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Can This Machine Make Closed-Loop Textile Supply Chains a Reality?

Two tall hurdles stand in the way of closed-loop production: how to encourage consumers to turn in their unwanted garments in the first place, and a lack of sorting technology to separate that clothing once they do. But thanks to efforts spearheaded by a group of like-minded partners in Europe, the latter is becoming a reality.

The Textile Sorting Project, a consortium led by Dutch cooperative Circle Economy, has received 2 million euros ($2.2 million) in funding from the European Commission’s Interreg North-West Europe program. This investment will help commercialize Fibersort, a machine that’s able to sort large volumes of mixed post-consumer textiles based on fiber composition, and launch it worldwide.

The project partners, which include Wieland Textiles, Valvan Baling Systems, Worn Again and Salvation Army ReShare, will bring an additional 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) of financing to the table.

“This funding is an essential to bringing the Fibersort technology to the next level. We are thrilled to be able to bring a key enabling technology for a closed-loop textile industry to the market,” said Gwen Cunningham, a researcher and analyst with the Circle Textiles Program, a sector-specific initiative within Circle Economy that’s focused on closing the loop for post-consumer textiles.

The project launched in 2015 to address the fact that textile production is the second most polluting industry in the world and the second largest consumer and polluter of water. Furthermore, less than a third of the 4,650 kilotons of textiles discarded annually in North-West Europe are collected and of that, 40 percent is deemed unsuitable for re-wear and downcycled. However, an analysis conducted by the project partners discovered that half of those could be redirected into high-value recycling routes as a result of automated sorting technology, such as Fibersort.

The ability to quickly process large volumes of mixed textiles minimizes the need for new materials by enabling closed-loop recycling, thus reducing the industry’s impact on the environment. It also creates additional market value and business opportunities by developing a business case out of waste that would otherwise go to landfill, be destroyed or downcycled.

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A sustainable alternative to the current textile supply chain is also top of mind for H&M. The fast-fashion giant’s nonprofit arm, H&M Foundation, announced a four-year partnership with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) last month to develop the commercially viable and scalable technologies to recycle blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns.