11 Ways to Give New Life to Old Pants: How to Recycle Underwear in the UK

Underwear hanging on line

In a modern fashion scene that is choking on overconsumption and waste, we all know how important it is to recycle our clothing. While for most clothes we no longer wear, this can be a straightforward process, it can be difficult to know how to recycle underwear in the UK.

For health reasons, most of the normal ways of recycling clothing aren’t a viable option for our underwear. Many resale centres won’t accept used underpants.

While underwear may not often be the first thing we think of when thinking about clothing waste, it does contribute to it. The fashion sector’s clothing waste problem is a growing issue, expected to reach a staggering 134 million tonnes of textiles thrown away annually by 2030. Our article on the clothing waste crisis has more on this.

So understanding how to dispose of old underwear sustainably helps to lower our overall clothing waste footprint.

Sustainable not Synthetic

The materials in the underwear we buy can ultimately impact how sustainably it can be disposed of at the end of its life. This is down to the fact that some fabrics decompose naturally, and some don’t. 

When buying underwear, look out for garments made from natural, biodegradable products, including fabrics such as organic cotton, linen, and bamboo.

By buying natural, biodegradable fabrics, not only do you help to cut down on the 700,000 microplastics that are released in your average clothes wash, but you also expand the end of life options for your underwear.

As natural fibres are often biodegradable they will break back down into the environment. This could even mean that your favourite pair of underwear could one day end up composting in the garden!

Check out our articles for more information on biodegradable fabrics and for more about what you can do to tackle the microplastics issue.

Girl in zig zag knickers
Natural, biodegradable fabrics make it easier to recycle at the end of life. Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

How to Recycle Underwear in the UK

This brings us to the all-important question, where and how can we recycle our underwear?

For this article, we have largely focused on socks and underpants recycling, however, if you are looking to recycle your faithful bra then check out our article on bra donation. We also have articles on recycling your running shoes and donating your wedding dress.

 If you need an underwear update to replace those old styles, check out our latest post on sustainable underwear brands. Here we cover the top 31 sustainable underwear brands available in the UK from the affordable to the luxurious and covering period pants too.

New or Lightly Used Socks and Underpants

1. Smalls for All

Based in: Scotland
Where to donate: Mail through the postal service

Smalls for All is a UK based charity that collects underwear and bras to be distributed to people in need in both Africa and the UK. They accept men’s, women’s and children’s underwear in all sizes and colours.

Through working with a range of local organisation, Smalls for All is helping to ensure that everyone has access to basic underwear needs. As of January 2022, Smalls for All had impressively distributed over one million pairs of pants.

It is important to note, if donating underwear to Smalls for All, they must be new, still in the packet or with tags. This organisation is perfect for donating that impulse buy or gift that simply isn’t your style.

2. Donate to the Homeless

Based in: UK
Where to donate: Check the Homeless Link website

One thing that is in constant demand for charities that work with the homeless are good quality socks. Sock Shop’s #socksforacause campaign provides good resources on local charity shops and points where socks can be donated.

While several charities accept socks for the homeless, the Homeless Link website provides resources to search for charities in your local area with information on how to donate.

Socks must be in new or nearly new condition.

Used Socks and Underpants

3. The London Sock Exchange

Based in: UK
Where to donate: Mail through the postal service

Having saved 100,000 socks from going to landfill since just 2014, the London Sock Exchange encourages consumers to send in their old socks for recycling. Simply fill a box with unwanted socks and send them to this innovative company where they can either be recycled or donated to those in need.

The program is available to subscribers of the London Sock Exchange, simply sign up the company website. This sustainable organisation is working to promote a system of conscious consumerism.

Underwear and socks for recycling
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

4. Swedish Stockings

Based in: Sweden
Where to donate: Mail through the postal service

Not only the home of stylish stockings, the innovative organisation Swedish Stockings, also wants you to send in your old synthetic stockings to be recycled into brand new products. Grinding down stockings to be turned into material used for producing fibreglass tanks, Swedish Stockings is working to create a cleaner, greener and more circular hosiery industry.

As an added bonus, they will even give you 10% off your next Swedish Stockings order!

5. Y.O.U

Based in: UK

Where to donate: Mail or drop products to the Oxford store

Taking a comprehensive approach to reducing waste, you can recycle socks, underwear and tights from any brand through the Y.OU recycling scheme. Having partnered with TerraCycle, the brand collects used garments and turns them into brand new materials. While you may not be able to put used undergarments into your household recycling bin, Terracycle prides itself on recycling the ‘un-recyclable’. 

To be involved, you can drop your used products into the Oxford collection point. If you live a little further away, then simply mail clean underwear, tights or socks to Y.O.U.

6. Underprotection

Based in: Denmark

Where to donate: Mail items to the company 

Wanting to improve circularbility in a sector that traditionally creates vast amounts of waste, the recycling scheme from Underprotection accepts any used Underprotection products. As an added bonus, when you send used garments to become part of the program, you get 30% off next time you need to update the styles in your underwear drawer. 

To be part of the program, simply send your used Underprotection products back to the company. To reduce the carbon footprint associated with shipping products, the brand suggests waiting until you have at least three garments that can be sent back together. Once products have been sent back they will either be upcycled or recycled.

pexels-pexels-user-hair scrunchies
Convert your old underwear into hair scrunchies! Photo by Pexels User from Pexels

7. Turn Underwear into Hair Accessories

Hair accessories may not be the first thing we think of when discussing how to recycle underwear in the UK, but it is a great option.

Old socks can easily be turned into very cool hair donuts, following the guide here, to create the voluminous bun of your dreams, or cute patterns on underwear fabric can gain a second life as a hair scrunchie. As strips should ideally be 10x40cm, this method works particularly well if you have some old boxers that need a new life. 

8. Turn Them into Cleaning Cloths

Turning used underwear into cleaning rags not only helps save textile waste from landfill but saves you having to buy new cleaning cloths too!

Make sure socks and underwear are well washed before using them for cleaning. Once turned into rags these handy cloths can be repurposed for all your cleaning needs.

Well-Worn Socks and Underwear

9. Textile Recycling Points

Based in: UK
Where to donate: Check for local recycling bank location

If your unwanted pair of underwear is worn to the point of no return, there are still ways that you can dispose of old underwear sustainably. Textile recycling banks can be found across the UK and will normally take clean textiles in any condition.

These recycling banks are a convenient way to dispose of old textiles and support a move away from the exorbitant waste of the fashion sector. Don’t forget to wash before you throw!

Girl in underwear UK
Old underwear can have a new life. Photo by To Van on Unsplash

10. Make Plant Ties

Most underwear is crafted from materials that are made to last and yet are still soft, making it perfect to repurpose into ties to hold plants to stakes for support while growing. Simply cut the fabric into strips to use as a plant tie. As a lot of underwear sports bright colours, it can even help to add a stylish pop of colour to your veggie patch.

11. Biodegrade Your Underwear

The magic of natural biodegradable fabrics is that they will break down back into nature. For underwear and socks to decompose they must be made 100% from natural biodegradable fabrics, so while this may not be an option for all garments, it is a highly sustainable way to get rid of natural fabrics. To make underwear biodegradable, you may have to cut off elastic waistbands.

Once you have ensured that a garment can biodegrade, you can add it to the compost to decompose back into nature. Our article on biodegradable fabrics mentioned above has more info.

From Hair Ties to Textile Recycling Banks

Whether it is a new pair of underwear that you just aren’t feeling, or a well-worn favourite that can no longer be used, recycling underwear and socks gives them a brand new lease of life. Exploring how to recycle underwear in the UK reveals a variety of viable options for the sustainable consumer.

So next time you are in need of an underwear update, try your hand at making some fashionable hair accessories, donate to someone in need, or even try simply adding your unwanted items to your compost pile. That pair of underwear or used pair of socks can get a whole new life.

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