They used to be known as hand-me-downs. Articles of clothing that an older sibling or relative had either outgrown or simply gotten tired of – and, rather than throw out, kicked the items down the pecking order to a smaller, usually younger, person. A t-shirt thus saved was considered a t-shirt rightly earned. By everyone except the newest wearer.

These days, hand-me-downs have been demoted to just another category of what’s now called “recycled clothing”. Others include clothes sold at thrift shops, those given away to the needy and even some threadbare garments that various textile recyclers wind up using for other purposes.

In fact, recycled clothing has become something of a commodity. According to Charter Recycling, the combination of landfill waste (clothing items are estimated at around 5% of total landfill mass) and energy taken to produce new clothing takes a serious toll on Mother Earth. Which is why various activist organizations – as well as a designer who has envisioned a household machine that will one day recycle and re-make clothes – want everyone hopping onto the latest recycling bandwagon.

Waste not, shop not

Some facts to consider about clothing and recycling, courtesy of Charter:

  • Manufacturing new clothes out of polyester, which is made from petroleum, releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and acid gases into the air, and also requires serious amounts of water for cooling
  • Making clothes out of nylon creates nitrous oxide, whose carbon footprint is 310 times that of carbon dioxide. And certain easy-care cottons are treated with toxic formaldehyde
  • Speaking of cotton, the popular fabric is the most pesticide-dependent crop in the world, requiring 1/3 of a pound of varmint killers to make one t-shirt
  • It’s estimated that, of the 68 pounds of clothing each American discards every year, roughly 99 percent could be reused
  • The U.S. textile recycling industry is some 2,000 companies strong, the majority of which are family-owned, providing 17,000 jobs and gross sales of $700 million annually

In case anyone thinks that clothing can only be recycled as clothing, think again. An Environmental Health Perspectives study from 2007 notes that, while many old clothes are turned over to charity or re-sold at thrift shops, a significant amount of discarded clothing is sold to textile resellers, who find uses for the fabric ranging from wiping rags to upholstery stuffing to basic ingredients for paper products.

Your own private designer sweatshop

Just as other industries have found inventive uses for recycled materials – a Dutch design firm is about to launch the Vuowwow, a folding chair made of plywood and covered in felt made from recycled plastic bottles – the clothing industry keeps trying out new recycling ideas.

Designer Joshua Harris, for example, believes that “by 2050, 75% of the population will live in cities.” Given that, Harris has come up with plans for a device that will bring clothing production directly into people’s homes, thereby saving valuable retail and warehouse space.

Looking somewhat like a wall-mounted copier/fax machine, without the paper trays but with curved lines, Harris’s machine would allow a user to search online for various forms of clothing. Assuming that the appropriate thread colors and consistencies are properly loaded into the machine, a user could select a design, customize it (possibly even by using 3D knitting), complete the order via touchscreen and wait for the machine to churn out the item. Or, in the case of 3D, the textured, multi-layered item.

As if that weren’t enough for the most demanding of clothes horses, the machine also allows users to return unwanted garments, including those that have simply outgrown their usefulness. The machine breaks down garments to the thread level and then cleans and re-spools the thread for future projects. With fashion designers likely to offer exclusive designer threads, in signature designer colors, Harris imagines a future where fashionistas can sell their newest creations directly from their studios to consumers in their living rooms.

If Harris is serious about his creation, and it looks as though he is, it’s a wonder he hasn’t sped up production. Word has it that there’s at least a landfill’s worth of Oscar/Grammy/Emmy/Tony/CMA/People’s Choice/Golden Globe et. al. outfits out there in need of recycling for next year’s events.

When that happens, we’ll know for certain that the recycled clothing trend is here to stay. For a while, at least.

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