Majority of donated clothes are sold to recyclers: What happens to them?

We go behind the scenes at Chicago Textile Recycling in Carol Stream to learn where unwanted thrift-store clothing ends up

When you donate your clothes to a local thrift store or a charity, chances are they still have a long journey ahead of them.

Clothes that don’t get picked up on the sales floor typically end up being shipped overseas to be reworn, repurposed or landfilled. In fact, more than 80% of clothes that get donated to thrift stores and charities end up being sold to recyclers, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.

Despite efforts to reroute clothing to secondary markets, the scope of textile waste in the U.S. is vast — in the U.S., 14.5 million tons of textiles were landfilled or incinerated in 2018, accounting for 7.7% of all landfilled municipal solid waste.

One recycling business headquartered in Carol Stream — Chicago Textile Recycling — takes in 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of unwanted clothing each day. The company works with about 75 independent or small chain thrift stores throughout the Chicago area and northern Indiana, paying them for the items they receive.

Recycling manager Maria Perez said the vast majority of what Chicago Textile Recycling brings in is baled and shipped overseas, where the clothing is then sorted. Perez estimates half gets reused as clothing, while the rest is turned into wiping rags or landfilled — though she added “a very minimum percentage” is going to the landfill.

“When they’re at the end of use, we can't do much with pretty stained or moldy clothes,” Perez said.

The company also accepts shoes and household items: Clothing goes to Pakistan, shoes go to South Africa and boxes of mixed items — from ceramic bowls to hair straighteners — go to Chile.

  Wipeco Inc. & Chicago Textile Recycling employees move giant bins of used clothes that will become wiping cloths. Brian Hill/

The business keeps a portion of clothes to cut in-house and sell as wiping rags through its parent company, Wipeco. Because they don’t take in enough suitable fabric to produce as many recycled rags as they sell, the company also imports about six containers a month of clothes that were cut overseas.

“It’s a double circle, if you think about it,” Perez said. “Most clothes are originally made overseas. We buy them, recycle them and then send them back.”

In addition to thrift stores, Chicago Textile Recycling takes in clothes from donation bins located throughout the area, including 72 bins in Lake County through its partnership with the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County.

Many of the drop-off boxes are housed by local government, such as Vernon Hills Public Works Facility and Gurnee Fire Station No. 2.

While Chicago Textile Recycling works with independent thrift stores, larger chains such as Goodwill go through a similar process when it comes to unwanted clothes.

According to Chelsea Schwabe, communications strategist for Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin and Metropolitan Chicago, roughly half of the total textile donations the nonprofit receive are suitable for resale — the rest are either sold to secondary markets or thrown away.

“We are proud to offer the community a resource to extend the life of usable items and contribute to a more sustainable economy through the reuse, repair and repurposing of donated items,” Schwabe said in an email. “Buying secondhand helps stop waste and reduce the demand for new goods.”

For those considering clothing to donate to their local Goodwill, Schwabe added tips to keep in mind: Donate items that you would give to a family member or friend, wash or clean soiled clothing to increase the chance of it being resold, and avoid donating ripped, torn or stained clothing.

To ensure your clothes are given a second life, environmental education expert Kay McKeen recommends people find their own ways to reuse clothing before sending it off to be donated or recycled.

Examples include repairing clothes yourself or at the dry cleaner, turning them into reusable cleaning rags or using them for crafts such as memory quilts.

McKeen, who is the director of nonprofit SCARCE, said while the easiest option is donating to thrift stores, you can go a step further by donating specific items needed by local groups.

For example, Lombard-based nonprofit Poised for Success provides women interview- and business-appropriate attire for free through an agency referral program.

DuPage County also has textile recycling drop-off through a partnership with RewearAble, a nonprofit that provides employment for adults with disabilities. The organization accepts clothing and textiles to be reused in insulation, packing material and carpeting.

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

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