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The World’s Drowning in Textile Waste But New Device Offers ‘Real Circular Solution’

The Fibersort Consortium unveiled Thursday the market-ready version of Fibersort, a machine that automatically divides large volumes of mixed post-consumer textiles by fiber composition and color, allowing these materials to become consistently uniform inputs for high-value textile-to-textile recyclers.

The technology, which has been several years in the making, employs near infrared-based technology to sift through some 900 kilograms (1,980 pounds) of post-consumer textiles per hour, according to the group, which includes partners such as Circle Economy, Procotex, Salvation Army ReShare, Smart Fiber Sorting, Worn Again, and Valvan Baling Systems.

The timing of the Fibersort could not be more opportune. Because of ever-accelerating consumption and disposal habits—spurred, in part, by the one-two punch of “fast fashion” and the pressure of posing in fresh outfits for the social-media spotlight—more than 4.7 million metric tons of post-consumer textile waste are generated annually in Northwest Europe alone.

On average, just 30 percent of these textiles are reclaimed, according to the Fibersort Consortium; the rest vanishes into household waste. The “best-case scenario” for the salvaged materials is being sold in secondhand markets, both locally and internationally. Those that don’t make the cut—whether due to unwearability or because of market oversaturation—are downcycled into low-quality rags and building insulation, incinerated or landfilled.

But 24 percent of collected textiles, representing 486 metric kilotons per year, or the weight of 50 Eiffel Towers, has the potential to be recycled into new textiles, the Fibersort Consortium says.

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Automated technologies like the Fibersort could convert these materials into feedstock for textile-to-textile recycling, providing a “real circular process and a solution for low-quality textile waste,” Hans Bon, director of Smart Fiber Sorting, told Sourcing Journal.

But the success of the technology hinges on the end markets that help transform textile waste into new resources. And those markets aren’t without their challenges, as the Fibersort Consortium recently detailed in a report. Factors influencing the uptake of such materials include the scalability of textile-to-textile recycling technologies, incentives for further honing these technologies and the market demand for materials containing recycled content.

“The Fibersort technology has the potential to close the loop on textiles by turning textiles waste into reliable feedstock for recyclers,” Hilde Van Duijn, project manager for the Fibersort project, told Sourcing Journal. “Yet, many barriers still have to be overcome and we need all stakeholders in the textile industry to take action for technologies like the Fibersort to live up to their full potential.”

Collaboration, she added, is key, and requires the participation of collectors, sorters, recyclers, manufacturers, brands and policymakers alike.

The Fibersort initiative is funded by Interreg North-West Europe (NWE), a European Territorial Cooperation Programme backed by the European Commission. Although the project officially ends this month, members of the Fibersort Consortium say they expect to “continue working towards this circular ambition, as well as encouraging others to join the journey.”