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The season of spring cleaning is upon us, and while a closet clean-out has a myriad of benefits — more space, less clutter, a greater appreciation for what you’re keeping — it can also leave you with a big pile of rejects that you’re not quite sure what to do with. Instead of sending them to the landfill, old clothes, shoes, accessories and other textile-based items you consider “trash” can be given a whole new life when sent to the proper recycling program.

Here, I delve into the ins and outs of clothing recycling and walk you through how I used three take-back programs to make my closet clean-out more sustainable.

What to know about recycling clothes

“We put 50 billion garments into landfill every year in the US,” says Kristy Caylor, founder and CEO of For Days. And unfortunately, even recycling efforts aren’t always a clean solution. For example, most used clothes collected for recycling get shipped off to developing countries where they become piles of waste with no infrastructure in place to properly recycle or process them.

“The reverse supply chain for used clothing is vast and global and there are definitely good and bad actors,” Caylor says. “While no system is perfect (item level traceability in post consumer garments is almost impossible, fiber to fiber recycling is limited), look for companies that offer transparency: how much is collected, how much is ‘recycled’ and where the clothes go.”

Co-founder of Retold Recycling Amelia Trumble agrees, warning that, “Consumers have to be wary of various sweeping statements when it comes to vetting brands that claim to have a company mission focused on recycling textiles or sustainability in general. Watch out for generalizations in marketing language without any data to back up the claims.”

Take-back programs such as those of For Days and Retold Recycling work with a network of recycling partners that divert textile waste from polluting the environment. These programs accept a range of pieces — even those that are stained, torn and considered scraps — that they sort and find a second use for. Depending on the quality of the goods, this can entail products being sent to charities for donation, thrift stores for resale or downcycled into other textile-based materials.

“Our sorting process is very detailed and precise and every item of clothing ends up in one of 215 grades,” Caylor says of For Days’ processing. “This is important as it ensures that 95% of the clothing we collect finds the next best and highest use.” According to the company, 50% of items collected through the Take-Back Bag are downcycled (meaning “materials are shredded and transformed into something of lesser value like industrial rags, carpet padding and building insulation,” Caylor explains), 45% are resold and only 5% are actually considered trash.

In addition to being transparent about the statistics, Trumble says it’s important to look for brands and resources that are open to sharing “footage and imagery of their process” since “unfortunately, there aren’t any true ‘certifications’ in the [textile recycling] industry.”

How to recycle clothes through a take-back program

While local recycling programs are worth looking into — New Yorkers, for example, can check with donateNYC and the Re-Clothe NY Coalition for textile reuse programs — companies like For Days, Retold Recycling and Knickey (a circular underwear brand that turns old intimates into padding and insulation) provide convenient options for anyone, anywhere in the US. And unlike brand-specific programs that only take back their own items for recycling, these mail-in recycling programs accept pieces from any shop. The process of sending clothes in for recycling consists of just a few steps.

Step 1: Collect your clothes for recycling

Whether you’re doing a deep closet purge or simply setting aside a few garments you no longer wear, you’ll want to start by creating a pile of clothes to send off for recycling. I recommend starting with this step even before ordering your preferred take-back bag, that way you can see how much stuff you’ll be sending in and therefore gauge how many bags to order.

Since I used three different take-back programs, I also sorted the pieces for recycling based on what the specific programs accept. While Retold Recycling and For Days’ Take Back Bag accept any used home or garment textiles, Knickey’s program is specifically for used intimates, socks and tights.

Before and after packing Retold Recycling's bag.

Step 2: Fill your take-back bag or box

If you opt for a take-back bag, all you have to do is fill it up with your selected pieces.

Out of the three programs I tried, For Days’ bag was the most spacious and sturdy. I was able to fit in 20 items, including three dresses, five tops, two pairs of denim, a pair of sweatpants, a skirt and a bunch of mismatched socks.

Retold Recycling’s bag was smaller and thinner, so I avoided including any pieces that had sharp hardware on them. I was able to fit two sweatshirts and two sweatpants in the bag, plus a pair of slippers that I threw in before sealing it up.

For Knickey, you first have to fill out a form and share how many and what type of items you’re sending in. Then, the company provides a shipping label, but you have to use your own shipping box or bag. I reused an old box I had on hand and packed in an assortment of bras, underwear and socks that I was ready to part with.

Before and after packing For Days' Take-Back Bag.

Step 3: Ship your recycled clothes (and get rewarded)

When you’ve packed up your clothes for recycling, taking them to the post office is the only step that’s left. It’s as simple as that! And in the process of keeping waste out of the landfill, you can also earn some incentives.

If paying to get rid of your old clothes seems like a barrier to recycling them, For Days, Retold Recycling and Knickey all offer rewards in the form of future discounts.

Each For Days Take-Back Bag will earn you $20 in Closet Cash (effectively paying you back for the $20 that the bag costs), which you can use to shop the retailer’s recyclable women’s and men’s fashion, as well as lifestyle products from other sustainable brands like ZeroWasteStore and Bathing Culture. Meanwhile, those who plan to recycle regularly can earn rewards with a quarterly or annual subscription to Retold Recycling’s bags. The rewards — which go up to 20% off — can be redeemed at a range of partners including Underscored-tested eco-friendly cleaning brand Dropps, clean beauty brand Allyoos or designer consignment platform The Revury. And lastly, Knickey gives 300 points for each shipped recycling order, which you can redeem for 15% off your next purchase of new underwear from the brand (or you can even save your points and redeem 400 points for 20% off). That means you can save $7 on its bestselling Triangle bralette, which outweighs the $5 recycling label cost.

For Days' Take-Back Bag will help you make a dent in your closet clean-out. The 24-by-24-inch bag holds up to 15 pounds, which you can fill with any used textiles. The bag is very durable, so don't be afraid to pack it to the brim!

When you're ready to ship it, the bag has a QR code that you scan to register your bag and access the return shipping label.

Accepts: Old clothes, underwear, socks, handbags, shoes, sheets, linens, towels and textile scraps in any condition.

Rewards: Receive $20 in Closet Cash credit for every Take-Back Bag ordered.

Retold's pre-paid and pre-labeled recycling bags come ready for you to fill them up. I recommend the Solo Bag for smaller clean-outs. It measures 15 inches by 15 inches and can pack up to 5 pounds. If you're planning on recycling a bigger job, Retold also offers a three-pack and 10-pack. Just be cautious — the bag is made from biodegradable corn starch and feels quite thin and easy to puncture, so you'll want to be careful filling it with items with sharp hardware like shoes or handbags.

Accepts: All household textiles (sheets, linens, towels, etc.) and clothes, including underwear and socks, in any condition.

Rewards: Annual or Quarterly Retold subscribers can redeem one offer per bag sent in, which means you get a discount from your choice of its 18 rewards partners.

Knickey's intimates recycling program offers an easy way to give new life to typically hard-to-donate items. After letting Knickey know how many pieces you'll be donating (there's a five-item minimum), you can order your printable shipping label for $5.

Accepts: Women's, men's and kids' underwear, bras, socks and tights.

Rewards: Once the order is received, you'll get 300 Top Drawer Rewards Points, which is equivalent to 15% off your next purchase of new Knickey undies.