Millions of rags get used and discarded every day. We usually don’t see it with only three or four rags lying around in our homes, but when you think of it in the industrial scale—50-floor office buildings and hotel rooms, for example—it comes down to barrels and barrels of dirty fabric, all ending up in the trash bins and eventually in landfills. Cleaning is a dirty job, but cleaning up after cleaning is even dirtier.
Companies typically order rags by the barrel and use each piece only once. But most of these rags are good for at least a couple more uses—it’s just cheaper for most companies to buy new ones instead of cleaning and drying the old ones. As a result, rags continue to make up a significant part of business waste, especially in major cities. Fortunately, there’s a way around it.
Rag recycling is a fairly new industry that has cropped up alongside textile and leather recycling. As one would expect, it’s more of a business practice than a household one, so services aren’t as widespread. A basic service involves picking up used rags from the site, cleaning them at a facility, and delivering newly washed ones to clients. Rather than curb-side pickups or drop-offs, rag recyclers usually work directly with businesses, picking up their used rags and delivering fresh ones on the site.
Other groups can manufacture rags out of used fabrics, such as old clothes and curtains. These rags are usually classified by grade, so buyers can choose from cheap, general-purpose rags to “premium” quality white rags. The latter can withstand more uses and is therefore cheaper in the long run, but may have gone through additional treatment, such as bleaching and starching.
Rags that are no longer usable are sometimes cleaned, shredded, and used as filler material. You may find them in furniture, mattresses, low-cost car seats, and similar products. This is often their last chance at life, as the final product is eventually discarded. In this sense, rag recycling is more of a diversionary tactic than recycling per se, as the fabric still ends up becoming waste.
That’s not to say recycling your rags is useless; on the contrary, businesses are in a much better position to make a difference because of the scale of their usage. A barrel of rags may not seem much compared to a city landfill, but if every office building picked up the habit, that’s several tons of fabric that’s kept off the bins and given a second use.