The challenges of textile recycling

Although currently around 100 billion items of clothing are produced annually worldwide, the fashion industry represents only 60% of this sector’s activity globally. Household textiles (sheets, towels, blankets, rugs and curtains, among others) account for 25% and technical textiles (airbags, ropes, boat sails, fishing nets and asphalt cloth, among others) a further 15% or 40% in Europe.

In the last 15 years the global production of items of clothing has doubled, but when we discard clothing, we will have used it 36% fewer times. That is, we consume an increasing amount of clothes but use them less. Hom calculates that we only use 40% of the clothes that we have in our wardrobes, which are fuller than ever. This is due to the fast-fashion model in which collections in shop windows are changed every three weeks, to create a false feeling of obsolescence that fosters unsustainable hyper-consumerism.

Furthermore, this strategy tends to trivialise the real value of textile products and the stakeholders involved in the value chain of this industrial sector. Low prices and sales policies only serve to tighten the screw.

One of the consequences of this problem is the increase in waste generation. Today, it is calculated that in Spain 900,000 tonnes of textile products per year end up in landfill. The amount of second-hand clothes collected by various NGOs in orange bins does not reach even 10% of the total waste generated.

However, upcoming changes in regulations will considerably increase the magnitude of the problem of textile waste management.

  • Africa has stated that it will not accept the import of more second-hand clothes from Europe.
  • France has already forbidden the incineration of surplus clothing from big brands’ collections and this regulation will soon be applied in Spain.
  • The Spanish State Waste Framework Plan plans to be 50% prepared for the reuse of waste and recycling by 2020.
  • On 1 January 2025, Spain must introduce selective collection of textile waste on the street.
  • According to European regulations, on 1 January 2030 it will be prohibited to landfill any waste that could be reused and/or recycled.

This means that a large amount of textile waste that was previously exported, burnt and/or put in landfill will no longer be dealt with in these ways. What will we do with this avalanche of textile waste?

We have major technological challenges to resolve in the mechanical recycling of textiles, such as the prior elimination of zips, buttons, etc. and the technology of separation by mixtures of fibres in separation plants. Chemical recycling (separation of fibres by dissolving) is well-known but to date projects have not gone beyond small pilot plants with no information on the costs and environmental impact.

A lot more research is required on recycling techniques and above all on the final product that can be manufactured with these materials in a circular economy.

Finally, what are the practical limits of mechanical and chemical recycling? How will we recycle textile that has already been recycled? How many times can polyester fibre be recycled?

The near future holds major changes in regulations, research challenges and great business opportunities in the textile sector to address the management of waste sustainably.

Enric Carrera i Gallissà
Director of the Institute of Textile Research and Industrial Cooperation of Terrassa (INTEXTER)
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC)