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Post-Consumer Textile Recycling Gains Momentum in Apparel Sector

Post-consumer textile recycling isn’t slowing down anytime soon, as apparel leaders continue to prioritize greener garment supply chains worldwide.

The apparel sector today is the world’s second largest pollutant and its carbon footprint continues to leave a dirty path on the planet. Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that 26 billion pounds of apparel and textiles end up in landfills each year, despite the potential for post-consumer clothing to be reused and recycled.

At a Texworld USA panel in New York on Monday, brands, designers and other industry members discussed the issue. Moderated by Sourcing Journal senior editor Arthur Friedman, the panel highlighted the industry’s efforts to give garments a second life and the challenges it faces.

Who’s accelerating post-consumer textile recycling right now?

Post-consumer textile recycling is not a novel concept, but numerous companies are taking the steps to make this sustainable solution a reality for the apparel sector.

Lenzing Group, a fiber innovation company, is on the path toward post-consumer textile recycling with its new fiber, Refibra. The new Tencel fiber contains cotton scraps derived from cutting operations and wood, minimizing the need to further source raw materials from forests. With Refibra, Lenzing aims to foster a more circular economy and close the loop in apparel production.

“With this latest innovation, we are the first man-made cellulose company upcycling a recycled waste product,” said panelist and Lenzing Fibers director of business development for denim Tricia Carey. “Our goal is to eventually go into post-consumer recycling.”

Recover, an upcycle textile system, is also making moves in this area. The system turns apparel and textile waste into recycled yarns, offering a more sustainable alternative to dumping material scraps in landfills.

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[Read more about the efforts toward upcycling apparel: A Second Life: The Companies Helping Brands Engage in Textile Recycling]

Panelist and Sustainable Source founder Isaac Nichelson discussed the benefits of Recover and how post-consumer textile recycling is becoming more high-tech in the apparel sector.

“There is a tremendous amount of textile waste in the world and the impacts are very severe,” Nichelson said. “Recently there has been some breakthroughs in new types of mechanical recycling and there is so much value in that.”

Textile Exchange, a global non-profit, is another major player in the verification of recycled materials.

“Our member companies are looking at the lagging technology in coming up with high-value products from recycled synthetic materials,” said panelist and Textile Exchange standards business development manager Ashley Gill. “There is a lot of work happening and there are a lot of good materials available.” She added, “In the long run the question is, ‘How do we create high-value post-consumer recycled products [that are] part of the closed loop system?’”

Why is post-consumer textile recycling critical for the apparel sector?

Today, the apparel sector is moving towards a more circular economy and post-consumer textile recycling could be a beneficial step. While fast fashion increases and resources continue to become scarcer, clothing brands, designers, retailers and suppliers are turning to more sustainable solutions to reduce pollution.

“Recently, we have seen a massive acceleration of interest in circularity,” Nichelson said. “If we stay with the status quo in manufacturing, we are going to not be making moves.  If we go to circularity, we can save so much money in the industry.”

Even budget-friendly, yet sometimes environmentally-threatening fast fashion is on board with this eco-friendly movement.

Inditex’s Join Life initiative, provides short- and long-term solutions for a more sustainable fashion future, including in-store apparel recycling programs for consumers, 100 percent recycled packaging and working with suppliers in nearby regions. H&M is raising consumer awareness with its in-store apparel recycling program and Conscious collection, which is made from recycled fibers and materials.

The future of the apparel sector is unknown, but the need for post-consumer textile recycling is evident, and the industry is working to answer the call.

“Overall, it will be designers that are developing products that can be recycled, not just thinking about the first life but the second life and where that is,” Carey said. “Designing with recycling in mind is where the industry will be going.”