Around 40 million tons of textiles are sent to the landfill or incinerated globally every year. The biggest contributor to this is the clothing industry, however, textile waste from furniture, footwear, and more, make up a significant portion of this as well. While all textiles are potentially recyclable, it is estimated that only 15% of textiles are being recycled.
There are two primary textile recycling methods in the fabric-to-fabric system, open-loop and closed-loop recycling.
Closed-loop recycling is when a material is recycled back into the same material. These materials ideally can be used, recycled and then reused in a circular model with hopes of keeping them in an endless lifetime. Alternatively, open-loop recycling is when a material is recycled into a different material. This method involves more steps and changes the composition of the material.
Fabric to fabric recycling falls into three main sub-categories; mechanical, chemical and biochemical. Mechanical involves turning fabrics such as polyester or nylon into flakes or pellets or re-spun into yarns by a process of melting and extracting. Chemical is done by using chemicals to separate and break down the materials to liquid, which can then be re-spun into their original composition.
Lastly, biochemical recycling is the environmentally friendly version of the three, which uses enzymes to break down materials to then be re-spun. However, this process does not work for all types of fabric, such as cotton, which requires a pre-treatment to properly break down.
Out of the three, mechanical is most widely used.
A crucial part of the recycling process is the sorting of materials. Textiles are often composed of multiple materials with different fibres, dyes, and treatments, making them difficult to separate and recycle back into one product. The Recyclability Potential Index states that in order, from highest to lowest recyclability potential, polyester is at the top, followed by acrylic, cotton, viscose and nylon - Recyclability Potential Index (RPI): The concept and quantification of RPI for textile fibres - Institute of Textiles and Clothing, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
There are many fabrics that have high recyclability potential and are widely used such as polyester, wool and cotton. All these fabrics can be recycled from pre- or post-consumer waste. Meaning that they’re made entirely out of fabric that was either never used such as scraps, or items that can no longer be used such as old garments or household items.
Polyester is one of the most used fabrics in the textile industry. The process to recycle polyester uses less steps than to make virgin polyester and therefore has a better environmental impact. Wool has similar potential and can be recycled multiple times and remain 100% wool therefore making it ideal for recycling. Cotton on the other hand must be combined with other fibers in order to maintain strength and durability as the quality degrades through the recycling process over time making it a more complex textile to recycle.
Textile recycling companies continue to emerge and are working on ways to become more structured and accessible.
Novetex Textiles Ltd created ‘The Billie System’, a 6-step recycling process combining new and existing technologies to “create a waterless solution for recycling textile waste, lowering harmful effects to the environment. This mechanical recycling system does not consume water or produce chemical waste” (thebillieupcycling.com). They work exclusively with brands to produce yarns from post-consumer garments.
Similarly, HKRITA has created a program called Garment-to-Garment which is a shop based in Hong Kong that recycles post-consumer articles into new ones. G2G also does not use water nor chemicals, making it more environmentally friendly. They are publicly accessible in Hong Kong to trial as part of their ongoing research project.
Renewcell is a Swedish company that created a product called Circulous out of 100% recycled fabrics. Circulous is a dissolving pulp used to create man-made fibres such as viscose. This product can be used by brands “to replace high impact raw materials like fossil oil and cotton in their textile products”(renewcell.com).
There are many other companies working on similar initiatives and there is a growing amount of research dedicated to this method. However, there is much work needed to be done as applying this concept is still in its beginning stages. Beyond the extensive process of recycling, it is important to question whether the added amounts of transportation of textiles to and from facilities, global shipments, and carbon emissions from increased use of equipment and technology make this worthwhile in every case.
While recycling materials is a growing opportunity, it is still yet to be widely used by companies for a multitude of reasons, including accessibility, cost, and the daunting question of whether it is as environmentally beneficial as perceived.
The Business of Fashion Sustainability Index 2021, based on the top leading brands in the fashion industry, reported that more than half the companies claimed to be actively seeking solutions for textile waste such as recycling programs. However, it is important to bear in mind that to date there are no clear indications or guarantees that these recycling technologies are always worth the investment.
It is estimated that technology like this could take decades to get to a level of ease that would make it financially feasible, while producing high quality product at a rate that matches demand. It is one of the many on-going open-ended discussions and experimentations regarding sustainable solutions in the industry. The possibilities remain very much up in the air albeit the prospects.
As said by Francois Souchet, Global Head of Sustainability and Impact at BPCM, “The industry can’t recycle its way out of the problem, it’s a last resort solution.” And until recycling solutions become more accessible and applicable, the industry must integrate its sustainable efforts across as many fronts as possible: eco-design, care guides, optimized sales forecasting, unsold and deadstock managements initiatives, just to name a few. But measuring and setting goals along with rethinking the brand's business model should always be the starting point of every sustainability journey.