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Textile Recycling Provides $350B Opportunity in Western Hemisphere: Report

Knowledge gaps or untapped opportunities? That’s what a burgeoning collaborative initiative, dedicated to the promotion of circular textile-to-textile supply chains, plans to find out.

Composed of founding members such as Gap Inc., Lenzing, Nike, Target, Unifi and VF Corp., Accelerating Circularity seeks to form “the right questions,” mainly why do we need to recycle? What is there to be recycled? How can textiles be collected and prepared for recycling? How can textiles be recycled—and by whom? And, equally important, who will buy fashion made from recycled inputs?

A “research and mapping” report published earlier this month, attempts to pin down some of the answers, particularly in Accelerating Circularity’s study area of the East Coast of the United States, which it selected for its high population density and existing textile supply chains.

So why recycle? Because there’s too much textile waste. States from Alabama to West Virginia, it found, account for 7.7 million of the 16.9 million tons of post-consumer spent textiles generated annually in the country. And while formal data for spent post-industrial—that is to say, pre-consumer—textiles is scant, a combination of U.S. Census data and the initiative’s research revealed that the East Coast makes up roughly 90,000 of the 120,000 tons of post-industrial textile waste produced in the United States annually.

But here’s the thing: Diverting these textiles—mainly polyester, cotton and manmade cellulosic fibers, which make up 81 percent of the textile fiber market—from incineration and landfill can lower the apparel industry’s ballooning greenhouse-gas emissions and slash back its exploitation of virgin resources, according to Accelerating Circularity, whose work is funded by Gap Inc., Target, VF Corp. and the Walmart Foundation.

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“Brands and retailers, driven to become more sustainable and reduce resource consumption, are making commitments to use recycled materials,” the group wrote. “Spent textiles become the logical industry feedstock since they have the potential to lower the use of virgin materials, water, energy and chemicals and avoid competing with other industries for non-textile feedstocks.”

Around 35 percent of the 86 percent of post-consumer textiles that can potentially be diverted from landfill or incineration are “readily recyclable” using conventional mechanical means because they contain pure cotton, pure polyester or materials greater than 50 percent cotton with some level of polyester but little to no elastane. Another 45 percent is “potentially recyclable,” meaning it can be recycled with the commercialization of technologies that have a broader range of input specifications, including up to 20 percent elastane, manmade cellulosics in a blend and nylon. The rest is “not likely recyclable” because their coatings, finishes or multi-material composition make them difficult or impossible to process using existing means.

Spent post-industrial textiles, which stem from knitting or weaving mills and cut-and-sew facilities, are another valuable resource waiting to be harnessed. And indeed, because the fibers in this waste stream are easily identifiable and usually sorted and minimally processed, eliminating the need for pre-processing steps such as hard part removal or sanitization, these fibers are already used widely in mechanical recycling.

The problem with consolidating these waste streams is fragmentation: “some conventional supply chain steps are connected, and some are not,” the study noted. Connecting the collection, sorting, pre-processing and recycling “nodes” is necessary if circularity is to be integrated directly into existing supply chains and scaled rapidly. New infrastructure may have to fill any breaches.

“Today’s post-consumer textile market primarily serves reuse applications,” the report noted. “This makes intuitive sense because of where reuse sits in the waste hierarchy. As we move to a circular economy, however, we must build infrastructure and business models that also accommodate recycling: eventually, an item’s reuse value will be spent, and the material will need to be recycled.”

How this waste can be recycled and by whom is another looming issue. The biggest challenge to large-scale commercialization is the ability to recycle blended materials, regardless of whether the source is post-consumer or post-industrial. Mechanical recycling has its limitations, and chemical recycling is still comparatively nascent. Elastane is also cited as a restriction by more recyclers globally than any other fiber, posing a challenge because of its ubiquity. Nylon and metals, too, are often restricted, the report said.

As for what brands will buy recycled textiles? Plenty. Dozens of companies, from “boutique sustainability leaders” like Eileen Fisher to “global powerhouses” such as Nike, PVH Corp. and Zara owner Inditex, have made recycled fiber commitments. (Adidas, for one, has pledged to replace all virgin polyester with a recycled version by 2024.)

The market opportunity for recycled products, especially in categories such as denim, home textiles, activewear, outerwear and hotel linens, in the Western hemisphere alone, is more than $350 billion, Accelerating Circularity estimates. The industry just has to rally to bridge the gaps and take advantage of opportunities.

“Gaps and opportunities are often different sides of the same issue. For example, the volume of material available for recycling is an opportunity, however, data detailing specific fibers in that material is missing,” the group wrote. “Luckily, we see some collaboration between industry, government and NGOs to solve for the gaps. We must be opportunistic to push the industry into action.”

The report came on the heels of a study from The Renewal Workshop that found that 82 percent of the garments dismissed by brands and retailers as waste can in fact be restored or recycled.