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Circular Initiative Seeks to Take Cotton Recycling ‘to the Next Level’

Circle Economy wants to take cotton recycling “to the next level.”

The Amsterdam-based social enterprise, whose mission is to deliver practical and scalable circular-economy solutions, is linking arms with Spanish textile recycler Recover to embark on a yearlong, multi-stakeholder initiative to scale up the use of mechanically recycled post-consumer cotton.

Despite the cotton crop’s high environmental cost, most cotton textiles, when collected at the end of their lives, are either reused or downcycled into products of inferior quality, according to Traci Kinden, circular textiles lead at Circle Economy. “Those are good options, but the recycling loop is missing and that’s why we’re here,” she said in an online webinar Thursday.

Compared with their conventional counterparts, mechanically recycled post-industrial cotton yarns currently score “really, really well” on the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, which rates materials based on their social and ecological footprints. “What if we could take that same impact and increase the amount of total volume by including post-consumer textiles in the mix?” she asked. “It’s a pretty powerful proposition.”

Doing so won’t be easy, especially with the clock ticking down, Kinden admitted. While nearly half of the brands and retailers involved in the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 Commitment have set targets to boost the proportion of post-consumer recycled textiles in their assortments, so far none have managed to make good on their goals. “So the question is, is it really possible to make progress on those targets by next year? And the answer is yes,” she said. “And the answer comes partly with recycled cotton.”

The purpose of Circle Economy and Recover’s cotton recycling pilot is four-fold: to create recycled textiles from post-consumer inputs that satisfy brand performance expectations, to increase supply-chain experience with mechanically recycled textiles, to define cost drivers and reduce the cost of recycling post-consumer at scale, and to address any potential chemical safety concerns.

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Following a “prep phase” that will convene participants and conduct “landscape research” about the current state of mechanically recycled cotton, Circle Economy and Recover will move into Phase 1, where participants will work to define product categories and expectations for performance. This will occur over the summer, which “in an ideal world, is possible if we get everybody on board in the first couple of months,” Kinden said with a laugh. Phase 2, which will begin in September, will involve sourcing input materials and starting the recycling process, “which is basically opening the fiber and doing some chemical safety testing,” she noted.

Phase 3 will delve into spinning yarns, sampling textiles and ultimately creating product. Deliverables scheduled to go out at this point include input-material specifications and industry reference sheets. “We would like to be able to end this phase by March,” Kinden said. “That way, if there is some success and participants want to take that process forward, there’s plenty of time to do that for their 2020 commitments.”

The final phase will take care of “administrative documentation” matters and testing for hazardous chemicals based on European Union standards. “And the participants in the project, the brands and retailers, will own recycled yarns and textiles at the end,” she said.

But first, Circle Economy and Recover need to recruit a range of participants—sponsors, core brands and retailers, supporting brands and retailers, knowledge and resource partners, supply-chain partners and other interested parties—for both their expertise and financial largesse. With a buy-in of at least 55,000 euros, the core brands and retailers that are “by and large funding the project” will get to drive the product and performance requirements. They will also receive a minimum of 3 metric tons of yarn at the end of the project. Supporting brands and retailers, whose cost is still being determined, will get a “seat at the table” and have the option to purchase yarn.

Kinden ended her webinar with a question that doubles as a vision: “What if cotton wasn’t wasted, what if all textiles were circular and the future was much, much cooler?”