Skip to main content

Textile Recycling: Fashion’s Dirty, Not-So-Little Secret

It all started with a surf trip in Sri Lanka.

Amelia Eleiter was on a volunteer trip after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami when her colleague, Wes Baker, joined her for a getaway to a remote part of the island. Eleiter got out of the water when Baker noticed something was stuck to her leg: A branded soda bottle wrapper that was previously floating in the otherwise pristine ocean.

“Branded waste is floating everywhere around us [and] one day, this is going to matter,” Eleiter recalled. “The fact that there’s literally a name on this waste, brands are going to have to be more careful with how they dispose of things and how they use the finite resources that we’re pulling out of the Earth.”

At that moment, the two clinked their beer glasses and began what was to become Debrand. How to extend the value or the life of the materials extracting from nature is the championing question behind the company, which aims to plug resources back into the ecosystem where they have worth and value versus just discarding them because they’re assumed to be depleted after one use.

Taking advantage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the then-mayor’s goal of having the greenest Olympics to date, Eleiter created a “cheeky” graphic that read “don’t let your legacy end up in our landfill,” encouraging the sponsored brands to use her services. It worked. Shortly after, Lululemon reached out to the duo, saying it had a warehouse full of unsellable inventory that it didn’t want to go to a landfill. At this point, Eleiter and Baker didn’t work with textiles. But considering that the activewear giant isn’t the only apparel brand with this problem, they could be onto something if they found a solution. So they did.

“We started doing research and making connections in the industry across North America and started to realize that there wasn’t a lot of conversation going on around this stuff, and it was sort of like a dirty little secret,” Eleiter said. “There wasn’t infrastructure in place to deal with it.”

Related Stories

While talk of textile recycling isn’t hard to come by, the infrastructure to do so is. In North America, it’s unclear how many facilities are available for textile brands to bring their old materials to and recycle them—there are too many links on the chain to track. Accelerating Circularity studied 26 municipalities or metro areas for its fall 2020 Research and Mapping Report and found that just 12 have a textile recycling initiative in place or provide specific textile recycling information to their residents. But sorting hubs are even more elusive, with only a few dozen existing in North America. Massachusetts just outright banned clothing and home textiles from disposal.

But as Eleiter learned, it’s hard do everything well. Better to find one place to shine.

“We decided and determined that sortation and allocation was a bottleneck in the industry,” Eleiter said. “Where we fit in the reverse supply chain is consolidating goods so we can efficiently sort them into their highest and next best use.” Debrand doesn’t recycle anything or do resale itself but instead takes an agnostic approach to prepare feedstock for that next use.

And now, the reverse logistics textile solutions provider has received a strategic investment from WM, North America’s largest environmental solutions provider. This is the first strategic investment made by WM in textile recycling. The terms of the investment agreement were not disclosed, however.

“We work with our customers to unlock the highest value for their products by extending the products’ life through reuse or recycling,” Eleiter said. “Not only will WM’s investment allow us to integrate our solutions at scale across North America, but we will also be able to empower new and existing customers’ to run efficient and profitable circular systems. What attracted us to each other was our 15 years of experience, our emerging technologies and intelligence around best practices in the industry combined with their collection infrastructure and facilities [that] allow us to scale efficiently. So the goal with this investment is to use it as the seed to be able to really prove out the model and leverage WM’s scaling capabilities to offer a meaningful solution to the industry, which is missing right now.”

 Debrand specializes in reverse logistics for the fashion and retail industry, with customers including Aritzia and Everlane. Essentially, Debrand takes unsellable inventory and uses proprietary software to categorize it into the best next-life option available. All Yeezy rejects soon to be floating around? They might just end up at Debrand (or so environmentalists would hope).

This year, Debrand is projected to divert nearly 1,000 tons of used textiles—125 percent year-over-year growth—from landfills through resale, recycling and repurposing channels. WM’s investment will accelerate Debrand’s plans to grow its operations, capabilities, customer network and team in support of both existing and new customers.

 “Our customers are looking for ways to reduce waste from their operations, enhance their sustainability reporting, and accelerate the transition to a circular economy,” said Eric Dixon, vice president of sustainability and environmental solutions at WM. “WM, in turn, is continuing to adapt to meet these needs and become a true sustainability partner to our customers.”

The growth of textile waste in the United States is outpacing that of every other major refuse category, according to “Textile Recover in the U.S.: A Roadmap to Circularity” by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based sustainability and recycling consultancy. A combination of U.S. Census data and research by Accelerating Circularity found that the U.S. generates approximately 120,000 tons of post-industrial textile waste annually, contributing to the 13 million tons of U.S. textile waste that is landfilled or incinerated annually. Textile waste in the municipal waste system (MSW) stream increased 78 percent by weight between 2000 and 2017, the RSS said, with textile waste increasing 54 percent by person per capita. And only 14.6 percent of used textiles is donated or recycled, according to the EPA. With the projected rise in population and the emergence of a new global middle class, consumption of textiles and apparel is projected to increase 63 percent by 2030. And with that growth comes waste. That growth can be attributed to a shifting consumer mindset about the durability of clothing; the view that clothing is a lasting good has now become, quite literally, disposable.

Currently, 85 percent of textile waste is discarded as trash and must be managed by municipal or regional government solid waste systems, which will either landfill or incinerate the waste. The management of textiles for disposal is expensive; the annual cost to collect and dispose of textile waste in the United States was estimated at $4 billion in 2020, based on national tip fees and industry-average collection costs, as reported by the EREF and RRS. In New York City alone, textiles in the waste stream rose 16 percent between 2005 and 2017, and associated costs increased from $43 million to $93 million over that same period, the RRS found.

WM is investing $800 million through 2025 in its recycling infrastructure, resulting in the construction of five new materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and upgraded equipment at 26 facilities. The waste management provider is also capitalizing on the “promising new market,” its website said, of recycling end-of-life textiles. Its existing collection and processing capabilities could potentially be adapted to the needs of textile recycling, so WM’s corporate development and innovation group built internal teams, assembled a portfolio of supply chain partners, and tested the market through pilots to encourage the growth of end markets for post-consumer textiles.

“After working with Debrand, we recognized the immense value of their cutting-edge textile allocation technology that has enabled us to enhance sortation and divert our customers’ textile waste from landfills into circular solutions,” Dixon continued. “Over 17 million tons of used textile waste are generated annually in the U.S., and our investment in Debrand will help rapidly grow and scale textile solutions and innovation across North America.”

In response to climate change and the movement toward a circular economy, significant demand and growth are expected for Debrand’s reverse logistics textile solutions. The fashion industry is one of the highest producers of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally; a growing number of brands has committed to adopting circular strategies to reduce GHG emissions that derive from producing fibers and raw materials, including ReformationCos and Swiss performance footwear brand On.

The Canadian reverse logistics center is optimized to handle customer returns, damaged goods, excess inventory and customer take-back items. With the rapid rise of e-commerce straining traditional distribution centers, the retailer of the future looks toward solutions such as Debrand’s digital ID technology to capture data on returns, which is automatically sorted upon receipt at the company’s sortation centers. Its digital criteria matrix categorizes items into various highest-value recovery channels, including re-commerce, outlets, donation, material circularity, fiber recycling and new technologies. These channels are then customized to maximize financial value.