Clothing not only responds to practical needs; fashion has become a form of self-expression with the result that the sheer volume and variety of textile products available on the market have reached unprecedented levels. The textile industry is a $1 trillion worldwide business. Yet, textiles are not used just for clothes; they are also in our homes, hotels, hospitals, workplaces, vehicles and leisure equipment. (BIR 2018.) The term ‘textiles’ encompasses a plethora of items from apparel to linens and upholstery, from geo-textiles to building materials (e.g. house insulation) and automotive components (e.g. soundproofing) (Leonas 2017, 57).
If there is one thing Americans should not do as the Europeans do, it is textile recycling. The European Federation of the recycling industry estimates that, of all collected textiles, approximately 50 percent are reused and 50 percent are recycled (BIR 2018). Of the 5.8 million tons of fabric waste Europeans discard every year, only 25 percent is recycled, according to a report released by Friends of the Earth Europe in 2013. On average, 40 to 50 percent of waste textiles can be recycled into garments. Roughly 20 to 25 percent are recommissioned as cleaning cloths, while 20 to 30 percent is used by other industries as a secondary raw material. (Chua 2013.)
The US EPA estimates that textile waste occupies nearly 5 percent of all landﬁll space and the average US citizen throws away 70 lb. of clothing annually. It is also estimated that the textile recycling industry recycles approximately 3.8 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste that accounts for approximately 15 percent of the total. (National Cotton Council of America 2016.)
Without sticking to exact statistics, the clear message from all sources is that valuable materials, many of which come at a high environmental and social cost, end up in landfill or incineration (Chua 2013).
Image 1. About three-fourths of the textile waste ends in landfills
Although textile recycling has been lagging behind many other areas of recycling – e.g. paper, glass or electronics – awareness is finally increasing in the EU countries. In addition to such incentives as voluntary European ecolabel, a number of innovative research and development projects have been launched to accelerate the reclaim of the wasted fiber both in individual member states and within the EU (cf. supranational collaborative research, such as Horizon 2020). To cite an example, a cross-sectorial EU project called Trash-2-Cash pools together designers, researchers, materials suppliers and textile producers from all over Europe to create regenerated fibers and design high-quality industrial materials from textile waste (like old jeans). [See https://www.trash2cashproject.eu/trash-2-cash-about-page/.]
New emerging technologies play a key role in creating a circular business ecosystem, which creates shared value for all parties along the value chain (Fontell & Heikkilä 2017, 3).
Image 2. Circular business ecosystem for textiles
My humble objective is to catch a narrow glimpse of the present attempts to replace some of the virgin materials – such as cotton or wool – with recycled textile materials. This article does not aspire to provide a comprehensive, exhaustive overview of all the European research and development projects, or business pilots. It just presents a few random examples of the latest achievements to illustrate the prevailing trend. The selected cases will focus on textile recycling exclusively – as opposed to reuse (see below).
Defining the basic concepts: recycling vs. reuse
Recycling refers to the breakdown of product into its raw materials in order for the raw material to be reclaimed and used in new products (Payne 2015, 105). Textiles for recycling are generated from two primary sources (Leblanc 2017; Leonas 2017, 66.):
1. Pre-consumer waste, including scrap created as a by-product from yarn and fabric manufacture, as well as the post-industrial scrap textiles from other industries.
2. Post-consumer waste, including garments, vehicle upholstery, household items, etc. The donation of old garments is supported by non-profit as well as many corporate programs. Several companies have likewise established used apparel and footwear drop boxes where the product goes through a recycling process and the materials can be recovered.
The use of recycled raw materials aligns with the larger movements of global industries toward a circular economy (vs. linear). The aim is to achieve a closed-loop production cycle. There has been great effort in recycling of polyester and cotton due to their wide use. Nylon and wool also have successful recycling programs. In addition, some ﬁrms are beginning to recycle aramids. Even so-called “inferior fibers” can be mixed with other substitutes to produce paper, board and fleece. In the processing, there are two categories commonly used in textiles, namely mechanical and chemical methods. (Chua 2013; Leonas 2017, 55, 65.)
Image 3. Fibers from textile waste
In contrast, reuse refers to the action or practice of using something again, whether for its original purpose (conventional reuse) or to fulfill a different function (creative reuse or repurposing) (Wiki-pedia 2018). In the case of creative reuse, the product will be disassembled and then reassembled into a new, possibly different product. Examples of repurposing are frequently seen in pop culture including a famous scene from Gone with the Wind, where Mamie removed the green velvet drapes and repurposed them into a gown for Scarlett O’Hara. (Leonas 2017, 60.)
Eco-conscious designers are respectively breathing new life into vintage clothes by revamping them. A few simple alterations can make old threads chic but sometimes the new garment has nothing to do with the original. For instance, young eco designers are transforming sweaters into tops or corduroys into backpacks. This fashion genre, which is slowly creeping into the mainstream, has different names: redesigned fashion, repurposed clothing, restructured design… (Dirksen 2010.) It inspires DIY wizards, too, who display their creations on social media or community college exhibitions.
Although second-hand stores and flea markets are trendy among certain customer segments,
nearly half of discarded textiles are donated to charities. Over 60 percent of clothes recovered for second-hand use are exported. In many African countries, more than 80 percent of the population dress themselves in second-hand clothing. Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity are well-known global examples of non-profit NGOs running reuse centers and affordable restores. (BIR 2018.)
Image 4. Scarlett O’Hara in curtain dress
Image 5. Modern reuse.
Pre-consumer textile waste from Indian factories
A Finnish clothing company produces 100 % recycled yarns, fabrics and ready-made garments in India. It has production facilities in the Tirupur area. The company uses pre-consumer textile waste as raw material and relies on chemical recycling. The textile waste, which is collected from nearby factories, comes in the form of cutting clips and spinning waste. After sourcing the materials, the material is sorted by color and quality, and carded carefully apart without weakening the quality of the fibers. The cotton is then spun into yarns, and finally turned into a 100 % recycled high-quality textile. (Fontell & Heikkilä 2017, 52.)
When buying a t-shirt of this company, the customer receives a reminder of the amount of water saved, i.e. a total of 2,700 liters. In terms of the environment, the company wants to ensure that the production does not contaminate or deplete the area’s sparse natural resources. For example, the plant has a rainwater collection system and it uses renewable energy, namely wind and solar power. Not only environmental aspects are considered, but social and economic responsibility as well. The company wants to give back to the society and offer good working conditions for its employees. (Fontell & Heikkilä 2017, 52.)
Feeling of cotton and viscose from a recycled fabric
The method developed at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland involves dissolving worn, discarded cotton and using it as a raw material for new fiber. The recycled fiber is transformed into a yarn and a fabric. The fabric made from the recycled fiber meets the researcher’s expectations: it drapes nicely, and feels natural, smooth and pleasant with a subdued matt finish. The first model products, gloves and flat-knitted fabrics, were manufactured by a small Finnish knitwear company.
Further research and development is still required in order to stabilize the process reliability. The process is based on carbamate dissolution. A startup was established to advance the process design and licensing of this technology.
The method is much friendlier to the environment than the viscose process, in which carbon disulphide is needed for dissolution. In addition, polyester residues are removed from the cotton material using methods familiar from the pulp industry. According to the calculations during the technology commercialization project, the carbon footprint of the recycled fiber produced by carbamate technology is a third smaller than that for cotton. The water footprint of the recycled fiber is 2 percent of that of virgin cotton and 10 percent of viscose.
For further reading, view the primary source: http://www.vttresearch.com/media/news/fabric-made-from-vtts-recycled-fibre-feels-half-way-between-cotton-and-viscose
Replacement for nylon and polyester in sportswear
Econyl is a type of nylon manufactured wholly from waste streams that include abandoned fishing nets and carpets. It is billed as a sustainable alternative to Nylon 6, which is traditionally sourced from caprolactam (a derivative of oil). Swimwear brands were among the first to invest in the use of Econyl fibers as the majority of their products are made from nylon. Besides swimwear, Econyl is suitable for the manufacture of sportswear, lingerie and outdoor clothing.
Returnity is a 100 % recyclable polyester which is replacing not only traditional polyester, but cotton and wool-based fabrics too. Returnity is mainly used in the workwear market, where takeback of corporate garments is easier to arrange. Extension to the fashion market is considered possible, in particular in areas where garments are polyester-based, such as sportswear, outdoor wear and jackets. According to the firm which owns the European license for the product, Returnity fabrics reduce CO2 impact by 73 %, waste management by 100 %, and water usage by 95 % compared to cotton.
For further reading, view the primary source: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2015/jan/22/fabric-recycling-closed-loop-process-high-street-fashion
Chain management for circular workwear
A Dutch pioneer firm is the frontrunner in chain management for the textile industry. As chain manager, it develops workwear, corporate wear and textile related products that are designed to be reused. The company designs and produces 100 % recyclable garments; controls the circular chain; and designs and manages new circular textile supply chains. In addition to creating eco-effective innovations, it tests market validation of the new business models.
The Dutch company produces high visibility and protection clothing for employees who work in demanding environments. Special workwear is fully tailored to the needs of the customers. These specials can be certified according to the standards required for the work activities of employees. The brand guarantees the reuse of the corporate clothing as well as the tracking of the garments.
The Circular Content Management System (CCMS) is a circular track and trace system in which all partners in the supply chain are involved. CCMS is a database containing information about materials. It also includes a life cycle analysis, and a purchasing and inventory management tool. Raw materials and products receive unique barcodes, so they can be followed through every stage of development, in order make the raw materials available for reuse.
One of the company’s eco-effective innovations is Infinity fabric which can be used for a wide range of workwear in different sectors. This fabric of many lives saves 95 % of water, 63 % CO2, and eliminates waste almost completely. It can be recycled up to eight cycles. The Infinity clothes are all made of 100 % high-quality polyester with sufficient viscosity for recycling.
Another innovation of the same Dutch company is a material called Cliff which replaces virgin natural fibers (like wood) with post- and pre-consumer clothing fibers. It also eliminates the need for new raw materials for plastics, such as oil. The Cliff collection includes, among others, the following product applications: power cribs for rivers, furniture, office supplies, trays, picnic tables and construction materials.
The Dutch company is networked with several domestic and foreign partners. It develops and produces circular workwear in collaboration with these partner firms.
For further reading, view the primary source: http://dutchawearness.com/
Sustainable workwear from plastic bottles
One of above mentioned Dutch company’s followers is a Finnish firm which designs and manu-factures circular workwear and business gifts from recycled, ecological materials. The Finnish firm exploits surplus stocks (pre-consumer waste) and old work clothes (post-consumer waste). Moreover, it uses plastic bottles for its SecondLife and Waste2Wear® fabrics which are suitable for workwear thanks to their durability and comfortability. Hence, plastics and used polyester clothes are transformed into a new polyester fiber.
For further reading, view the primary source: https://touchpoint.verso.fi/topic/materiaalit?locale=fi
Image 6. Work clothes from plastic bottles
Conclusion and vision
These company and startup cases prove that an ecological approach need not conflict with industrial interests. On the contrary, sustainability and corporate responsibility can form the core of a sound business strategy. Circular movement also triggers high-tech innovations and new business models that create jobs and renew the economy.
In future, digitalisation is expected to boost circulation of clothes. It can also help decrease both textile waste and unnecessary shipping when consumers shop online. To cite an example, 3D scanning will contribute to building an on-demand economy, where products are only made after people order them online. Retail stores will not have excess stock, but only a limited selection of models available. Another alternative is to apply a machine vision system to recognize different fabrics, using similar technologies that are being applied for other waste processing plants. If humans sort the textiles, it takes a lot of manpower. With machines, you achieve faster speed and higher accuracy which, in turn, will ramp up the volume available for recycled components. Hence, digitalization may transform the textile industry from the shopping experience to the recycling of the materials. (Pekkala 2017.)
What can YOU do?
Even though the selected cases above focused on exciting scientific experiments and industrial processes, we should not neglect the impact of consumer choices and the responsibility of citizens as voters or local decision makers. Despite technological advancements, one should keep in mind two basic prerequisites:
1. Clothing reuse is far better for the environment than recycling.
• If everyone in the UK (60 million people) bought one reclaimed woolen garment each year, it would save an average of 1,686 million liters of water and 480 tons of chemical dye-stuffs. (BIR 2018.) For every ton of cotton T-shirts reused, the equivalent of 12 tons of carbon dioxide is saved. The overconsumption of cotton causes water-depletion, the proliferation of genetically modified organisms, pesticide use, and workers’ rights abuses in garment supply chains. (Chua 2013.)
2. An effective infrastructure for collecting, sorting and recycling/reusing textiles should be in place in each community. The model should facilitate collaboration, communication and coordination within the network of business actors and other stakeholders in order to ensure a relooped ecosystem (Fontell & Heikkilä 2017, 15). Dissemination and deployment of best practices contributes to the attainment of these organizational goals.
Image 7. Drop box
What can a private individual do in order to participate in the recycling–reuse movement? How can a man-in-the-street bring forward the upcoming revolution in the clothing industry? My advice is to ask for recycling options actively in order to articulate citizen opinion. At the same time, one should always think what one buys. Recycle Coach (2016) and Recycle Nation (2015) give you the following tips:
1. Shred it
• If the textile is too stained or torn to be reused or repurposed, it can still be cut into strips and used to stuff pillows or stuffed animals, provide soundproof insulation or used as a cleaning rag. If the stain is chemical-based or a degradable organic substance and can’t be removed, then throw it away.
2. Donate, swap or sell it
• Outgrown but still wearable clothing can be passed on to a younger sibling, friend or neighbor.
• Search the phone book or online for local consignment shops, thrift stores/second hand stores, shelters, and charities to see if any of them take unwanted textiles. Some places will even pay for your old but usable textiles or offer store credit so you can trade them for something more useful to you.
• Depending on the services available in your area, charities may offer to collect your textiles at curbside or instruct you to drop them off at a retail location or collection box. You can also search online for organizations that accept donations by mail.
• Certain retailers, including H&M and The North Face, will take back clothing and other textiles for recycling. In some cases, they may even give you a discount on future purchases.
• Swap with a friend.
• Sell them at flea markets or online using sites.
3. Fix or transform it
• Mend old textiles and keep using them if possible, instead of throwing them away. Hun-dreds of designers cut up clothing like old sweaters, jackets, skirts and other items; com-bine them with textiles like lace and yarn; and turn them into new clothing, accessories or even household items. For ideas on how to upcycle your clothing into uniquely cool designs, check out pertinent websites.
• Textile pieces can be used to make crafts, such as cushion covers, teapot cozies, laptop covers, leg warmers, quilts, new accessories (i.e. woven scarves, socks, and hats) and so much more. Ask your mechanic if they cut rags from old textiles.
• If you have old linens, towels or blankets, contact your local SPCA or animal shelter; they may be able to reuse them as animal bedding.
Our grandmothers and great grandmothers used to weave rag rugs and sew patchwork quilts. They saved worn-out clothes, bed linen and other household textiles, which they cut into wefts and pieces for reuse. Their daughters and granddaughters often showed little understanding for their obsession to collect and stockpile age-old stuff with the result that all closets, attics and cellars were bursting with cloth bags. Originally, their reuse of clothes was driven by poverty and scarcity rather than ecological concerns but the old values are nevertheless making a comeback in the novel context. We should learn important lessons from the previous generations, instead of sneering at their hoarding mania. From today’s perspective, the sustainable lifestyle of our grand-mothers and great grandmothers is super modern and trendy!
Image 8. Granny’s rag rug
BIR | Bureau of International Recycling (2018). Textiles. [Online] Available from: http://www.bir.org/industry/textiles/?locale=en_US.
[Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Chua, Malik (2013). Europe Only Recycles 25 Percent of Textile Waste, Says New Report. [Online] Available from: https://inhabitat.com/ecouterre/europe-only-recycles-25-percent-of-textile-waste-says-new-report/. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Dirksen, Kirsten (2010). The business of remade, redesigned, refashioned fashion. [Online] Available from: https://faircompanies.com/articles/the-business-of-remade-redesigned-refashioned-fashion/. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Fontell, Paula & Heikkilä, Pirjo (2017). Model of circular business ecosystem for textiles. VTT Technology 313. VTT: Tampere.
[Online] Available from: http://ethica.fi/ethica2/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Model-of-circular-business-ecosystem-for-textiles-11-2017.pdf. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Harlin, Ali & Sixta, Herbert (2016). Fibres from textile waste to be turned into new attractive consumer products. [Online] Available from: http://www.vttresearch.com/media/news/fibres-from-textile-waste-to-be-turned-into-new-attractive-consumer-products. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Leblanc, Rick (2017). The Basics of Textile Recycling. [Online] Available from: https://www.thebalance.com/the-basics-of-recycling-clothing-and-other-textiles-2877780. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Leonas, Karen K. (2017). The Use of Recycled Fibers in Fashion and Home Products. In Muthu, Subramanian Senthilkannan (ed.). Textiles and Clothing Sustainability: Sustainable Fashion and Consumption, pp. 55-77. Springer Science+Business Media: Singapore.
National Cotton Council of America. (2016). U.S. and World Cotton Economic Outlook. Economic Services—National Cotton Council. [Online] Available from: http://www.cotton.org/econ/reports/ outlook.cfm.
Payne, Alice (2015). Open and closed-loop recycling of textile and apparel products. In Muthu, S. (Ed.) Handbook of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Textiles and Clothing, pp. 103-123. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Woodhead Publishing.
Pekkala, Pekka (2017). Digitalization to boost circulation of clothes. [Online] Available from: https://makingoftomorrow.com/digitalization-boost-circulation-clothes/. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Recycle Coach (2016). Three Reuse Options for Fashion and Fabrics. [Online] Available from: https://recyclecoach.com/blog/item?id=89. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Recycle Nation | Bennett, Julia (2015). How to Recycle Textiles. Textile recycling options abound no matter where you live. [Online] Available from: https://recyclenation.com/2015/01/recycle-textiles/. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Wikipedia (2018). Reuse. [Online] Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reuse. [Accessed: 25 March 2018]
Links to the sources of the photos and the company cases are given below each item in the text. They are not reiterated here under References.