Despite a surge in the number of brands incorporating recycled materials into their products, sorted post-consumer textiles continue to struggle to find suitable end markets that preserve their highest value, a new report claims.
The barriers range from socio-cultural to regulatory according to the Fibersort Consortium, the group of textile industry stakeholders behind the world’s first automated technology to allow large volumes of mixed post-consumer textiles to be sorted based on fiber composition.
Northwest Europe alone generates 4.7 million metric tons of post-consumer textile waste annually, noted the consortium, which includes partners such as Circle Economy, Procotex, Salvation Army ReShare, Smart Fiber Sorting, Worn Again, and Valvan Baling Systems.
The problem is accelerating consumption and disposal practices, which are causing textiles entering the market to “reach their end-of-use rapidly,” the author’s report wrote. The average person in the Netherlands, for instance, disposes of 40 clothing items every year. Yet fewer than 1 percent of textiles produced are currently recycled into new ones. Instead, roughly half is downcycled, incinerated or landfilled.
Key hurdles for the market readiness and uptake of such materials include the difficulty of separating fiber blends, the available textile-to-textile recycling technologies, the potential (and incentives) for further development of these technologies and the market demand for materials containing recycled content.
While the recycling sector has boomed—between 2014 and 2019, the number of facilities certified by the Recycled Claim Standard increased nine-fold, and those certified by the Global Recycled Standard ballooned by 360 percent—just one third of recyclers can process more than one material composition.
Some 60 percent of recyclers use mechanical technologies, which require color sorting and the physical removal of trims and hardware, resulting in “low financial viability” and poor price parity with virgin materials. As such, recycled content from post-consumer sources remains low. “Most chemical recycling still remains at pilot scale, with the exception of post-industrial textile waste for certain materials such as polyamide,” the authors wrote.
Denim provides one exception, however. The denim industry, the report noted, has adopted both mechanically and chemically recycled post-consumer cotton yarns into their collections, and jeans can contain an average recycled content of between 15 percent and 40 percent.
“The consistency of denim fabrics allows for less uncertainty in the feedstock of the recycling processes, although accurate sorting of the material remains key to identify high percentages of non-cotton materials such as elastane or polyester,” the authors wrote, pointing to collaborations such as Mud Jeans and Recovertex, Evrnu and Levi Strauss, and G-Star and Artistic Milliners.
Another issue? The lack of traceability on most textiles, which risks reintroducing textiles into the system that could threaten product safety due to chemical contamination. It is of “primary importance,” the report said, that recycled textiles comply with brands’ and manufacturers’ restricted substance lists (RSL), the European Union’s REACH 2020 regulations and more extensively with ZDHC’s RSL. “Therefore, traceability of materials and components can be identified as a priority to enter the market,” the authors said.
Still, the opportunities to scale the use of recycled textiles are manifold, as evidenced in the growth of textile-to-textile recyclers and recycling technologies, the number of manufacturing facilities certified by standards proving recycled content and the increasing amount of brands working to deploy recycled content into their (albeit niche) collections.
“Nevertheless, further research, development and piloting remains to be done in order to fully understand and solve the barriers that still remain regarding recycling post-consumer textiles,” the report noted.