Textile Recycling: Sustainability’s Next Big Thing

We’re constantly seeking new ways to increase sustainability, and many of our best ideas come from our colleagues. Natalie Hojell is a Macy’s Merchandising Group colorist for the Macy’s private brand Style & Co. and co-leader for the New York Go Green employee resource group (ERG). She started our conversation about textiles by sharing, “We receive a lot of fabric swatches in our area, which can’t be recycled, but I didn’t want to see them go into the garbage, so I started looking for a solution.” Natalie had previously met Jessica Schreiber when Schreiber worked at the New York City Department of Sanitation, and Natalie knew that she had started FABSCRAP, a non-profit that picks up and recycles fabric scraps and other textiles in the New York City area.

It’s an idea that addresses a rapidly escalating problem. More than 15 million tons of used textile waste is generated each year in the United States, according to The Council for Textile Recycling, and that amount has doubled over the past 20 years. Only about 15 percent of textile waste gets recycled, even though nearly 100 percent of textiles and clothing items are able to be reused or recycled in some way (spandex is a notable exception).

“I wanted to learn more about what FABSCRAP does and to see if we could potentially start a partnership,” said Natalie. “It seemed like it could be a natural fit.” As a member of the New York Go Green ERG, she organized a volunteer event at the FABSCRAP warehouse in Jamaica, New York. “It gave us a chance to take a tour, as well as to support textile recycling and find out more about how it works. There’s a huge room with bags and bags – a mountain of textiles,” said Natalie. “And these materials would otherwise be going into the landfill.”

Following the tour, the group volunteered for a three-hour shift, sorting textiles FABSCRAP had collected. “They trained us on what to look for,” said Natalie. “Cotton can be recycled back into cotton and the same with polyester, so those materials had to be labeled. If we couldn’t tell what type of material a piece was, it had to go into the mixed bin where it gets shredded and downcycled into insulation and other materials.” The sorted materials are used in one of two ways: recycling or reuse. Proprietary materials from designers and large retailers and small scraps are recycled – they’re shredded to create insulation, carpet padding, furniture lining, moving blankets and similar items.

Fabric pieces that are not proprietary and that are potentially usable are sold by the pound at a low cost to students, crafters, quilters, teachers and other designers for reuse. Volunteers and employees are also welcome to take pieces home. “There are art students who volunteer at FABSCRAP every week just to get free fabric for their projects,” said Natalie.

“For me, it was important to understand where textile waste goes. Disposing of it can be challenging, and understanding where something goes after we throw it away isn’t always easy, either. But it’s an important first step, and we’re hoping a partnership can develop.”

Macy’s recycled more than 75,000 tons of materials in 2016, including nearly 63,000 tons of cardboard. Our cardboard recycling alone saved approximately 566,000 cubic feet of landfill space and 2.9 million gallons of oil in 2016 – enough to drive more than 1.5 million miles in an average car.

Textile recycling could be the next thing that contributes to increasing those numbers, while at the same time continuing to support the plan by New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, to achieve a 90 percent reduction in waste and increase sustainability by 2030.


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