Fashion has a serious waste problem. According to research from WRAP, 4% of global waste comes from the fashion industry. In the US, textile waste is outpacing the growth of every other type of waste, growing 78% by weight between 2000 and 2017 — that’s an increase of 54% per person.
Circularity is a massive challenge for the fashion industry to build into the design of clothing. It requires a total reimagining of the manufacturing process so that clothing can easily be recycled and reused.
Encouragingly, consumer demand for recycled fabrics is rising. Lyst’s 2021 Conscious Fashion Report says that demand for upcycled, recycled, repurposed and reworked items on the platform jumped by 117% year on year.
Designing for Circularity
The circular economy hinges on making clothing with recycled materials, as well as designing for recyclability. “Products that are designed with recycled inputs are using materials that have been recovered from either a pre- or post-consumer waste stream and processed into recycled fibers,” explains Ina Budde, co-founder and chief executive at Berlin start-up circular.fashion. “Whereas designing a product for future recyclability enables the product and all its components to be regenerated to a material of high quality able to be used in textiles and clothing again.”
The recycling industry faces a number of challenges. While some materials are indeed recyclable, global infrastructure is not sufficiently equipped to deal with the scale of recycling needed to significantly reduce the amount of clothing heading to landfills. “Today, there is a lack of full-scale infrastructure for recycling,” says Budde. “Volume and availability of regenerated materials is scaling up, but is still in development.”
Of all the textiles produced in 2020, only 8.1% came from recycled materials like PET water bottles or pre/post-consumer textiles. While polyester made from recycled plastic bottles is a popular material for swimwear and activewear brands, it’s not without issues. Not only does recycled polyester shed microplastics just like its virgin counterpart, but it also can’t yet be recycled easily, breaking the loop on a once recyclable product (the bottle).
Currently, recycling is inefficient and is not reducing the pressure on virgin materials. Most textiles get downcycled into lower-value products like insulation, mattress fillings, and industrial cloth wipes, not turned into new clothing. Mechanical recycling shortens the fibres' length, meaning that to create a usable yarn, it must be blended with longer, stronger virgin fibers.
On top of this, “blended materials, attached trims and metal hardware can pose a challenge,” explains Budde. Adding to this, “the majority of products today do not have a passport and product ID to ease the data transfer and enable intelligent sorting for recycling. For both chemically and mechanically recycling of fibers, the feedstock is needed in a well-defined and steady flow. This provides particular challenges to sourcing feedstock of post-consumer textiles as infrastructures are still being optimized.”
“To foster a circular economy, products are ideally made from safe, recycled or renewable inputs, as well as designed for longevity and recyclability.”- Ina Budde circular.fashion
To implement digital IDs and product passports, brands must have already established full traceability down to the fibre level throughout their supply chains. By having visibility and traceability over materials, not just products, brands can know whether their materials are being recycled and reused. Achieving this comes down to the importance of sourcing accurate, specific data that spans a wide range of products.
Many brands have committed to replacing virgin synthetics with recycled alternatives, but in 2021, Changing Market’s Synthetics Anonymous report found that only a handful of leading brands are actually investing in fiber-to-fiber recycling technology.
Brands that offer take-back and recycling schemes tend to work with a logistics partner, such as TerraCycle, Yellow Octopus, or I:CO that will collect, sort, then upcycle, downcycle, or recycle textiles. H&M runs an extensive recycling programme that encourages customers to drop off old clothing at their stores. In 2020, the brand says that it collected the equivalent of 94 million t-shirts through the programme.
While the recycled textiles market is small, it has huge potential for growth. Many solutions are still in their pilot phase; however, companies like Worn Again Technologies, Renewcell, Infinited Fiber Company, and Ambercycle are closing the gap between trial stages and commercial scalability. Legislation is also driving this forward — the 2022 EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles envisions that by 2030, all textiles in the EU market will be recyclable and made from recycled fibers.
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