Textile Recycling Is Getting a Much Needed Update

Resortecs team members in front of their Smart Disassembly™ machine.

With currently only 1 percent of clothes being recycled, the textile industry has a big waste problem. Here are the people stitching together a solution.

Autor*in Lana O'Sullivan, 04.24.23

Translation Luisa Ilse:

It’s long been on the tongues of eco-conscious fashion lovers that the industry has a big problem with waste. But despite this growing awareness — the increasing plastering of dubious “made with recycled materials” labels on mainstream brands and the like — the EU’s exports of used textiles have actually tripled since 2000, according to Deutsche Welle. 

After our homes, food, and mobility, fashion and textiles come in fourth as the most pressing concern for lawmakers with regard to how European lifestyles are damaging the planet. But that’s not always easy, as: “Most textiles are produced outside Europe”, says sustainability expert Lars Mortensen from the European Environment Agency, “which means the majority of the impacts happen outside Europe”.

What’s the problem?

The fourth most significant cause of environmental damage by Europeans might not sound like headline-holding stuff. But the truth is, fashion alone generates over 1.2 billion tons of CO₂ eq. per year, and the opportunities for reducing the industry’s impact on the planet are huge — arguably bigger and easier to achieve than, for example, making all of our homes energy negative. Currently only one percent of textiles are effectively recycled, for one. This means that 99 percent of the estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste generated across the globe every year are left to rot. 

“This system… pollutes the environment and degrades ecosystems in addition to creating societal impacts on a global scale”, says Chetna Prajapati a student working on creating sustainable textiles at Loughborough University in the UK. Microplastics from these garments bleed out into the soil and groundwater, poising the earth, animal species and, of course, humans. Textile recycling and, better yet, textile reuse, have the power to drastically reduce fashion’s environmental impact, particularly when compared to the incineration and landfilling used for the lion’s share of textile waste. 

Recycling textiles isn’t as easy as you might think

Even with the best intentions, recycling the clothes we wear isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The issue stems from the fact that clothes are made from a huge variety of fibres and materials; “problematic blends of natural yarns, mand-made filaments, plastics and metals”. Look at the shirt you’re wearing now. It might even say it’s 100 percent cotton on the label, but the label itself, as well as the threads used to stitch it on are typically not — they are likely to be polyester. This means that clothes have to be manually separated in order to be effectively recycled — a hugely time and cost-effective process that requires large amounts of skilled labour. 

The people finding a solution

Hyperspectral imaging 

One example of digital tools that are being developed to improve fashion’s waste problem is Finnish company Specim’s NIR hyperspectral cameras. The leading global supplier of hyperspectral imaging solutions worldwide, these cameras are developed to help to automate the sorting of textiles. The technology hopes to lower costs and increase the efficiency of material separation and recycling, but also has many further applications for other industries, including for: 

  • waste sorting and recycling
  • food quality and safety 
  • oil and mineral exploration
  • environmental monitoring
  • agriculture and vegetation
  • art and Archeology

Specim’s FX17 NIR camera enable was launched in 2017 and makes for clearer identification of the chemical composition of the inspected material, making it easier for automated sorters to do their job efficiently. Co-founder and senior application specialist Esko Herrala explains:

“The different materials differ in their chemical and molecular structures. As a result, these substances react differently to electromagnetic waves of different wavelengths in the way they absorb, reflect or let them pass through.”

The need to find solutions has never been greater, and will continue to rise. However, promising technological developments such as these, combined with increasing discoveries of its economic viability, give much to be hopeful about for those concerned about the textile industry’s waste problem. According to Specim Global Marketing Manager Miina Törmälä: 

“Textile recycling represents one exciting growth potential for our NIR hyperspectral cameras as textile recycling is growing. The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles also supports this growth.” 

Design-for-disassembly technology

Companies like Resortecs are looking at the issue of fashion waste from a totally different angle — starting from the assembly. Their heat-dissolvable stitching thread, Smart Stitch™, enables brands to transform their products into recyclable pieces from the manufacturing stage. On the other side of the garment’s cycle, their thermal disassembly system, Smart Disassembly™, “allows recyclers to tap into higher volumes of premium material, processing millions of garments per year without quality loss”. 

This disassembly not only makes it possible to recycle up to 90 percent of the original fabric but is also five times faster than traditional disassembly, thus increasing efficiency and saving on employee and fixed expenses. 

Committing to achieving full circularity in the fashion industry, the company has a simple aim: “Make recycling easy and actionable for fashion brands, recyclers and all supply chain partners”.

But — Reduce, Reuse Recycle is still the go-to mantra

Digital and technological solutions to the significant issue of fabric waste recycling are hugely beneficial in moving this largely unaddressed issue forward. However, with all of these new developments, it could be easy to forget that there is an order to how we should be prioritizing what happens to used garments: reduce, reuse, recycle

This means that before recycling even is an option, we should first be looking at whether the article needed to be made or bought in the first place. By reducing the number of products created and bought, we are nipping the issue in the bud before it even comes into existence. Do you really need a new carpet? Is that sweater really practical? How many new items of clothing do you need, when you bought a new wardrobe last year? These are the first questions we need to ask ourselves in order to reduce fabric waste. 

Secondly, can the article be reused as it is? For example, could those jeans be regifted or resold to someone else who would get a second life out of them? Could that t-shirt be reused as a cleaning cloth or something else around the home? Getting the most use out of our goods is a surefire way to extend their life and therefore reduce the need for another, new article, that will likely end in landfill, to be purchased. 

Then should come recycling. Recycling, even with improved materials and technology, still requires energy both to create the materials in the first place, and then to process them. However, recycling a product means that the amount of energy, water, and dye is reduced, offsetting the production of new materials. 

Reduction and reuse schemes are already in place across Europe and beyond, with increasing numbers. For example, companies such as Columbia, The North Face, Patagonia and others are taking strides to encourage customers to return their old clothing to the store for repurposing. Fast fashion is — finally — becoming unfashionable among (some of) those with influence. Second-hand monolith eBay even reported a 700 percent rise in pre-loved fashion searches after hit UK TV show Love Island was sponsored by the brand. So, perhaps the new push for fashion recycling improvements is a final stitch, just in time. 

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