How to Responsibly Purge Your Closet in the Bay Area

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Goodwill’s CEO William Rogers, left, and Aaron Schroeder, sift through some of the clothes available in a Goodwill outlet, where clothes are sold for $1.75 a pound. (Sarah Craig/KQED)


andemic clean-out, Marie Kondo-ing, spring cleaning ... whatever you want to call it — there is a massive purge of clothing coming out of people’s closets right now. Thrift stores across the country have reported unprecedented surges in their clothing donations in recent years — the first boom coincided with the release of the popular Netflix show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo," and another wave came during the coronavirus pandemic.

But what happens to all those old throwaways?

This is what Bay Curious listener Ellen wants to know. Her question: What can you do with used clothing? And what if it's not suitable for donation sites? Can you recycle the material?

Ellen's question won a Bay Curious voting round by the largest margin we've ever seen. And for good reason. In North America, 10.5 million tons of clothes go to landfills every year.

First, Try to Keep Clothes as Clothes

To find out what is being done about this in the Bay Area, I started with my own closet. I’m moving from the Bay Area and I asked a friend of mine, Mairin Wilson, to help me sort my stuff. She's an expert on sustainable clothing and says the first step in the recycling process is to try to keep the clothes as clothes.

“The longer the clothing can just be worn as clothing, the more sustainable it is,” she says.

She suggested we try to resell as much of my clothing as possible. We separated it into piles, ranked from high to low quality, to sell on online platforms like Poshmark, thredUP and Instagram.

Wilson says this is an exciting moment in the fashion world because consumers are starting to get value back from their clothes.

“It makes you want to buy that higher-quality sweater,” she says. “Clothing no longer becomes this one-time purchase. It becomes an investment. And it's not just buying high-quality clothing for yourself. It's for the future of the garment.”

Donating clothing to a thrift shop or Goodwill is a solid option, too —we'll get more into how that works below.

But then, there was the clothing that I couldn’t resell or donate, the pile of my old socks, undies, and clothes with rips and stains. The stuff usually destined for the trash can.

The best option for these worn-out items is to be turned back into fabric, if possible. There are just a handful of facilities worldwide that do this.

Woman lighting small piece of clothing on fire over a plate.
Mairin Wilson lights the corner of a T-shirt to test what material it is. This shirt is cotton since it immediately ignited — and it smelled like a campfire. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

One of the first challenges that textile recyclers face when they receive used clothing is determining what type of fibers an item is made from. Wilson demonstrated how companies will burn pieces of clothing to learn if they're cotton, polyester, wool or some type of blend.

"Every fabric is going to burn a little bit differently, and the smell of the smoke will be a little different," says Wilson. "With polyester, it's like if you were to burn plastic. At first it curls away. But then 100 percent cotton will immediately ignite."

A close-up look at clothes compressed in a clothing bale at Goodwill. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

If You Can't Resell or Donate ... Recycle

One clothing company based in L.A. is working with textile recycling facilities in South Carolina and Spain to turn used clothes back into new clothes. It’s called For Days and it has a unique membership model.

“We offer a join-and-swap model,” says co-founder Kristy Caylor. “Basically, you select your tees, tanks or sweats, and then you can change the old ones out for new ones anytime, for any reason.”

For Days takes those used clothes and turns them back into new ones using a mechanical recycling process. (And if you send in a bag of used clothes to be recycled, they will give you a discount. That’s what I did.)

“We chop up the old clothing, it gets blended together, some virgin fiber is added to it, it's made into yarn and then it's remade into clothes or other stuff, depending on the yarn,” says Caylor. “So that's why we know how to recycle clothes, because we do it as part of our business.”


More and more retailers now offer clothing recycling programs, and some will give you a store discount for participating. Madewell gives a discount on purchase of a new pair of jeans if you turn in an old pair. The North Face offers $10 off a purchase of $100 if you turn in a bag of gently used clothing. Patagonia and Levis both offer repair services on their clothes. REI allows trade-in on some used items they can resell.

On the Horizon in Bay Area Textile Recycling

If your clothing is so damaged that it cannot be reused, it may need to be recycled. Used textiles can be broken down and turned into things like insulation, rags, carpet or acoustic sound paneling. has a tool to help you find a textile recycling drop off near you.

Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties is at the very beginning of developing their own recycling technology, says CEO William Rogers.

Tiffany Lumpsey sorts through clothing at Goodwill’s sorting facility in South San Francisco. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

“We're sort of leading the charge around working with innovators who are able to separate fabric, right? So if you have something that's 50% cotton, 50% polyester, they're able to separate it mechanically and then use these as virgin fiber. So virgin polyester. Virgin cotton,” he says.

Right now, the clothes that Goodwill doesn’t sell in its retail stores or online boutiques either get packaged in bulk to send to vendors or go to the landfill.

Clothes that Goodwill can’t sell get compressed in this baler and sold to third-party vendors. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

Some of the vendors buy Goodwill's clothes to turn them into rags, like United Textile in San Leandro. But many of the other vendors ship the clothes to Mexico or overseas to sell in secondhand clothing markets.

While Rogers made the case that these clothes help people in poverty, others argue the influx of cheap clothes destroys local clothing industries, and that a lot of the clothing ends up in landfills abroad.

Rogers says that Goodwill currently sends about 5 percent of its clothes to the landfill, which is typical for the fashion industry overall. But they are hoping, with their new facility, to get this down to zero.

“So it's a really exciting moment because it means that we may actually have the opportunity to never have to put a textile in the landfill again,” says Rogers.

This story was originally published in July 2019. Information was updated in January 2022.