With food prices and energy bills soaring, the harsh reality is that many households have far less disposable income to spend on the latest clothes. Space in wardrobes and drawers is not being cleared to make way for new garments, with the result that collection volumes for most textiles recyclers were significantly below average in 2022. Sorting facility operators have been forced to introduce lower capacity utilization rates and have also been hampered by a shortage of workers to fill vacant positions.
Last year also reflected how our sector can be vulnerable to geopolitical developments, such as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Both countries have been major outlets over the years for second-hand clothing, including some of the best quality items our industry has to offer. Exporters’ sales prospects have been damaged and, in some cases, alternative markets have had to be sought.
Overall, however, we have been seeing good demand and higher prices for used textiles. Equally helpfully, we are witnessing greater awareness among textile producers, brands and retailers of the need for recycling, resulting in an explosion of related initiatives. At our most recent BIR Convention meeting in Barcelona, Maud Hardy of producer responsibility organization Refashion pointed by way of example to an environmental impact grading system in France to promote greener product design. And Erik Koep of Worn Again Technologies (a developer of polymer recycling processes for non-reusable textiles) told us that technologies had not been available in the past to capitalize on demand for sustainability but that these were now starting to come on line. The necessary investment and demand momentum would quickly follow once customers saw that fully-circular materials were available, he insisted.
In truth, much good work has been done but much remains to be achieved; crucially, only approximately 1-2% of used textiles currently follow a circular recycling route.
Therefore, the release in March last year of the EU’s “Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles” shone a timely light on our sector. Its headline aim is to ensure that, by 2030, textile products placed on the EU market are long-lived, recyclable, made as far as possible of recycled fibres and free of hazardous substances, with specific measures including eco-design requirements, clearer information for consumers, a Digital Product Passport and a mandatory EU extended producer responsibility scheme. The Strategy also confirms that all local authorities within the EU should have separate collections of textiles in place by 2025.
These are ambitious steps. And crucially from the perspective of our own sector, this journey must be undertaken in collaboration with industry professionals in order to ensure, for example, that collections are carried out in such a way as to maintain reusable value. Encouragingly in this regard, the EU has agreed to consider a requirement for preparation of reuse as
a priority for such collections. Our industry performs a vital task with an expertise developed over many generations and so our input is absolutely essential to the success of this push to achieve circularity.
All the data underline why reuse and recycling are so important. Taking Europe as an example, its consumption of textiles still has the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change after food, housing and mobility. A recent life-
cycle assessment commissioned by the European textile reuse and recycling industry confirms the environmental impact of reusing textiles is 70 times lower than that of producing new clothing. Carbon dioxide emission savings are particularly eye-catching, amounting to 3 kg for each and every high- to medium-quality item of clothing that is reused. Water requirement for reuse is a meagre 0.01% of what it would be to produce a new garment.
The same life-cycle assessment also debunks the myth that exports of used clothing are damaging to the environment simply because of the associated transport emissions. The study found that the environmental impact of even long-haul transportation of used clothing is “trivial” compared to that entailed in producing a new garment.
For years, generations even, we have been urging policy-makers and regulators to recognize the importance of the used textiles management hierarchy. Given all the latest research and evidence, its rightful place is at the heart of all sustainability strategies.
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.
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 water and energy consumption.
Reducing demand for dyes and fixing agents. This, in turn, minimizes the problems caused by their use and manufacture.
Textile materials for recycling can be classified as:
The recycling processes are usually as follows:
Sorting: Collected textiles are manually sorted and graded according to their condition and types of fibres used.
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.
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.