Sustainable Fashion: Recycling Challenges in The Textile Industry

Sustainable Fashion: Recycling Challenges in The Textile Industry

Sustainable Fashion: Recycling Challenges in The Textile Industry

Sustainability is a system that is designed to exist in a balanced state.

I think it's fair enough to say that no company in the fashion and textile industry meets this definition. The next step would be regeneration that stands for reciprocity that gives back more than it takes, or in other words: regeneration restores.

Many stakeholders in the fashion and textile industry try to reduce their environmental impact. But we have to be realistic, everything takes time, it also took us decades to come to the point we are now. In the end we must save water and land, we need to reduce and compensate for global greenhouse gas emissions, we have to reduce micro-plastics in ocean and soil, and we must reduce waste destined for landfill or incineration.

Questionable Facts Plague The Conversation Around Sustainability and Fashion

We should use the same resources again and again and not only virgin materials. Ultimately the industry should aim for circularity. Circular innovations that work today are mostly still at small scale. Upscaling circularity is the next big thing.

Globally we are almost throwing away the same amount of clothes that is produced annually. 100 billion garments are being made each year. The global textile fibre market is increasing to 146 million metric tonnes in 2030, from 111 million metric tonnes in 2019. The current fashion system uses high volumes of non-renewable resources, including petroleum, extracted to produce clothes that are often used only for a short period of time, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration. There are good reasons to seek alternatives to chucking clothes in the bin.

Less than 1 per cent of the material in clothing is recycled into new garments. Most garments that are recycled are down-cycled. The biggest issue holding garment-to-garment recycling back is fibre quality, fibres are damaged during both wearing and washing. You can't take a well-used t-shirt, mechanically tear it apart and then make the fibres into a new one because they have lost so much fibre quality that the garment will not be able to fit into the market. Additionally, most of the recycling that can turn fibres back into fabric requires that the feedstock is based on mono-material. The problem is that most of the garments are made of fabric blends that make it impossible to recycle.

One option is to mix mechanically recycled fibres in with virgin fibres. Another possibility is to chemically break fibres down into their chemical building blocks and then rebuild them into new fibres with indistinguishable characteristics than virgin fibres. Only with a chemical approach we can get the raw materials back and close the loop on textile recycling on a big scale.

Recycling Blockchain

The major difference between mechanical and chemical recycling is that the quality of mechanical recycled materials are decreasing or are downcycled, you cannot produce the same product in the same quality again in order to create a truly circular economy. In chemical recycling the quality remains on the level of virgin quality and you can recycle it an infinite number of times.

Mechanical Recycling - In the 80s recycling was invented because the world was about to run out of space in landfill. Historically, "made with recycled content", refers to materials and products made from mechanical recycling. It essentially cleans, chops and sometimes melts fibres into reusable fibres again. The most common example in this regard is recycled polyester that is not circular in a proper sense because the recycled polyester garments were not a garment before, they were made of PET bottles. Only the clear bottles are shredded, liquified and polyester yarn is spun out of them. When a recycled polyester garment is made out of PET bottles, the circular loop of the bottles is broken. Polyester garments are not mechanically recyclable anymore, because of inclusions like dyestuffs. Other mechanical recycling examples are cotton and wool recycling. Materials can only be mechanically recycled a finite number of times due to degradation, often resulting in reduced performance in key properties. Mechanical recycling requires a specific material that is clean; no mixed textiles can be recycled. Mechanical recycling is designed to delay material from going to landfill due to downcycling. This is where Chemical Recycling comes in. 

Chemical Recycling - Chemical recycling can handle mixed textiles, even mixes with spandex. Many fabrics on the market that feel like cotton are blends of two or more different fibre types. Polycotton, for example, combines the soft, breathable characteristics of cotton with the durability and easy care of polyester. To recycle both the polyester and the cotton components of this blend - the recycling process must first separate them. This is impossible mechanically, but can be achieved chemically by playing on the different physical properties of the two fibres. In chemical recycling the material is broken down to basic building blocks to create new materials that are indistinguishable from virgin materials. It doesn't matter which kind of chemicals or dyes have been used and are still sticking in the garments.

Today a broad range of chemical recycling technologies exist, many developed by startups, but most of them are still in small or laboratory scale or are currently in the process to be scaled up. Each technology uses different inputs such as cotton, any other cellulose based materials or polyester and mixes, and the output is broad, from man-made cellulosic to polyester. We need many innovative technologies. Since the magnitude of the global textile waste issue is so large that no one company or single technology can solve it alone. To do so many startups have entered cooperation with big fibre or fashion companies.

Scaling recycling technologies is necessary in multiple global regions. China for instance is currently producing more than 20 million tonnes of fashion-related waste products each year, representing a combination of production of waste and old clothes.

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Susanna Koelblin

Commercialization & Sourcing Leader Focused On Circularity

From blockchain to recycling, Susanna talks about emerging technologies and circularity topics in the fashion industry.


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