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The ambitious quest to recycle the world’s bras

An innovative partnership between the brands Harper Wilde and For Days aims to recycle a nearly unrecyclable garment.

The ambitious quest to recycle the world’s bras
[Photo: courtesy Harper Wilde]

I have a confession to make. I have converted one of my dresser drawers into a bra graveyard.

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Over the years, like most women, my bra size has changed. Pregnancy and breastfeeding, in particular, can utterly transform your body in a short amount of time. But when I move to a new bra size, I never know what to do with the heaps of beautiful, expensive bras I will never wear again. Goodwill doesn’t accept underwear of any kind. Some women’s shelters accept gently used bras, but many of mine show signs of wear. And it just feels wrong to just throw them in the trash. So I created a drawer where my old bras would go to die.

I’m not the only one in this boat, it turns out. Bra startup Harper Wilde has received similar feedback from customers. “Everybody is talking about the Marie Kondo phenomenon,” says Jeff Borsuk, Harper Wilde’s head of growth. “But bras are completely excluded from this giant swell of donation and decluttering. For many women, the only solution is to throw bras away in the garbage, and there is a lot of guilt in that.”

[Photo: courtesy Harper Wilde]

But I have good news: Bra recycling has arrived. Harper Wilde and the T-shirt recycling brand For Days are partnering on a new bra recycling program that invites women to send them their bras, whether or not they were made by Harper Wilde. Those old bras will be sent to a recycling facility where they will be turned into new products and kept out of landfills. And since Harper Wilde has a free trial program that offers return shipping, it’s easy for customers to send old bras to the warehouse in the same package.

“We are not actually increasing the number of packages shipped, which comes with its own environmental cost,” says Borsuk. “These old bras are hitching a ride, and we’re taking advantage of that efficiency we already had.”

For Days brings deep expertise on the latest recycling technologies to the project. The company launched last year with the radical idea of renting out, rather than selling, organic cotton T-shirts. Cofounders Kristy Caylor and Mary Saunders wanted to create an entirely zero-waste system by taking back T-shirts when customers were done with them and recycling them into new products. The company works with recycling partners who break down the shirts and find uses for the cotton. Caylor and Saunders see an opportunity to share some of their knowledge with the rest of the industry, with initiatives like the partnership with Harper Wilde.

“The technology is constantly changing and improving,” says Caylor. “The approach would have been different 12 months ago. It’s a little bit easier for smaller companies, like ourselves, to explore these technologies because many of these technologies haven’t caught up to the mass market scale at this point.”

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[Photo: courtesy Harper Wilde]

Apparel recycling is still in its infancy, as Caylor explains. Only 1% of all clothing materials produced are recycled into new clothes. While we’ve developed systems to recycle paper and plastic, clothing presents entirely new challenges. For one thing, modern clothes are typically made with fabric blends of many natural and synthetic materials like cotton, wool, spandex, and polyester. Each material requires a totally different recycling process. Cotton or cashmere, for instance, can withstand higher temperatures than a synthetic fiber, which have a lower melting point.

“Basically, the way clothes have been designed doesn’t really enable them to be recycled effectively,” says Francois Souchet, a project manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which helps governments and businesses move toward a circular economy.

There is a growing awareness that we must find a way to manage fashion waste, which is immense: Many clothes are worn between 7 and 10 times before they are thrown into a landfill. Making apparel is an incredibly polluting endeavor, relying on 98 million tons of nonrenewable resources every year and 93 billion cubic meters of water.

Some companies are now investing in research and development to pioneer clothing recycling tech, the first wave of which is focused on garments that are made from a single fiber. The first fruits of these efforts are beginning to appear on the market. In addition to companies like For Days, which has built its entire business model around recycling, established brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Stella McCartney now offer recycled cashmere, which uses post-consumer yarn that has been sorted, shredded, and respun, and feels much like virgin cashmere. There are now several fabric recycling startups in the market, from re:newcell, a Swedish company experimenting with using chemicals to recycle fabrics into new fabrics, to Seattle-based Evrnu, which recycles cotton garment waste into new textiles.

But the complex fabric blends found in bras, coupled with tricky trimmings, like metal underwire and clasps, are another problem altogether.

For Days works with a wide range of recycling partners, and Caylor says that many of these companies try to remain under the radar. Some don’t have consumer-facing brands and don’t want to publicize their services just yet, since they don’t necessarily have the ability to take on the recycling needs of large fashion companies. “We work with a network of post-consumer recycling partners who are really open-minded and hungry to take these products and turn them into something else,” says Caylor. “But it requires a broader ecosystem to develop, including mills who can take this yarn and develop new fabrications for it.”

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Instead, these recycling companies are looking for smaller fashion brands that are able to understand that the process is still experimental at this point. That was the case in this particular bra recycling initiative with For Days and Harper Wilde. The recycling partner, which wants to remain anonymous, preferred to work with smaller startups rather than massive corporations.

According to Caylor, the most immediate way to recycle a bra is to chop it up and use the resulting material–which is made up of many different fibers–for things like insulation or stuffing throw pillows. This process, known as mechanical recycling, is what their current recycling partner is using to process the bras collected by Harper Wilde and For Days. In the future it might be possible to chemically recycle bras, turning the various materials inside into new fabrics, but, in the meantime, mechanical recycling is a great solution to diverting bras from landfill.

Mechanical recycling “means that you are not dependent on any sort of melting mechanism,” says Caylor, referring to the process of liquidating fibers with chemicals, then spinning them into new fibers. “A good portion of these materials can be recycled into a new textile. It will take time and development to figure out exactly what the textile will go into, but it presents an exciting opportunity.”

Given that these new kinds of recycling are still in their early stages, many of recycling companies prefer to work with mid-sized companies that will not overwhelm their systems with too much material. It’s a tricky balance for these recyclers to find companies that are just the right size. “We need a certain amount of volume and scale to make the recycling viable, but, at the same time, this partnership with Harper Wilde won’t result in us sending them millions of bras, and expecting the recycler to turn them into new bras overnight,” Caylor explains.

Larger apparel conglomerates are working on their own efforts to push forward fabric recycling at a large scale. The H&M Foundation–H&M’s charitable wing–has invested $6.6 million into fabric recycling research and recently opened a facility in Hong Kong to develop technologies that will allow us to recycle clothes–particularly fabric blends–at scale.

For smaller companies, like Harper Wilde and For Days, a project like this requires extra effort to locate these recycling partners, and the cost of paying for these bras to be shipped to the recycling facility. On some level, both brands are doing this because their founders want to do the ethical thing. But there are other, longer-term payoffs. Consumers are increasingly aware of the looming threat of climate change and the problem of plastic pollution. As a small startup in the crowded lingerie market, an initiative like this allows Harper Wilde to stand out as an eco-conscious brand and generate loyalty among customers.

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Caylor also believes that the fashion industry is on the cusp of an apparel recycling revolution. For Days is also inviting customers to send in any other clothes they would like to discard, even those the company doesn’t make, which will be sorted and sent to recycling facilities. As an early player in this space, For Days has a chance to become an industry leader in the years to come.

“It’s very early days, but fabric recycling is starting to emerge as an opportunity,” Caylor says. “But I believe that we’re about to hit a tipping point, and that’s very exciting to us.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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