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New Infrared Technology Could Accelerate Textile Recycling in Finland

A new breed of infrared technology could give textile recycling a leg up by identifying fibers in post-garments with greater accuracy and reliability.

“Recognition technology based on an infrared sensor is familiar in sorting plastic packaging, but it is new in textile recycling,” Jaakko Zitting, a project engineer at Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto (LSHJ), a recycling firm based in Finland, said in a statement.

LSJH, which developed the technology in collaboration with Lahti University of Applied Science and equipment maker Spectral Engines, will be piloting the technology at one of its plants this fall. Eventually, the company plans to establish a facility that will employ the infrared sensors to process discarded textiles from Finland and abroad.

Textile waste sorting, both in Finland and elsewhere in Europe, has traditionally been a onerous, time-consuming task, one that requires workers to manually examine labels to pinpoint fiber content. But labels can be misleading, inaccurate or even missing, which can become an issue for industries that require a specific type of reclaimed fiber as a feedstock for new products. Higher-quality materials are reserved for yarns that are made into new clothing, LSJH said. Those of lesser value are turned into rags or insulation.

Still, no amount of textile sorting will matter if there isn’t sufficient demand for recycled fibers on the other end, the company noted.

“Textile recycling is only possible if the entire textiles value chain is aligned with the circular economy, in other words if we use [recycled] fibers to bring new products to market,” Sini Ilmone, a project leader and circular economy specialist at LSJH, said. “It is therefore of utmost important to find new businesses that want to utilize recycled fibers to develop new products.”

Financing for the project was provided by municipal waste facilities and Finland’s Ministry of Employment and the Economy. Business Finland, a public research funding agency, also contributed a 1.5-million-euro investment grant.