Hiding in plain sight: Recycling textiles

Which industry costs US$ 500 billion in value per annum and produces more greenhouse gas in its production than all international flights and maritime trade combined? The answer is the textile industry. We shouldn’t be surprised – but most people are. The clothes we wear do not seem to be such bad polluters and besides we need them.

The textile industry is still largely built on the principles of a linear economy. We extract  resources, cotton, wool and synthetic fabrics using large amounts of energy. We make them into textiles and clothes and export them worldwide. We wear them for a short time – especially if they are fashion items. In our image conscious society who wants to be seen wearing last years fashion?  And then we burn them or throw them away. Apart from the waste some textiles are positively hazardous producing microplastics.

The volume of clothes which is scrapped every year is staggering. New York City alone dumps 100 000 tons of textile waste per annum. Some clothes are exported to third world countries where fashion is less important, but this is miniscule, costs money and is not good for the carbon footprint. To retain the integrity of their markets most fashion houses would prefer for unsold stock to be destroyed.

As the circular economy has started to take hold the fashion industry has realized it needs to make changes. This means moving away from the linear model to a circular model which includes reusing and recycling.

The fashion industry has starting taking hold of reusing and recycling textiles

Reusing is becoming more popular with campaigns trying to change the belief that one needs to have new clothes every year. Some campaigns promote the idea that wearing clothes for longer is preferable. This view is gaining ground but slowly, we are talking about a change of habit and belief which is always difficult.

In the case of recycling there are a number of problems. The first is the problem of composite materials. Modern fashion items are often made of more than one material and deconstructing the garment takes keen eyesight and time. Technology is advancing and a company called Siptex, from Malmo, Sweden uses a machine which can identify and sort 4.5 tons of textiles per hour. The sorted waste textiles are then recycled into new textiles.

One reason for the improvement is that the problem is being tackled at any industry level. Instead of individual manufacturers trying to resolve it they are collaborating and using a multi-pronged approach to find solutions. Most big companies have sustainability goals and collaborating assists them in meeting these goals.

As welcome as these efforts are however, they will not, by themselves, resolve the problem of textile waste, particularly for fashion items. This is where the Ellen Macarthur Foundation has made a major contribution. Recognizing that 80% of a products environmental impact is determined at the design phase the foundation has prepared a groundbreaking report.

“A New Textiles Economy, Redesigning Fashions Future” outlines a system for the adoption of circular economy principles for the textile industry. It has been enthusiastically welcomed  by textile industry associations, fashion chains and given rise to a number of circular initiatives.

The groundbreaking report “A New Textiles Economy, Redesigning Fashions Future” is redefining the recycling of textiles

A number of programs have addressed the use of materials making them more sustainable and reusable. Jeans, that universal piece of apparel, have come in for special attention with programs such as The Redesign Jeans. Jeans are designed to be reused and by removing labels and metal clips the material can more easily be refashioned. The market loves them.

The problem of waste textiles is huge and although it is staring us in the face we do not realize how bad it is. Replacing the linear business model with a circular model and changing people’s ingrained habits is too much for any organization to achieve. What makes the difference is the co-ordinated approach on the part of a number of stakeholders. The industry has stepped up to take on the responsibility.

Next time you want to throw out your old clothes just pause to think about what other choices you have.

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Picture: Designecologist/Pexels