Recycling – can the fashion sector become self-sufficient in resources?
Often brandished as an illustration of eco-responsibility, from baby steps to an over-frequent phenomenon, it has only taken a few years for recycling to blossom in the fashion world.
Alternately loved and decried, is recycling the solution to a virtuous collection?
As a sector under intense scrutiny for its excessive use of natural and fossil resources, fashion has found a counter to this concern with the boom in recycled materials. Promoting a new, non-linear production system, associating recycling with circularity has become commonplace. However, the golden rules of the circular economy are the 5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Return to the earth. Recycling is therefore just one stage in a circular approach and not enough on its own. A long-standing technique for wool but more innovative for other fibres, the range of recycled materials is now rich and diverse, with all types of fibre available in a recycled version, whether of natural, animal, synthetic or artificial origin.
Recycled materials are characterised by a number of parameters
These are resources used instead of raw primary materials, coming from closed circuit recycling, from within the fashion sector: • Pre-consumer textiles or leathers, from the industrial phase (fibre production/spinning/weaving/ knitting/offcuts) or unsold finished products. • Post-consumer textiles or leathers, where old clothes are collected for reuse. Or open-circuit recycling, where the resources come from another sector: • Waste from plastic production, PET bottles, fishing nets • Vegetable by-products from the agri-food or cosmetic industries
They do not have the same advantages or limits:
MECHANICAL RECYCLING This is currently the most widespread technique. It can be used to produce recycled wool and cotton, as well as the vast majority of recycled synthetics. It produces materials with a reduced environmental impact, but the fibre obtained by these methods is generally of lower quality and has to be blended with a virgin fibre to compensate. As the processed material is not perfectly light in colour, the possibilities for dyeing are also limited.
CHEMICAL RECYCLING Like all technologies, it depends on the way it is used. It is important to analyse the energy required for the process and the CO2 emissions generated to demonstrate a reduced carbon footprint compared to a virgin material. This technology can require high levels of heat, pressure and chemical solvents, so it is important to demonstrate that there is not a negative impact on water, air and the environment. The specifications relating to chemical substances, such as those of Oekotex Passport, Bluesign or ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardeous Chemicals) can accompany these developments. The major advantage of chemical recycling, particularly for synthetic materials, is to recreate the native structure of the polymer, the monomer. This purified version can be used to recreate a fibre that has identical properties to the virgin fibre, thus offering the promise of a material that can be recycled endlessly. It can also allow cottons and cellulosic materials to be recycled into new artificial materials.
How they are used ?
There are a number of outlets, depending on the resource and the techniques used: • Cottons and wools are frequently found in collections after having been mechanically recycled. They are sorted by colour and type of fibre, processed to remove impurities and shredded in order to be re-spun. • Cottons and vegetal residues can be chemically recycled and thus produce new cellulosic materials. • The vast majority of recycled synthetics come from PET bottles or fishing nets, mostly produced using mechanical recycling. • Recycled leathers are mainly produced from pre-consumer resources, tanning or manufacturing offcuts, which are mechanically processed into reconstituted leather, made up of recycled leather fibres and binding agents in polyurethane or latex, or from recycled leather fibres set at the surface of a synthetic material. The certifications To assist in the identification of recycled materials, there are two widely-used certifications: • RCS – Recycled Claim Standard only verifies the recycled content, and sets a minimum level of 5% of recycled resources in a material. • GRS – Global Recycled Standard has more rigorous criteria with a minimum of 20% recycled material, extending this to 50% in order to communicate to consumers that a product is GRS certified. This certification also covers additional requirements for chemical inputs and social and environmental aspects
Recycled or recyclable? This often causes confusion. A recyclable material has the potential to be recycled. However, although in theory many materials could be recycled, in practice, it is not always possible. It involves being able to create specific collection and processing networks, collecting recyclable materials in sufficient volumes to be able to launch an industrial production process and also scale up certain niche technologies. The recycled nature of a material does not eliminate certain problems; notably the question of microfibres remains, whether the resource is virgin or recycled. Beware as well of the myth of recycled synthetics as an apparently ideal response to the problem of plastics. Today, they still require some virgin hydrocarbon resources in order to ensure a good quality fibre. Consequently, if consumption of synthetic materials continues to increase at the same pace, the use of accompanying fossil fuel resources will remain substantial. Recycled synthetics could represent an environmental advantage if, in parallel, there is an effort to reduce the overall use of synthetics
Design for recycling: what helps and what hinders In order to ensure optimal recyclability, certain criteria are known to help or hinder recycling. • COMPOSITION Mono-materials, and long initial fibres are real assets to ensuring a second life for a material. Elastane should not represent more than 2 – 5% of a material. Work with bi-material blends, ideally of a similar typology (wool + cashmere, cotton + viscose, etc.) and limit the second material to 15 – 20% Do not use metallic fibres • MULTIPLE TEXTURES It is recommended to avoid: Complex fabrics like jacquard Warp knits (which cannot be unravelled and therefore cannot be shredded), Fabrics with a high degree of mechanical elasticity Very thick materials or very fine threads • EMBELLISHMENTS AND DECORATIONS Certain finishes such as crease proof, flocking and coatings can disrupt recycling. Bonded or sewn decorations are also problematic
Textile-to-textile recycling This is the cornerstone, which could create a step change and requires commitment and massive investment. Only 1% of materials are recycled from textiles into textiles and this is the heart of the matter: there needs to be an effective recycling structure within the fashion industry. Cotton and polyester are the two most widely used fibres worldwide. Textile Exchange says that just 1% of cotton and 15% of polyester comes from recycling, with 99% of recycled polyester coming from recycled PET bottles. While it is undeniable that reusing plastic bottles means less fossil fuel resources need to be extracted, it also generates sourcing battles between industries, as the agri-food industry, the main supplier, ends up competing with the textile industry. The fashion industry must recycle what it sends to market, and not draw on materials from other sectors. While recycling is one aspect of the circular economy, a truly responsible garment should primarily be longer-lasting, thanks to its quality and its capacity to supersede fashion trends
Is polyester recycling a sustainable solution?
The overwhelming popularity of recycled polyester would suggest that it’s a kind of miracle solution for fashion and the environment. And although it is a real solution, it’s not as simple as all that, and it’s certainly not a license to mass-produce new polyester for secondary recycling. The recycling process is itself energy-intensive, production channels continue to lack structure and the origin of the transformed material remains difficult to trace. We think it’s important to add here that the energy performance of recycled polyester is still lower than that of natural materials and it is a good idea to remain wary, both in terms of its use and brand message.
The problematic omnipresence of PET Polyethylene terephthalate, the scientific name for PET, is a plastic, and therefore made from petrochemicals. When it comes in the form of a textile fiber, PET is called polyester, and can be used to manufacture clothing. The majority of PET plastic produced is marketed as polyester. It is estimated that 60% of the virgin PET made across the globe is used to make clothing. The use of polyester is widespread throughout the fashion industry, and over half of fashion products contain polyester, particularly sportswear, footwear and waterproof outerwear. Most people are well familiar with polyester’s negative impact on the environment. Research conducted jointly in 2019 by the Institut Français de la Mode and Première Vision demonstrated that, in Western countries, consumers rank polyester at the top of the list of materials perceived as least eco-friendly, and are expecting brands to introduce change. Several brands (H&M, Timberland, Nike, Esprit, Volcom), alongside the Textile Exchange association, had already committed in 2017 to using at least 25% recycled polyester by 2020 . Using recycled material has an undeniable ecological interest – it takes 50% less energy to make, it avoids producing oceanic waste or landfill and the extraction of non-renewable resources. However, it’s a bit dangerous to present recycled polyester as a miracle solution.
The limits of recycled polyester
To start, whether recycled or not, polyester generates plastic microparticles during each wash, microparticles which are released in the wastewater and then into the oceans. Secondly, polyester can’t be infinitely recycled because recycling causes it to lose strength and quality. As of now, it is still quite complex to design a recycled polyester product without the addition of virgin material. The recycling process is itself energy intensive, due to the process of dismantling the components of a garment or a shoe, which is made even more complicated by the fact that there are numerous components (often several textiles or even blends, non-dissociable finishings), the use of chemicals for depolymerization, etc. Some companies, such as the TBS brand, are looking to bypass these issues, with for example ReSource, the first sneaker that can be shredded and recycled without requiring dismantling . It’s still impossible to trace the origin of recycled polyester. Our recycled polyester garments are mostly made from used packaging, and their origins are unknown. Citeo, the French organization in charge of organizing and developing packaging recycling, says 15 PET bottles must be recycled to make a polyester sweater. To ensure their production volumes in recycled polyester, brands thus require access to a large and stable pool of raw materials. They must therefore necessarily use recycled PET from the selective sorting of private individuals. It is important to be wary of brands making assurances to the consumer of the “recycled from ocean waste” nature of a material or finished product. On the consumer side, it is possible to refer to certain labels such as GRS (Global Recycle Standard), Œko Tex STeP and Bluesign, which guarantee that a given recycled polyester has been produced as cleanly as possible, limiting the presence of solvents and other chemicals in its manufacturing. The various sub-sectors continue to fall short of ambitions, because structuring these recycling activities amounts to creating a second parallel industry. Raw material deposits are multi-site (preconsumer as at Mud Jeans, and/or post consumer as at Circle or Shak & Kaï), and the processes of material sorting, defibration, possible depolymerization and then polymerization into a textile fiber require a dedicated industrial park, assisted by substantial financing. From a strictly environmental point of view, recycled polyester is more sustainable than virgin polyester, yet still less efficient than most natural materials. To date, it seems best to avoid it and, when it is necessary for a garment’s technical performance, to unhesitatingly prefer recycled polyester, and inform consumers in a transparent way about its origins, the decision to choose the material and the best way to care for it in a sustainable way.