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Successful Recycling Pilot Positions Tunisia as Sustainable Denim Hub

The business case for recycling second-quality jeans has gotten stronger thanks to a successful recycling program pilot in Tunisia.

In December 2020, Swedish denim brand Nudie Jeans teamed with United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) as part of the EU-funded circular accelerator, SwitchMed, to take second-quality jeans—those with slight defects such as a discolored wash, inconsistent stitching or irregular cut—and refashion them into new jeans. Historically, second-quality jeans are either sold at a discount or otherwise discarded.

SwitchMed recently reported that the pilot project repurposed 6,530 pairs of second-quality jeans into 16,000 new pairs made of 20 percent recycled cotton, overperforming its initial target of 15,000. Jeans produced in the pilot are now available for sale in select Nudie Jeans shops and online.

Textile waste is an issue across the industry, but one that is especially problematic in Tunisia, where UNIDO estimates that the region’s textile and clothing industry generates over 31,000 tons of pre-consumer textile waste each year. Of that number, more than half is 100 percent cotton or cotton-rich waste that has the ability to be recycled. However, transporting this waste to recycling facilities in Europe and Asia could do more damage than good, as transportation creates both a carbon footprint and an increase in pricing. All recycling facilities used in the pilot project were located within a 112-mile radius of Denim Authority, Nudie Jeans’ manufacturer in Tunisia.

Roberta De Palma, UNIDO’s chief technical advisor noted that shifting to local recycling can help position Tunisia as a global hub for sustainable denim. Post-industrial waste recycling is a $350 billion opportunity from which Tunisia stands to benefit, according to Accelerating Circularity, a collaborative initiative formed by sustainable materials community Textile Exchange. De Palma said the program could “set an example on the potential for a completely local recycling value chain in Tunisia.”

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Next up, the recycling program will enter its second phase with a focus on utilizing cutting scraps. By 2023, UNIDO will partner with other supply chain partners on pilot programs for pre-consumer textile waste recycling in Morocco and Egypt.

Nudie Jeans, which is best known for its high-quality denim and industry-leading repair program, produces all of its jeans using certified organic cotton and offers free denim mending for life. The recycling initiative follows through on its ambitious circular design goals of increasing the number of jeans collected, repaired and sold.

“We have been looking for a smart resource-use solution for our second quality stock, and we hope that this can help to close the loop, avoiding textile waste from landfill, and at the same time replace virgin materials in our jeans,” said Eliina Brinkberg, Nudie Jeans’ environmental manager.