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What happens to the clothes, shoes and linens I give? Learn more from King County's EcoConsumer website

What happens to items I give?

Damaged clothes and linens aren’t garbage – they can have a second life as new products. Many items are made from recycled clothes, linens, and other textiles, including wiping rags; home insulation; sound-proofing and insulation for automobiles and appliances, athletic equipment and pet bedding.

After being donated, items are sorted into different grades depending on their condition.

Resale: About 10-20 percent of items
According to the Simple Recycling's Life Cycle of Secondhand Clothing graphic external link Download PDF , about 10 to 20 percent of donated items are re-sold locally by retailers and charitable organizations.

Brokers and recyclers handle the remaining 80-90 percent
As much as 80 to 90 percent of materials collected cannot be resold locally. Those items are sorted at sorting and grading facilities into three main categories—those that are:

  • Exported to other countries as secondhand clothing.
  • Recycled and converted into items like wiping rags.
  • Recycled into fiber that is used in new products such as sound-proofing, insulation, and stuffing.

Want to know more? See SMART's "How are textiles recycled?" page external link and check out our Post-Consumer Textiles Value Chain Download PDF 425 K.

What happens to donated items that are exported to other countries?
A large portion of secondhand clothing is imported to developing regions: almost 27 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 15 percent in South Asia, and almost five percent in Eastern Europe. It is eventually sold at markets to the public primarily in these regions.

Researchers have come to varying conclusions as to whether importing used clothing into developing countries or other economic policies have been responsible for specific negative social and economic consequences in those countries. To lessen any potential negative impact, consumers can choose to give used clothes, shoes, and linens to organizations that have local thrift stores, to provide the opportunity for some of those items to sell in the U.S. prior to being exported. Ultimately, buying wisely may have the greatest benefit by reducing negative social, environmental, and economic impacts.

chart showing what happens to the clothes, shoes and linens that you give
Damaged clothes, shoes, and linens are put into bales and sent to brokers who sort them
Worn or damaged clothes and linens are put into bales and sent to brokers who sort them into categories for reuse or recycling.
Some damaged clothes and linens are converted into industrial wiping rags
Some damaged clothes and linens are converted into industrial wiping rags.
King County Solid Waste Division mission: Waste Prevention, Resource Recovery, Waste Disposal

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