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Fiber-to-Fiber Recycling Needs Significant Improvements, Innovation

Old clothes, effortlessly transformed into new: That’s the utopian vision apparel brands, desperate to shrug off criticisms of planet-plundering and waste, have been pitching to consumers for years. But while the reality isn’t as easy as most take-back schemes make it out to be, so-called “fiber-to-fiber” recycling isn’t without its potential for greatness. It just needs a good deal of rallying in order to do so.

Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a U.K. nonprofit, concludes as much in “Fibre to Fibre Recycling: An Economic & Financial Sustainability Assessment,” a first-of-its-kind report to delve into the practical and financial viability of using post-consumer textiles as a feedstock for fiber-to-fiber processing, be it chemical or mechanical in nature.

Finding alternatives for virgin fibers grows more crucial in an increasingly resource-challenged world. Though demand for raw materials is expected to triple by 2050, WRAP predicts that stresses to future cotton supplies—the United Kingdom’s most commonly used fiber—could result in a 5 million metric ton shortfall by 2020.

Could the 40 million pounds worth of clothing Britons dispatch to landfills every year (at significant cost to the economy, by the by) provide some kind of respite? Perhaps if fiber-to-fiber recycling gets its act together, asserts Peter Maddox, director of WRAP.

“Fiber-to-fiber recycling offers a potential solution [to help us] secure new sources of materials and find new markets for used clothing—but one that has not been properly investigated,” Maddox said in a statement. “New processes and entrants onto the market should be monitored to inform the business case for future investment, but we already see potential for post-consumer textiles to become part of the U.K.’s fashion scene.”

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Cotton and polyester, found in mono-fabrics and textile blends, WRAP noted, provide the greatest potential for fiber-to-fiber recycling, which means there’s no getting around sorting and grading. But manual sorting alone cannot supply the high quantities of high-quality feedstocks that fiber-to-fiber recycling (and especially chemical fiber-to-fiber recycling) requires, the organization insisted. As such, automated sorting using near-infrared spectroscopy may be “critical to wider development.”

WRAP’s report appears to favor chemical recycling, which typically uses solvents that target and dissolve either the cellulosic or synthetic content of the textiles as a means of cleaving apart poly-cotton blends. Despite being “commercially farther off”—which is to say, less mature—than their mechanical counterparts, chemical recycling processes may unlock a higher economic potential in the long run, it said.

(Chemical doesn’t necessarily mean toxic. The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Research, to give an example, says it uses biodegradable “green” solvents to accelerate its own garment-recycling process.)

There are other things the fashion industry can do to improve the viability of their feedstocks, which would, in turn, result in high-quality recycled yarns. Clothing manufacturers, WRAP suggested, could limit the use of “problematic” dyes and trims. By improving their public-facing messaging, brands and retailers could also “positively influence” the proportion of discarded clothing available for recycling, since consumer behavior affects the quality of garments received. Excessive washing or frequent tumble drying at scorching temperatures, for instance, can impair the quality of the fibers recovered during mechanical reprocessing.

One way to make garment-recycling more economical is to make updates to the clothing-collection infrastructure, WRAP said. Costs associated with the feedstock are “highly dependent” on factors like transport and distance, but even these can be overcome with the right innovation and know-how. And if not for anything else, then at least for the planet’s sake.

“The fragility of existing fibers-recycling markets is presenting a significant barrier to improving the overall sustainability of the fashion industry, which as we know has a huge environmental impact,” said Alan Wheeler, director of England’s Textile Recycling Association. “The current markets for mechanically recycled fibers are limited, and to be able to collect more clothing that is currently being disposed of, we must find new markets for recycled fibers or risk flooding these markets and potentially having to dispose of low-value recycling grade textile.”