What To Do With Old Pillows – Preventing Neck Pain & Eco-Guilt
There’s just something about the perfect pillow and the way it cradles your head as you drift off to sleep.
And the notable lack of neck pain in the morning speaks for itself.
But your heavy head — it weighs around 10 pounds— takes its toll.
The pillow that used to quite literally be what dreams are made of degenerates into a flat, lumpy nightmare. You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, and wake up feeling stiff or sore. The signs add up.
It’s time to say goodbye to your trusty pillow.
However, that doesn’t mean you should toss your old pillow into the trash, where it will take up room in the landfill for decades while that petroleum-based polyester fiberfill breaks down.
Even if you’ve long since switched to eco-friendly pillows, those natural fibers cause just as much harm when left to decompose in a landfill as synthetic materials. You can read more on why at the foot of the article.
Fortunately, just as there are many things you can do with old clothes, there are lots of answers when it comes to what to do with old pillows that don’t involve contributing to our growing landfill problem.
From recycling old pillows to repurposing them, here are seven ideas for how to properly dispose of old pillows to help you build sustainability into our pillow purchases.
1. Wash Them First
Wondering what to do with old gross pillows?
Start by assessing if it’s actually gross.
Before you assume your pillow is past its prime, give it a wash. Technically, you should do this anyway. Pillows gather up all of our dead skin cells as we sleep. Going through a laundry cycle can refresh and redistribute the pillow’s fill, adding to its lifespan.
Even if it’s still no longer wanted, running them through the laundry ensures they’re ready for whatever comes next. No one wants to dispose of smelly pillows, after all.
How do you wash old pillows?
Check the down alternative or feather pillow for a tag or look up the manufacturer’s instructions online but it depends on the type of pillow you own:
Down or Down Alternative Pillows
Usually, you can send these through a gentle/cold wash cycle.
Since down is fragile, use a gentle, natural laundry detergent (and less than you normally would) instead of one filled with harsh chemicals.
An extra rinse cycle ensures all of the soap will be washed out of the down.
Run the pillow through the dryer for about 15 minutes to kill dust mites. Toss in some old tennis balls to help the down re-loft. Let it air dry from there so heat doesn’t damage the pillow filling.
Cotton & Polyfill Pillows
Assuming the care instructions don’t say anything to the contrary, follow the same instructions as old down pillows for the wash cycle.
Old polyester pillows can generally withstand the dryer.
Throw them in the dryer on low heat with some dry towels to help draw out moisture and a few clean tennis balls to resuscitate the filling.
The actual foam of your pillow probably shouldn’t go through the washer or dryer, but it should have a cover you can remove.
If the foam part of your pillow is all one piece, set that aside.
But if it’s shredded foam inside, have a bag handy. Empty the foam into the bag and seal it up to protect the contents while you launder the pillow cover.
For that piece, check the tag. When in doubt, a cold cycle and air drying usually does the trick.
Whether you’ve got foam pillows, an old feather pillow, or any other kind of bed pillows, you should be washing them (or the pillow covers at least) every six months.
Laundering pillowcases once a week keeps things clean and extends the life of your pillows—so figuring out how to dispose of old pillows is a less frequent pain in the proverbial neck.
2. Mend Or Repair Old Pillows
What, exactly, is the problem with that old pillow? If it’s a lack of stuffing or a hole in the pillow’s exterior, is it something you could fix?
Sometimes, old pillows can be made like new with a little TLC.
If it’s a stuffing problem, you might be able to consolidate two pillows into one. Take the stuffing from one old pillow, add it to the second one, and sew it back up.
This is an especially nice option for what to do with old feather pillows since the lack of toxins in feathers makes them more appealing for reuse in other pillows.
Think of it this way: you can recycle old feather pillows AND revive ones you still want.
3. Recycle Pillows When You Can
Recycling pillows is an easy way to get pillows off your hands while ensuring the materials that make them up get a new life.
But are pillows recyclable?
Yes, but as with mattress recycling, it’s unfortunately not as easy as popping them into the blue bin on your curb and your search results for “pillow recycling near me” will probably come up empty.
This is because most local recycling centers aren’t equipped to handle old pillows.
Because these textiles typically consist of multiple components, which means they need to be disassembled and sorted to be properly recycled.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean there aren’t old pillow recycling options. It just means you need to find a service that specializes in pillow recycling.
Usually, that means finding a local drop box that accepts textiles. Do a little research on recycling old pillows and textiles in your area. Two of the USA’s biggest providers might have a drop box near you.
American Textile Recycling Service (ATRS) takes pillows — including specialty ones for those wondering what to do with old memory phone pillows.
They don’t have a handy donation bin locator, but you can call their 24-hour hotline at (866) 900-9308. Give them your zip code and the operator will tell you if there are any ATRS drop boxes near you.
You might assume that you could also get a TerraCycle box to recycle old pillows, but that’s actually not the case. Their Fabrics and Clothing Zero Waste Box specifically says you can’t include textiles with fill (read: pillows).
However, just because you can’t recycle old down pillows in their entirety doesn’t mean TerraCycle is a no-go. Remove the filling and repurpose that separately then toss the encasement in with the rest of your old clothes recycling box.
4. Donate Pillows If They’re In Good Shape
Can you donate used pillows?
Yes, but donating pillows assumes they still have some life.
This option works best for a pillow you bought a short while ago but didn’t end up liking it, or a pillow from your guest bed that didn’t get much use.
Don’t pawn your ultra-flat, lumpy pillow off onto the thrift store. If you do, it will likely end up in the landfill. Around 84% of clothes donated to thrift stores do—and it’s a lot easier to sell a well-loved jacket than a done-in pillow.
So where can you donate used pillows?
Thrift stores are the first options that probably come to mind but before you assume you can haul your old bed pillows down to your local thrift store, call ahead.
A lot of stores prohibit bedding (like old sheets) and pillow donations because of the risk of bed bugs and other hygienic reasons. Some may allow you to donate throw pillows but not old bed pillows.
Donating pillows to charities, animal shelters, and homeless shelters is a better option to ensure they actually get used, being among the top items homeless shelters need.
In short, the process for how to donate pillows boils down to three things:
- Confirm they’re in good enough shape that someone else could feasibly use them. Donation is not the answer for what to do with old flat pillows.
- Wash the pillows.
- Call to confirm that they will actually accept your old pillow donations.
Following those steps can save you the hassle of hauling your old bed pillow down to the dropoff point only to get turned away.
5. Compost Natural Pillows
You might be able to compost your old bed pillows if they’re made of the right stuff. Specifically, you need them to be made from natural materials.
If you know the stuffing is 100% cotton, wool, or down, for example, you can dump that into your compost bin.
Before you add the whole pillow in, though, make sure the pillow’s exterior fabric is a natural material and remove any thread (which is usually still polyester), tags, and zippers.
Natural latex foam is also compostable but may not break down quickly enough outside high-heat industrial settings, so check with the manufacturer or brand.
If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to disassemble and compost what you know will break down. Getting at least a portion of your old pillows into the compost pile means you’re minimizing your contribution to the landfill.
Composting is the most sustainable end-of-life solution for pretty much any product, so when you’re looking for a new replacement, have some foresight for future disposal conundrums and consider buying organic pillows.
6. Repurpose Or Upcycle Old Pillows
If you’re wondering how to recycle pillows but don’t have local options, turn to opportunities in your own house.
There’s nothing that says that what you currently use as bed pillows can only be used as bed pillows.
In fact, you might be able to get more life out of them if you move them to a different cushioning function.
Here are some creative ways to repurpose old bed pillows, couch pillows, and more:
- Fill out throw pillows, floor cushion seats, and poufs. An old flat pillow can be stuffed into a square throw pillowcase, plumping it up and adding decorative accent pillows to your couch, chair, or bed.
- Create a garden knee pad. Just add a waterproof cover to your old bed pillow (or two, if you have bad knees) and you can use it to make your gardening efforts or general outdoor chill sessions that much more comfortable.
- Make a pet bed. You can either start from scratch or use it to fill lumpy, dead spots inside an existing eco-friendly pet bed. This may not be the best solution for how to dispose of polyester pillows if your furry friend tends to eat their bed as much as they sleep in it.
- Create a quilt. Take that cotton or polyfill and use it as batting for the old t-shirt quilt you’ve been working on. Two upcycles in one!
- Create a door draft stopper. Take the case and sew into a long tube, stuff it, and use it to block drafts and keep your house more energy efficient.
7. Downcycle Pillow Stuffing
The old pillow stuffing could be the secret to your next DIY project’s success.
You can use it to fill a stuffed animal, stuffed keychains, or decorative stockings for the holiday season. Heck, a stuffed old sock with a face sewn on could become an eco-friendly toy for your kiddos.
Old pillow stuffing can be used for practically any craft project that needs a little more volume and you can dye the remaining fabric into a colorful fabric for the art project of your choice.
No ideas at the moment?
Keep those old pillow feathers and fluff on hand for the next time creativity strikes or donate it to your artist friends or local crafting groups.
If you’re not the creative type and don’t know any, turn old pillow stuffing into packing material filler and old pillowcases into zero waste cleaning rags.
8. How to Throw Away Pillows
So, you’ve washed your old pillows and they’re still flat and lumpy. There’s nowhere to recycle old pillows near you and they’re too worn to consider the pillow donation option.
You don’t anticipate any upcycle or downcycle projects and your pillows aren’t compostable.
When the landfill seems to be the only viable option for how to dispose of pillows, it’s time to toss them in a trash bag.
It might feel sad to toss your pillows in the trash, but that’s likely what would happen anyway.
If the pillow is past its usable life, donation centers have no use for it.
Since most local recycling services aren’t equipped with a textile recycling facility, adding it to your recycling bin amounts to nothing more than wishcycling—which wastes recycling center resources and can contaminate whole batches of recyclables.
Long story short, if you’ve explored all of your other options for what to do with old used pillows, you’re doing the right thing by adding them to your next trash haul.
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Why You Should Learn How To Dispose of Unwanted Pillows
Did you know experts recommend you retire your pillow every two years (or 3-4 depending on its fill)?
We sure didn’t (as we guiltily try to recall when last we purchased a pillow…).
Even if the majority are lax like us on how often they retire pillows (about every three years on average according to some surveys) spread across eight billion people on the planet, that’s a LOT of pillows going to the landfill.
The majority of these are cheap, disposable pillows (which ironically last less time still than more quality alternatives) that are stuffed with synthetic fabrics, namely polyester fiber.
These not only require the acquisition of virgin petroleum to manufacture but break down slowly over the course of decades, leaching microplastics into the environment as they do so.
Even natural sustainable fabrics—like cotton, wool, natural latex, and down feathers—become unsustainable when thrown in landfills.
This is because it quickly gets covered in other trash, resulting in anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition. Which in turn leads to the release of methane gas, a GHG that traps heat in the atmosphere 28 to 36 times more effectively than CO2.
Final Thoughts On What To Do With Old, Flat, Gross Pillows
Help put Earth’s landfill problems to bed by skipping the trash and instead pursuing alternative options for how to dispose of pillows.
For now, though, focus on your pillows.
While they might have become a pain in the neck, you can make sure they don’t become a pain for the environment—helping you sleep even better as you settle into your new pillow each night.
If you’ve overheard any friends or coworkers asking, “Can you recycle old pillows?”, share this article with them so we can all know how to responsibly dispose of old pillows.