One of the most important levers that the fashion industry can pull to reduce its environmental impact is closed-loop recycling, a system which is now starting to be rolled out at scale, promising to limit the extractive production of virgin raw materials and decrease textile waste. As these technologies mature, companies will need to embed them into the design phase of product development while adopting large-scale collection and sorting processes.
Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for around 40 million tonnes of textile waste a year, most of which is either sent to landfill or incinerated. Textile production, meanwhile, consumes vast quantities of water, land and raw materials. Engaging in closed-loop recycling is seen as a critical opportunity to both reduce the extractive production of virgin raw materials and limit textile waste. Closed-loop systems recycle materials again and again, so that they theoretically remain in constant circulation. Textile production is more resource depleting than many other sectors. In the European Union, for example, the textile sector is the fourth biggest consumer of primary raw materials and water (following food, housing and transport), while the industry’s reliance on fossil fuel-based textiles like polyester only adds to the challenge. Yet there are pockets of the global fashion industry that are starting to get serious about addressing these challenges at scale by working towards developing closed-loop recycling processes that have the potential to limit textile waste, reduce carbon footprints and partly upend fashion’s extractive business model. Currently, less than 10 percent of the global textile market is composed of recycled materials,and this is largely the product of open-loop recycling using PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle waste, which does not address the need to recycle materials from the fashion industry and has been criticised for breaking the well-established closed-loop process of recycling plastic bottles into other plastic bottles. If the industry is to reduce the volume of waste going to landfill and limit the extractive production of textiles, closed-loop recycling systems will be required at scale. The shift to more closed-loop systems is underway, driven in part by regulatory efforts to support a circular economy, which aim to relieve some of the pain points relating to waste collection and sorting. The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, scheduled for adoption in the third quarter of 2021, incorporates an objective to ensure circular economy principles are applied to textile manufacturing, products, consumption and waste management. Meanwhile, the EU’s Waste Directive Framework requires countries to separate all textile waste by 2025, and several European nations have implemented extended producer responsibility schemes, making brands and retailers responsible for post-consumer waste and requiring financial contributions from producers for the collection, recycling and reuse of products. Every country needs to take responsibility and create that circularity.
Still, if the industry is to align with global climate objectives and its own commitments on sustainable materials, it will also need to take action at a brand level to make a difference. One challenge the industry faces is achieving sufficient scale in closed-loop processes. However, recent innovations are starting to reach maturity, moving from pilots to proofs of concept on industrial levels. Mechanical cotton recycling, through which cotton is shredded into reuseable fibres, has been in use for a long time. One example of mechanical recycling is the large-scale pilot in Bangladesh by the Circular Fashion Partnership, led by the Global Fashion Agenda, which aims to capture and direct post-production waste back into the production of new textiles, as well as developing solutions for deadstock. The partnership plans to roll out to countries including Vietnam and Indonesia.Mechanical cotton recycling has historically been more difficult to implement for garments that are already worn, mainly due to challenges in collection and sorting. As a result, less than 1 percent of cotton was recycled in 2020.
The Billie System – Hong Kong-based yarn spinner Novetex Textiles, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) has developed a method called The Billie System for mechanical recycling of cotton blends. It provides an innovative way for brands and companies looking to revive excess inventory, unused raw materials, or textile waste. The Billie System combines new and existing technologies to create a waterless solution for recycling textile waste and lowering chemical waste. The machines can process up to three tonnes of recycled fibres per day, which can be blended with virgin materials to produce yarn for various products and garments.
EcoCycle – Coats, the world’s leading industrial thread company, has launched EcoCycle, a range of water dissolvable threads to facilitate the disassembly of garments. Coats has been looking to scale up its circular solution through collaboration at the garment design stage. The new thread retains its durability during the life of the garment but when washed in an industrial machine at 95oC, seams sewn with EcoCycle dissolve. This enables the garment to be easily and quickly disassembled by simply pulling it apart so the non-textile and textile components can be sorted for recycling.
The Circular Fashion Partnership – It is a cross-sectorial project, led by the Global Fashion Agenda, to support the development of the textile recycling industry in Bangladesh by capturing and directing post-production fashion waste back into the production of new fashion products. In addition, the partnership seeks to find solutions for the COVID-19 related pile-up of deadstock and to engage regulators and investors around the current barriers and economic opportunities in the country.
Circulose – The Swedish textile-to-textile recycling innovator Renewcell has signed a Letter of Intent with Birla Cellulose, the pulp and fibre business of Grasim Industries Limited, a flagship company of the Aditya Birla Group and one of the world’s largest man-made cellulosic fibre producers, concerning a long-term commercial collaboration for man-made cellulosic fibre production. The agreement affirms the two companies’ intent to work together to supply high quality Liva Reviva textile fibres made using Circulose, Renewcell’s 100 per cent recycled textile raw material, to global fashion brands and textile industry in the coming years. The shared ambition is to use 30,000 tonnes of Circulose per year. Renewcell has also partnered with brands H&M and Levi’s and has an agreement with Beyond Retro’s parent company Bank & Vogue, which supplies post-consumer waste to Renewcell. Renewcell is building a new plant that will be able to recycle 60,000 tonnes of textiles a year by 2022.
OnceMore – Austria’s Lenzing AG, a global manufacturer and supplier of wood-based specialty fibres, and Sweden’s Sodra Group, a world-class producer of pulp, have signed a cooperation agreement in June 2021, with the goal to process 25,000 tons of textile waste per year by 2025, which equates to 50,000 tons of pulp containing 50 per cent wood and 50 per cent post-consumer waste. Under this agreement, the two companies will combine their expertise and knowledge in a bid to speed up the journey towards circularity. The companies have named their recycled pulp OnceMore. In the OnceMore process, cotton and polyester are separated from polycotton blends, which is one of the world’s most widely used textile types.
BlockTexx – BlockTexx is a clean technology company that recovers polyester and cellulose from textiles and clothing. Its mission is to divert textiles and clothing away from landfill and accelerate the global textile recycling industry towards a sustainable future. Using separation of fibre technology (S.O.F.T), the company estimates that one can reclaim “98 per cent of resources from cotton and polyester garments” by converting them back into raw materials that can then be used for production. BlockTexx is building a textile recycling facility for polyester-cotton blends that aims to recycle 10,000 tonnes a year by the end of 2022.
Green Machine – In 2021, Turkey’s denim company Isko signed a licensing agreement for the “green machine” technology developed by HKRITA, which recycles cotton and polyester blends. The Green Machine employs an ultra-efficient hydrothermal treatment method that decomposes cotton into cellulose powders and enables the separation of polyester fibres from blended fabrics. The closed-loop process uses only water, heat and less than 5 per cent biodegradable green chemicals. In addition, Isko and HKRITA will work together to develop related technology.
SIPTex – In 2020, Sysav waste treatment and recycling company of Sweden opened the world’s first industrial-scale, fully automated textile sorting plant, SIPTex which stands for ‘Swedish innovation platform for textile sorting’. It will be the link which is currently lacking between textile collection and high-quality textile recycling with the capacity to sort 24,000 tonnes of textile waste a year.
Fibersort – In 2020, Belgium-based Valvan Baling Systems launched Fibersort, a fully automatic technology specifically developed for the sorting of textiles based on fibre composition and colour properties that can sort around 900 kilogram of post-consumer textiles per hour, enabling a closed loop textiles solution.
A critical piece of the used clothes recycling puzzle is collection and sorting. To that end, authorities, waste companies and brands are making efforts to develop solutions. These offer some promise, but further efforts are required, including moving from manual to automated sorting at scale. For example, in Sweden Sysav waste treatment and recycling company opened the world’s first industrial-scale, fully automated textile sorting plant in 2020, with the capacity to sort 24,000 tonnes of textile waste a year.
How do we make that as low as possible and manage that? So that’s another trade-off with going circular. Experts mostly agree that closed-loop recycling will not realise its potential until products are specifically designed for that purpose, for example by facilitating the easier separation of materials through design. Claire Bergkamp, chief operating officer at Textile Exchange, a nonprofit aimed at improving the environmental standard of raw materials production, suggests that this also means incorporating the intention to recycle into design curriculums and industry-wide organisational thinking: “What’s going to happen to the product when the first user is done with it? Is it durable? Will it have a long enough life? That’s the crux. If you are intentionally making something that is not long-lasting, it needs to be recyclable,” she said For that reason, some parts of the industry are coalescing around common design standards, such as the Jeans Redesign Project by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. By May 2021, 80 percent of the project’s participants had made fabrics or jeans that complied with the guidelines. Additionally, designers have more access to software that can support design with recycling in mind, such as the Circular Material Library from Circular Fashion, which showcases materials that have been tested and validated for future recyclability. Furthermore, innovations such as Ecocycle, a dissolvable thread recently launched by industrial thread company Coats, are making the recycling process more efficient, unlocking the removal of non-textile components and facilitating easier sorting of materials from the same garment. As an increasing number of fashion players commit to circular materials, scaling will be essential in collection, sorting and recycling. However, the rollout of industrial processes will drive down prices and boost demand for garments made from circular materials. To maintain a competitive advantage and secure access to circular textiles, fashion players may need to invest directly in recycling facilities and contribute to finding solutions for collection and sorting. Scaling, of course, will require capex and will mean decision makers will need to look past the still comparatively cheap costs of virgin materials.To be sure, closed-loop recycling processes also present environmental challenges, including greenhouse gas emissions and significant water use, with some critics suggesting that the reduction in impact from closed-loop processes will not be enough to slow down fashion’s negative impact on climate change.
The textile and apparel industry has already caused a significant amount of damage to the environment. While sustainable fashion practices are slowly catching up, there’s a long road ahead for the industry to walk on to eliminate risks of fast fashion.
Source: McKinsey state of fashion 2022