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27 July 2022

Recycling textiles: challenges and opportunities

Recycling textiles is a complex activity, but companies have more than one way to become sustainable.

The textile industry has a heavy environmental impact. In particular, it produces a large quantity of waste, of which only around 1% is recycled back into new textiles. Even though recycling textiles is not simple, companies have a great opportunity in changing their approach to production.

Let's find out more.

Waste production in the textile industry

First of all, we need to understand why waste is a serious problem in the textile industry.

As the European Parliament explains in an infographic about the impact of textile production and waste on the environment, "waste" can mean different things:

  • Water consumption
    Textile production needs a lot of water. The textile and clothing industry used 79 billion cubic meters of water back in 2015, while the production of a single cotton t-shirt needs 2,700 liters of fresh water.
     
  • Microfibers and microplastics
    Textile production and washing of synthetic garments releases 0.5 million tons of microfibers into the seas every year. Furthermore, washing synthetic clothing accounts for 35% of the release of primary microplastics into the environment.

Large quantities of water are used to produce clothes.
  • Textile waste in landfill
    Fast fashion, which constantly offers new garments at very low prices, has led to a sharp increase in the number of garments produced, used, and then discarded. Since 1996, the amount of clothing purchased in the EU per person has increased by 40% thanks to a sharp drop in prices. This has shortened the lifecycle of textiles. Today, European citizens consume almost 26 kg of textile products every year but dispose of around 11 kg. And 87% end up dumped into landfill.
    However, it is not just consumers who produce textile waste. Companies and shops often have unsold goods and the textile industries themselves produce samples and offcuts that must then be disposed of.

Why is recycling textiles so difficult?

The first reason why recycling textiles is so difficult is the structure of the fibers. Often fibers are too short to be reused. In fact, for recycling, the fibers must be at least 60 mm long but most of the time they are much shorter than that.

Moreover, many garments mix different materials. Each of them has its own recycling process (recycling polyester is different from recycling cotton) but often they cannot be separated. 

Finally, recycling itself is often expensive and not economically viable. The study "Mechanical, chemical, biological: Moving towards closed-loop bio-based recycling in a circular economy of sustainable textiles", published by the journal Science Direct, analyzes the current methods of recycling of textile materials. They are as follows:

  • Mechanical recycling.
    This is the most common process and consists in fraying of the material and then spinning the fibers. It can include chemical treatments. It is mainly suitable for wool and cotton but it ruins the fibers, so it can be repeated a limited number of times. The final yarn is often a mix of recycled and virgin materials to ensure strength and quality.
  • Thermomechanical recycling.
    The synthetic fibers are melted and spun again. Unfortunately, it is not suitable for all synthetic fibers.
  • Chemical recycling.
    It includes monomer recycling and polymer recycling. The first one is suitable for most textile fibers, however, is only used for synthetic ones. In the second one, the fiber goes under mechanical processes and then to chemical dissolution. However, solvents are often dangerous for health and the environment.

The opportunities for the fashion industry

Circular economy cycle

There are many ways in which fashion and textile companies can approach recycling without necessarily having to recycle. They can rely on many sustainable textile innovations. For instance, they can decide to produce garments using recycled yarns, new fibers, or waste materials such as fishing nets, plastic bottles, or car interiors. There are so many possibilities nowadays! And the good news is that they also open up new creative opportunities for designers.

But what if these solutions are still too demanding? Well, there is one within reach of any company, that is to follow the needs of consumers. In fact, consumers are showing an increasing interest in the idea of a circular economy. And extending the life cycle of products is way easier than recycling them!

In addition to recycling, the circular economy also includes reusing and reselling. But these concepts don't just fall on consumers. On the contrary, in a circular economy, garments would be designed to be reused multiple times, but also returned to the producer which can transform or resell them.  

In this way, the textile and fashion industry can not only reduce waste but also create new income streams. Just to give you an idea of the opportunity, in 2021, the global value of the second-hand fashion market was approximately US $96 billion. This value will increase rapidly over the next few years, doubling between 2021 and 2025, reaching a value of US $218 billion in 2026. 

If that's not enough, companies should consider the returns in terms of competitiveness. In fact, the consumers most interested in the circular economy are Millennials and Gen Z.
Since they are about to become the largest consumer base in the global economy, accounting for about 40% of global consumers, companies should take their wishes and habits into serious consideration. 

Therefore, innovating and abandoning the linear economymodel is the only way to thrive in the market of the near future.

Find out how Certilogo can help you to engage with Millennials and Gen Z thanks to digitalization.