the world: it handles the charcoalization process. Here all the cellulose fibers carried in carbon residues are removed and the color shade is fixed;

3) The carbonized fabrics are then passed through a Lavastraccia (wash-and-tear machine), a machine designed in Prato, Italy. This machine leads the fabrics to be washed, defibrated, and then returned to fiber. Tearing is an extremely delicate and complex process that produces a clean, long-fiber product without the need for detergents, dyes, or any other chemical products… just water;

4) After the material has been returned to fiber, with the support of a small synthetic percentage, POLYESTER or NYLON, it is sent to the spinning plant;

5) Subsequently the yarn obtained from carding and spinning, the fibers take consistency with the twists that are given in the spinning machine;

6) At this point the yarn is ready to be used with the weaves that will be obtained from weaving;

7) The fabric is now ready to be sent out: it is polished according to its destination. Whether it is for a soft winter coat, an haute couture garment, but also in some cases an armchair.

The journey of our old clothes is over: from the delivery box to the sorting plants to recycling, spinning, and weaving. The circular economy is fully realized. Our old, pitted jumper has gone from waste to an item that, according to the world’s biggest fashion windows, is desirable again.