Sunday, March 3, 2024

Can You Recycle Your Old Denim Jeans? The Answer Isn’t Straightforward

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Can worn denim be recycled? Sort of. Here’s what you need to know.

Most of us own at least one pair of jeans. They’re a casual, comfortable wardrobe staple, and they go with most tees, knits, jackets, and sweaters. But it turns out, they’re not always the most sustainable fashion choice. They use a heck of a lot of water, and the way some are produced can be toxic to workers. 

But it’s not all bad. Denim is recyclable, which means that if you’re having a closet clearout, it might be possible to avoid the landfill. And it’s pretty durable, too, which means when you want to replace those old jeans, you don’t have to buy new. You can usually find plenty of decent pre-loved jeans lining the racks of thrift stores and vintage markets.

nudie jeans
Courtesy Nudie

But there is something you need to keep in mind when you’re shopping for denim jeans: look out for stretch. You know, those jeans that move and feel like leggings? It turns out, those ones are a non-recyclable environmental nightmare.

The problems with denim production

It takes a lot of resources to produce denim jeans. In fact, Greenpeace notes that just one pair requires around 7,000 liters of water. And it’s also an incredibly pollutive process, too. According to research by Oxfam, all of the jeans owned in the U.K. are responsible for the same amount of emissions as flying around the world more than 2,300 times.

Jeans can also contain toxic azo dyes, which are linked with cancer and are banned in the European Union and the state of California. Some still get through, though. In 2020, one study tested 150 textile samples and found azo dye in half. These toxic dyes are also responsible for dyeing entire rivers in China and Bangladesh, where many Western clothes are produced. 

Gucci jeans
Courtesy Gucci

You can find jeans that are produced without toxic chemicals, from sustainable brands like Nudie Jeans and Mud Jeans, for example. These brands also use organic and recycled cotton in their products, meaning they can be recycled. In fact, most jeans are made with majority cotton, which means they can be recycled easily. 

Can you recycle denim jeans?

Initiatives like Blue Jeans Go Green collect old denim jeans, they are then returned back to their original fiber state so that they can become something new. “Because cotton is a natural, sustainable fiber, your old denim can be kept out of a landfill and given a new life,” notes the initiative. All consumers need to do is take their denim to a drop-off location (stores like American Eagle and Frank and Oak are participants), and it will be picked up for recycling. 

But there’s a big catch with old denim. If it contains synthetic fibers, it’s much harder to recycle. Stretchy jeans are flexible and easy to move in, but they contain elastane, which is made from plastic.

“Stretch denim which is conventionally made by blending cotton with elastane, a synthetic material, derived from finite fossil fuels, has a compromised biodegradability at its end of life,” sustainability consultant Philippa Grogan told The Spin Off. “Moreover, as synthetic elastane is often blended with cotton, it cannot even be recycled once the jeans are thrown away as cotton cannot be separated from the stretch fiber.”

Fred Segal Denim Bar
Courtesy Fred Segal

That said, some brands have been working on a solution for sustainable stretch denim. Italian brand Candiani Denim has created Coreva, “the world’s first compostable stretch denim fabric.” Instead of plastic elastic yarn, it uses natural rubber to give the material the same stretch and flexibility. 

The material, which is already being used by several brands, including Kings of Indigo, Boyish Jeans, and Outerknown, isn’t recyclable, but it is biodegradable. “Coreva technology is really circular,” notes Candiani Denim. “Its raw materials become fabric, which at the end of its life can return to nature without impacting the ecosystem. [They turn] into compost and serve as fertilizer for new raw materials.” 

How to adopt sustainable jean habits

When it comes to adopting sustainable jean habits, one of the best things you can do for the planet is to shop vintage or secondhand. According to Oxfam, buying one pair of second-hand jeans a year could lead to a reduction in emissions that is comparable to traveling 3 billion fewer miles in a petrol car.

You can also find a tailor or seamstress, who can alter the jeans you already own if they no longer fit.

But if you need to buy new, avoid synthetics and opt for cotton options, or choose brands that use new innovative and sustainable materials, like Coreva.

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