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Textiles

Extract BIR Annual Report 2023

Time to turn words into actions

Given the tide of economic and geopolitical shocks over recent years, we have become accustomed to operating in a fog of uncertainty. Even before the attacks on commercial tankers passing through the Red Sea, earth-shaking events like the COVID pandemic and the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza had come along to undermine confidence in forward business planning.

At the time of writing this report, it is not clear how the Red Sea situation will develop but, already, the threat of further attacks has prompted several of the world’s largest shipping lines to divert vessels onto the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. A significant commercial impact on our sector is unavoidable given that large volumes of our goods are shipped from Europe to East Africa, Dubai and the Indian Subcontinent via the affected route. Sailing times have been extended by, typically, 12 days and freight costs have soared. Worse still, a knock-on effect will be out-of-place containers leading to much longer delays such as we saw during the COVID lockdowns.

Our environmental credentials count for nothing in moments such as these; like other industries, we are a mere straw in the wind when such events occur. Our markets were even more disturbed last year than in 2022, partly because of the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts and partly the generally high levels of inflation which served to restrict purchasing power in many of our key markets. Our industry’s volumes were actually higher in 2023 than in 2022 but were still below pre-COVID levels. Meanwhile, our businesses have had to cope with escalating costs, notably for fuel and wages.

Especially in light of the shipping issues mentioned above, it is impossible to foresee anything other than a difficult 2024 in which the insecurities surrounding our operations will not only remain but intensify. If there is to be any relief for our industry in terms of commercial conditions, it is likely to be delayed until the second half of the year.

Hopefully, progress on other fronts in 2024 will be more visible. As we saw in 2023, many initiatives – including significant investment in recycling infrastructure – were announced but have yet to brought to fruition, while policy measures have been defined but have yet to come into force. Certainly in Europe, the year holds the promise of significant developments on a number of policy and regulatory fronts.

2023 set the scene in many ways with, for example, MEPs’ overwhelming adoption of the EU Textiles Strategy which will require products to be more durable but also to be more easily reused, repaired or recycled. They also voiced their approval of specific targets for textile waste prevention, collection, reuse and recycling, as well as for the European Commission’s proposal to establish harmonized EU rules on extended producer responsibility along with eco-modulation of fees. And towards the end of last year, EU negotiators reached a provisional agreement on the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, aimed again at making products more durable, reusable, upgradable, repairable, recyclable and easier to maintain.

So 2023 was the latest in a series of transition years in which debate and policy development took centre stage. What we now need in 2024 is concrete change at ground level and in how systems work; in other words, we need to see the concept of a circular textiles economy becoming a reality.

Design for recycling, upcycling, greater product durability and repair strategies were all identified as key building blocks for circularity during the excellent group discussion at our Convention meeting in Amsterdam last May. The guest presentation from Prof. Dr.-Ing. Stefan Schlichter of Germany’s Institut für Textiltechnik – Recycling Atelier certainly made the transition from concept to harsh reality, not least with his contention that the proportion of used textiles recycled in a closed loop remains at a paltry 1% and that circularity in Europe would require the construction of between 150 and 250 additional recycling facilities in the years to 2030.

In effect, the time for talking is over.

“It is impossible to foresee anything other than a difficult 2024 in which the insecurities surrounding our operations will not only remain but intensify.”

Martin Böschen

Texaid – Textilverwertungs AG (CHE)
PRESIDENT TEXTILES DIVISION

IMPORTANT FACTS

Today, clothing does not simply answer a practical need; fashion has become a form of self-expression and the sheer volume and variety of textile products available on the market have reached unprecedented levels. The global apparel market alone is already worth more than US$ 1.3 trillion per year and the figure is continuing to rise; indeed, the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition projects that, by the year 2030, global apparel consumption could have leapt by a further 63% to 102 million tonnes.

But textiles are not used just for clothes; they are also in our homes, hospitals, workplaces and vehicles - in the form of cleaning materials, upholstery, leisure equipment and so on. Overall, textile production is a major contributor to climate change and produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. According to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee report “Fixing Fashion”, this is more than the total produced by international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Textile production also entails substantial resource use: for example, to produce 1 kg of cotton takes between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water. More alarmingly, the World Bank reckons 20% of global water pollution is caused by textile processing, making it the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources on the planet.

FACING UP TO THE CHALLENGE

Despite the positive impact clothing and textiles recycling could have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental issues, many consumers do not realize to what extent their household textiles can be recycled, with the result that a significant proportion still ends up in landfills. At a recent BIR Convention, it was claimed that low recycling rates for used textiles represent a worldwide problem, with current rates estimated at 26% in Europe, 15% in China and 12% in the USA. Within Europe, the collection rates vary hugely from country to country: a report from the European Clothing Action Plan on used textile collections within cities has looked at separate collection rates as a share of quantities on the market and has listed estimates of 75% for Germany and 44% for Denmark, dropping to 30-40% for France, the Netherlands and the UK, and as low as 11% for Italy.

Against this backdrop, BIR and the textiles recycling industry as a whole have been underlining the recyclability of almost every form of used textile. BIR Conventions have also provided a platform to highlight latest research designed to maximise recycling rates - not only through reuse but also, for example, through chemical and biological recycling. Most recently, these global gatherings have showcased practical solutions to convert blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns, as well as a dry upcycling process (housed within a standard shipping container) that completes the entire garment-to-garment recycling chain - from sanitization and fibre opening to spinning and knitting - in a period of four hours to two days.

BENEFITS OF RECYCLING

The recovery and recycling of textiles provide both environmental and economic benefits by:

Reducing the need for landfill space. Certain synthetic fibre products do not decompose, while natural fibre such as wool does decompose but produces methane which contributes to global warming.

Reducing pressure on virgin resources. This includes materials traditionally used in textiles such as cotton and wool, as well as oil and other chemicals employed to produce synthetic fibres.

Reducing pollution.

Reducing water and energy consumption.

Reducing demand for dyes and fixing agents. This, in turn, minimizes the problems caused by their use and manufacture.

RECYCLING PROCESSES

COLLECTED TEXTILES

SORTING

BALING

Textile materials for recycling can be classified as:

  • Post-industrial
  • A by-product from yarn and fabric manufacture for the garment-making and retail industry
  • Post-consumer, originating from discarded garments, household items, vehicles, etc.

The recycling processes are usually as follows:

Sorting: Collected textiles are manually sorted and graded according to their condition and types of fibres used.

  • Wearable textiles: Shoes and clothes are resold either within the same country of origin or abroad.
  • Unwearable textiles: These are sold to the “flocking” industry for shredding and re-spinning.

Re-sorting: Mills grade incoming materials according to their type and colour. Colour sorting means no re-dyeing is needed, saving energy and avoiding pollutants.

Shredding and pulling: Textile materials are shredded or pulled into fibres. Depending on the end-use of the yarn, other fibres may be incorporated.

Carding: The blended mixture is carded to clean and mix the fibres.

Spinning: The yarn is re-spun ready for subsequent weaving or knitting.

SPECIAL PROCESSES

Depending on the final application, fibres sometimes do not need to be spun into yarns; they can simply be compressed to create new textile fillings.

In the case of polyester-based materials, recycling begins by cutting the garments into small pieces. The shredded fabric is then granulated and turned into polyester chips which are melted and spun into new filament fibres used to make new polyester fabrics.

APPLICATIONS & RECYCLING FACTS

APPLICATIONS

  • Knitted or woven woollen and similar materials are reused by the textile industry in applications such as car insulation, roofing felt, loudspeaker cones, panel linings and furniture padding.
  • Cotton and silk are used to manufacture paper as well as wiping and polishing cloths for a range of industries, from automotive to mining.
  • Other types of textile can be reprocessed into fibres for upholstery, insulation and even building materials.

RECYCLING FACTS

  • Nearly half of discarded textiles are donated to charities. Around 60% of clothes recovered for second-hand use are exported.
  • In many African countries, over 80% of the population dress themselves in second-hand clothing.
  • With the reuse of recovered materials in manufacturing processes or in consumption cycles, there is a major reduction in CO2 emissions when compared to the production of virgin materials.

Divisional Board

President

Martin Böschen

TEXAID Textilverwertungs AG (CHE)

Sauro Ballerini

Sauro Ballerini (ITA)

Rainer Binger

FWS GmbH (DEU)

Lisa Jepsen

Garson & Shaw LLC (USA)

Pol T'Jollyn

RECUTEX NV (BEL)
General Delegate

Alan Wheeler

Textile Recycling Association (GBR)