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Recover Scales Textile-to-Textile Recycling to Meet Growing Demand

As the fashion industry sees garment and textile waste pile higher and higher, one company sees heaps of opportunity.

As part of a fourth-generation family-owned company with a 70-year long history in textile recycling, materials science company Recover saw recycling fibers as a way to transform the fashion industry long before it was fashionable. It has been perfecting its technique ever since, with today’s urgency for climate action boosting global demand for recycled textiles, including cotton.

“Up until 15 years ago, Recover wasn’t even actively marketing the fact that they were creating a recycled product, because the image in the market was not so positive,” said Helene Smits, chief of sustainability at Recover. “Today, recycled is no longer considered dirty or inferior; it’s a must for new, more conscious generations and an integral part of a fashion industry that is circular and regenerative by design. Our challenge now is to keep up with market demand.”

She cites consumer demand and the urgency to address the climate crisis as the main drivers.

The Fashion on Climate report that was released end of 2020 by Mckinsey and GFA states that, “To align with the 1.5-degree pathway over the next 10 years, the fashion industry should intensify its efforts and embrace accelerated abatement to reduce annual emissions to around 1.1 billion tons, around half of today’s figure.”

Recover supports the report’s conclusion that the immediate focus should be on upstream operations, where around 60 percent of emissions savings are possible. “Accelerated adoption of recycled cotton by the industry is one of the key strategies that can be applied to achieve this ambitious target,” Smits added.

Recycled vs virgin

Recover’s recycled cotton alternative reduces the need to cultivate virgin cotton, thus avoiding climate impacts associated with cotton production, including the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

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According to the Higg Material Sustainability Index and results calculated using the Higg MSI ( V3.2, the global warming potential of Recover recycled cotton is almost 10 times less than virgin conventional cotton. Recover recycled cotton produces just 0.199 kg CO2 eq (global warming potential), compared to organic cotton (0.998 kg CO2 eq) and conventional cotton (1.93 kg CO2 eq).

Recover textile hangtag
Hangtags feature QR codes to tout the benefits of Recover recycled textiles. Courtesy

In addition, recycling colored textile resources into colored fibers and yarns eliminates the need for dyeing downstream, reducing the amount of water and potentially harmful chemicals used. On top of that, as landfill waste, including textiles, release greenhouses gasses (GHGs), a recycling program that keeps textiles out of landfills has an added positive climate impact.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, namely the fact that secondary resources aren’t as consistent as virgin ones. “In transforming waste back to resources, we are dealing with more variation and quality differences among our input material than you would have with homogeneous virgin raw material inputs. Despite this, we still need to guarantee a safe, high-quality fiber product every time,” Smits said. “But we are proud to be part of several industry initiatives like the Accelerating Circularity Project, ReHubs and Circular Fashion Partnership that bring key stakeholders together to achieve tangible progress and impact in this regard.”

Global Fashion Agenda CEO Federica Marchionni expressed urgency for recycling’s growth. “Scaling recycled fibers is not only key to address the climate crisis but also to address the textile waste crisis. With the Circular Fashion Partnership, GFA is actively driving this movement and aims to establish a business case for textile waste recycling in Bangladesh,” she said. “The idea is to replicate this to other parts of the world to drive the global scaling of textile-to-textile recycling technologies such as Recover.”

Meeting demand

Another challenge Recover cites is a good one to have—keeping up with demand.

Many brands have set goals to have 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2025, all which drives Recover’s motivation to scale up.

Faisal Ahmed, CEO of denim mill ADM Ltd., noted how the recycling of old denim into new has made great strides in the past few years and is receiving increased interest from brands and retailers looking for sustainable cotton options. “This is something very tangible that consumers can relate to, and we are able to create beautiful and affordable products that customers love,” he said. “We are in a time of great opportunity to scale and achieve a massive positive impact.”

Recover is ambitiously aiming for annual production of 200,000 metric tons of recycled cotton fiber by 2025. This will save up to three trillion liters of water each year, allow 500,000 acres of land to be directed away from cotton cultivation for other uses, and save up to 4.6 million tons of CO2 (equivalent to the total annual CO2 emissions of almost 930,000 people).

Transport also has significant carbon impact and Recover takes this into consideration in its expansion plans, establishing its new facilities in places close to the textile waste and/or textile manufacturing. The company is currently building a second facility in Bangladesh, which will be fully operational by Q4 of 2021.

For Recover, the next step in achieving its vision of “circular fashion for all” is to scale the recycling of pre- and post-consumer waste (PCW) textiles. The company has been doing this for years for denim and in closed loop projects, aiming to take this to the next level with its ambitious target of having PCW represent more than 40 percent of its inputs by 2025. This would mean recycling ±425 million garments to produce fiber to create ±700 million new garments.

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