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Scaling Textile-to-Textile Recycling of Used Garments – The Holy Grail of Circular Textiles

Achieving circularity in textiles is an increasingly important topic on the industry agenda. However, at the present moment, this industry is still largely dominated by a linear business model, producing, consuming and throwing away more textiles than ever before.

The transition to circularity is not an easy one, and it requires a collective, systemic approach. One of the three key components of a circular fashion model as defined by World Circular Textiles Day in their 2050 vision, is for “Raw materials to be renewable, recyclable and safe, and to be kept in continual circulation.” Effective textile-to-textile recycling of used garments at scale plays an important role in achieving that vision and is considered by many industry leaders as the “holy grail.” And it’s not called that for nothing. It comes with a specific set of challenges, many of them systemic in nature.

It all starts with collection. Currently, worldwide only ±25 percent of all discarded textiles are collected separately. Half of which is destined for re-use and the other half, so called non-rewearables, is mostly designed for downcycling. Less than 1 percent of discarded clothes are recycled into new ones, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When collection rates for textiles rise, for example in Europe following a regulation that will go into effect in 2025, a larger part of the additional textiles collected will likely to be of a lower quality.  Markets for low-grade re-use and recyclable grades were already showing signs of saturation in pre-COVID times, according to Mistra Future Fashion, and several key stakeholders have stressed the importance to develop and scale high-value recycling routes in advance of increasing collection rates.

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As a high-value, textile-to-textile recycler, Recover™ has a key role to play in the transition to a circular fashion system. Currently, Recover™ uses mainly post-industrial textile waste as inputs for their mechanical recycling process.

However, the company has set a clear goal to scale the recycling of post-consumer textiles and for this to represent ±40 percent of its feedstock inputs as it scales worldwide, aiming to process ±85,000 metric tons of post-consumer textiles annually by 2025. At the same time, developments of several chemical recycling options look promising and are expected to have initial plants up and running in the next few years. However, capital requirements for chemical recycling plants are significant and leadership and support from global brands and retailers will need to help drive investments needed for accelerated scaling.

While this is all very encouraging, both mechanical and chemical recycling technologies face a similar challenge in their need to secure large volumes of suitable post-consumer feedstock for their process.

Circularity Recover Textiles

The existing textile collectors/sorters business models are tailored to sorting for re-use and downcycling markets. High-value recyclers have very different needs with regards to sorting (composition, color, exclusion of garments with wax coatings, lurex yarns and so on) and pre-processing (removing rubber prints, care labels, buttons/zippers etc) of post-consumer textiles.

To do this at scale in an economical way, new technologies and processes are required. Promising technologies for automated sorting and pre-processing of garments exist, but many still need to be finetuned and a large scale roll out of these technologies requires disruption of the existing business and strong capital investments.

Some of the challenges of the costly and manual pre-processing steps can be mitigated by applying circular design, in particular design for cyclability strategies. In addition, design for cyclability could help to reduce the number of unrecyclable fabrics blends and fibers that are circulating. Aligning the fiber composition of garments with input specifications for (soon to be) available recycling technologies is a key requirement for increasing the scale and effectiveness of high value recycling.

Getting to a state where textile resources are continuously circulated in the system will require us to establish effective, sustainable, and economical circular supply chains to collect, sort, prepare and recycle the vast amounts of textiles that are discarded worldwide each year.

To achieve circularity in the textile industry we need more than voluntary commitments, we need coordinated and collective action. Key drivers include ambitious policies and regulations that set new industry standards to promote collection, circular design, traceability, chemical management, and other circular practices. In addition, strengthening of consumer education and engagement on the topic, support from the financial community to provide the capital investment required, and collective action of front-running brands and solution providers across the globe are critical.

Recover™ is committed to being an agent of change in this area, not only by scaling its own recycling of post-consumer textiles but also by being part of key industry projects like Accelerating Circularity Project and the ReHubs initiative that bring crucial stakeholders together to help build the infrastructure required.

Helene Smits Recover

This article was written by Helene Smits, chief sustainability officer, Recover™.

To learn more about Recover™, click here.