Textile Recycling, what are the facts?

By Sustainable Fashion Working Group, posted 19/04/21

Our sustainable fashion team have exploring the truth behing textile recycling


What is the need for Textile Recycling?

As you may have seen in our recent blog posts, there is a massive problem with there being too many textiles in the world and many, many issues with how they are produced. According to the CBI (the Confederation of British Industry) there is a loss of approximately $100 billion of materials per year. With these issues in mind, something needs to change. Much has been said about the role of rewearing, repairing, reselling and repurposing your old clothing, but what happens when your stockings get the inevitable run? What about socks that can no longer be darned? What about a fast fashion tee-shirt that has been worn three times and has warped into an asymmetrical fit with unravelling seams? Our wardrobes and linen cupboards are full of items that, realistically, can no longer be reworn, repaired, resold or repurposed.The notion of throwing these languishing items into landfill should fill us with a sense of unease. So, if we take landfill out of the equation, what is our next step?

What is Textile Recycling?

The idea of textile recycling is to take old garments, pull them apart into the original fibres, and re-make them into something new. This would mean that what is currently a waste product (old clothes) would become the source for new clothes, as well as reducing the production of new textiles and all of the resources required to make them.

What is the current situation?

There are many sustainability programmes that have been launched by fashion producers, however the amount of textiles dropped off to recycling centres that actually end up being recycled is low. The Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, though it does not give a source, use the figure of approximately 50% of collected textiles being reused with 50% of collected textiles being recycled. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation created an infographic showing that of all textiles produced globally in 2015, less than 1% get recycled into something new and 73% got landfilled or incinerated.

What is the need for Textile Recycling?

As you may have seen in our recent blog posts, there is a massive problem with there being too many textiles in the world and many, many issues with how they are produced. According to the CBI (the Confederation of British Industry) there is a loss of approximately $100 billion of materials per year. With these issues in mind, something needs to change. Much has been said about the role of rewearing, repairing, reselling and repurposing your old clothing, but what happens when your stockings get the inevitable run? What about socks that can no longer be darned? What about a fast fashion tee-shirt that has been worn three times and has warped into an asymmetrical fit with unravelling seams? Our wardrobes and linen cupboards are full of items that, realistically, can no longer be reworn, repaired, resold or repurposed.The notion of throwing these languishing items into landfill should fill us with a sense of unease. So, if we take landfill out of the equation, what is our next step?

What is Textile Recycling?

The idea of textile recycling is to take old garments, pull them apart into the original fibres, and re-make them into something new. This would mean that what is currently a waste product (old clothes) would become the source for new clothes, as well as reducing the production of new textiles and all of the resources required to make them.

What is the current situation?

There are many sustainability programmes that have been launched by fashion producers, however the amount of textiles dropped off to recycling centres that actually end up being recycled is low. The Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, though it does not give a source, use the figure of approximately 50% of collected textiles being reused with 50% of collected textiles being recycled. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation created an infographic showing that of all textiles produced globally in 2015, less than 1% get recycled into something new and 73% got landfilled or incinerated.



Photo by Fernand De Canne on Unsplash


H&M

H&M have a system whereby you can drop off your old textiles, in any condition, to their recycling programme and have announced a ‘Green Machine’ which is a ‘hydrothermal process’ that is able to separate and recycle cotton and polyester blends (something that is famously impossible to do). This all sounds really great, however, what does it really mean?

The 2020 H&M Group Sustainability Performance Report unhelpfully refers to ‘recycled or sustainably sourced materials’ as a single category, meaning that it is difficult to work out what material is actually recycled rather than just ‘sustainably sourced’. There is also a lack of clarity regarding exactly what can be recycled, what happens to items that cannot be recycled, and what it actually means to be ‘sustainable sourced’. There are many places that claim that it is still impossible to recycle blends of cotton and polyester so why is H&M claiming that it is possible or why are other places not aware of this despite this technology having opened in 2018?

The question still lingers: what happened to the old Asics trainers that I put into the textile recycling bin? Was my attempt at recycling the same as having put these trainers into landfill? The H&M Group do note that only 5.8% of materials used in ’commercial goods’ are recycled and commit to the use of 30% recycled textiles by 2025. Given that there is such a massive amount of second hand textiles readily available, why is this number not higher? Surely if they have the technology ready, they should be aiming to make at least more than 50% of their garments out of recycled material?

In a review of the textile industry, Piribauer and Barti (2019) stated that when the complexity of a textile composition decreases, it will be easier to recycle. Maybe the solution is to change the way we make any new textiles, to make them out of as few different fibre types as possible so that we know they will be recyclable at the end of their life?

What does this mean for an organisation like Shrub?

At the moment, it still doesn’t look like there are any textile recycling schemes that we can access from SHRUB Coop, and none of the systems that currently exist are particularly effective (although if you know of anything, please get in touch). This creates an opportunity to work with other organisations, identify UK producers and gather information about how different textile producers and sellers work.

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