Many of us are probably familiar with the 3Rs that guide us on how to limit wastage and reduce our environmental impact – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
These 3Rs are the ethos of circular fashion, which has become a hot topic in the fashion industry as we try to find ways to challenge the linear textile economy that is damaging natural and social environments through the continuous cycle of waste.
As circular fashion principles are becoming more widely accepted, the focus on the final ‘R’ – recycling – has heightened, with the aspiration that creating new clothes out of already existing ones will make a dent in fashion’s waste crisis, and reduce our reliance on virgin materials. We’ve also seen countless brands – big and small – marketing their use of recycled materials and circular principles.
Circularity is a powerful tool for fashion to tackle its environmental impact. But, there is a reason that ‘recycling’ is the last option in the 3Rs, and expensive, technocratic fixes often come with unintended consequences. So, let’s get into unpacking the role of textile recycling in the future of circular fashion.
What is Textile Recycling?
The phrase ‘textile recycling’ encompasses a lot more than we realize. According to Cathryn Anneka Hall of Anneka Textiles on the Re-Fashion Podcast, textile recycling includes: re-using clothing (for example, buying secondhand, or lending them to a friend), upcycling (turning an old item into something new), and textile-to-textile recycling.
So, textile recycling refers to the general process of taking a textile that is no longer in use, giving it new life, adding value to “waste”, and recirculating it, instead of opting for disposal.
Downcycling is also another form of recycling, which refers to the process of breaking down a textile and turning it into a product with a lower value than the original item. For example, think about clothing being shredded into fibers and used as insulation stuffing. Downcycling still limits waste, but because the value of the textile is degraded, it does not capture the full value of the garment as much as textile-to-textile recycling does.
Textile-to-textile recycling is the form of recycling that probably pops into your mind first when you hear the phrase “textile recycling”. It refers to the process of breaking down a garment or piece of cloth into its constituent fibers, and then creating a new textile or garment from those fibers.
But, textile-to-textile recycling accounts for the lowest recycling rate, compared to re-use, upcycling, and downcycling. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s widely cited 2017 New Textiles Economy Report, roughly only one percent of clothes produced are recycled into new ones. Most are downcycled into low-value materials such as insulation, rags, or upholstery stuffing.
Types of Textile Waste
The waste used in textile recycling processes comes from two main streams – pre-consumer and post-consumer textile waste. Pre-consumer textile waste is generated before the garment reaches the consumer, in the design and production phase. For example, the textile scraps that are produced in garment factories, which are discarded, because they are seen as too small to be useful.
Pre-consumer textile waste also includes garments with small defects that were disposed of because they wouldn’t sell as well as end-of-season stock that did not sell because of overproduction.
Post-consumer textile waste is waste that is generated after the consumer no longer wears the garment and disposes of it. This kind of textile waste is fueled by rising consumption and our new disposable fashion culture which encourages us to buy, wear, and move on to the next trend.
This article will focus less on re-use and upcycling, and instead, focus on the kind of textile recycling that allows us to create new products from already existing materials.
Chemical vs. Mechanical Recycling
There are two main types of textile-to-textile recycling: mechanical and chemical.
Mechanical recycling involves the manual shredding of textiles and pulling them apart into their fibers. From there, the fibers are generally combined with another kind of fiber, to strengthen them, before they are spun and woven into a new fabric.
Whereas, chemical recycling involves the use of chemical solvents to dissolve the fibers of the textile waste, so they can be extracted, recovered, and made into a new fabric.
With mechanical recycling, the inputs can include materials from outside the textile industry. For example, most of the recycled polyester used by fashion brands is derived from recycled PET water bottles, instead of from polyester clothing.
Because the process of mechanical recycling involves the manual shredding of textiles into fibers, it results in shorter fibers and a lower tensile strength than virgin fibers, which means they generally have to be combined with a stronger virgin fiber, or recycled fibers of higher strength.
With chemical recycling, the chemical solvent dissolves the textile and separates the fibers, so no tensile strength is lost, because the fibers are not being shredded. This means that the recycled fibers have the same strength and performance characteristics as virgin fibers, enabling them to be recycled multiple times.
For example, Infinited Fiber’s recycling process involves first running feedstock through acid and alkaline baths. The technology separates the cellulosic material from other fibers, like polyester and elastane, and dyes and other chemicals with which it may be mixed.
Mechanical recycling is a good option for homogenous fabric types, i.e. fabrics made of only one kind of fiber, such as 100% cotton. But, for fabric blends, mechanical recycling is not viable.
When fabric blends are mechanically recycled, it usually results in downcycling, because the length of the fibers is degraded to the point where it is not strong enough to become a new garment and has to be used for lower-grade items.
Whereas, chemical recycling can separate fabrics made from different fiber types.
But, chemical recycling is not a perfect solution. Since the process involves chemical solvents, how these chemicals are disposed of safely and sustainably is key to the overall impact of this process. Recyclers also need to make sure that the chemicals used are aligned with sustainable chemical standards.
Comparatively, mechanical recycling has a much lower impact. The mechanical recycling of cotton uses no water, chemicals, and limited energy. For example, The Billie System is a mechanical textile recycling system that uses no water throughout the process of converting textile waste into recycled fibers.
Currently, according to Global Fashion Agenda’s Scaling Circularity Report, there are five recycling technologies at the heart of circularity:
- Mechanical fiber-to-fiber recycling for cotton and viscose
- Thermo-mechanical recycling
- Chemical cellulosic recycling
- Chemical synthetic mono recycling for polyester, nylon
- Chemical blended recycling
The method you use has to do with which one is most appropriate for the textiles you are working with and the outputs you are aiming for. For example, as Helene Smits, CSO at Recover, told Sourcing Journal, “Mechanical tech can keep cotton in the system longer for a few rounds of recycling. Then finally, when the cotton fibers have become too degraded, we can regenerate all these fibers with chemical recycling into man-made cellulosic fibers that can be used again.”
Both mechanical and chemical recycling have their role to play. They should not be viewed as competitors, but rather as complementary processes.
That said, we must maintain a critical eye when it comes to advocating for expensive, technocratic fixes that do not address the underlying forces that drive the never-ending consumption and waste in the first place.
The Current Limits And Challenges Of Textile Recycling
As Liz Ricketts, of The OR Foundation, says in The Renewal Workshop’s Leading Circular 2021 Report, “What does not sit easy with me is that this is a very expensive, technocratic fix, mostly invested in by big business, when the bigger impact would be made if they stopped producing as much and put that energy into places like Kantamanto.”
This also speaks to a colonial legacy that still exists in unequal power relations and the inability to acknowledge that circular systems have always existed in BIPOC communities.
Dominique Drakeford, of Melanin & Sustainable Style, also speaks to this point in The Renewal Workshop’s Leading Circular 2021 Report when she questions why Black and Brown people are not seen as the vanguard of our aspirational circular economies, and instead, the praise goes to those with access, money, privilege, power, and the ability to invest in technological innovations. Meanwhile, BIPOC communities are often the ones disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.
Often, when we think about the concept of “innovation”, we associate it with newness and technology, instead of working with what we have and acknowledging that many solutions already exist. Kantamanto – an already existing, fully-operational, circular economy – is proof of this. We need to reckon with the roots of this crisis, instead of perpetuating imperfect solutions that further these extractive power relations.
There are also several economic and technological challenges we are facing when it comes to the ability to scale textile recycling for a more meaningful impact.
The first is a lack of infrastructure to support a thriving recycling industry. Specifically, we need a better collection and sorting infrastructure.
Before garments are recycled, they have to be sorted according to color and fabric type. Collection and sorting are the cornerstones of a thriving recycling industry, because it allows for different waste streams to be created according to fabric type and color. Currently, textile collection rates remain low at 25 percent.
Many of our clothes are made from a mix of synthetic and natural fibers. So, the second challenge is that there is still a limited ability to separate blends, which are very common in our current fashion system. And, sometimes clothing doesn’t even have a label, making it even more difficult to discern the types of fibers.
In addition to sorting into color and fabric type, the trimmings have to be removed. The trimmings cannot be recycled, because they are made of different materials than the garment that is being recycled. So, before clothing can be recycled, all the trimmings – such as labels, zips, and buttons – need to be removed, which can be an extremely slow, labor-intensive process.
Thirdly, the innovation process is slow, so this means that the impact is too. Many recycling initiatives are not yet operating at an industrial scale and won’t be for the next couple of years due to the extensive time it takes to progress from lab scale to first industrial plant.
And, textile recycling is not without its environmental impacts. At the moment, textiles intended for recycling are often shipped across the globe. Given this, it would make sense to develop regional recycling hubs that could also have positive economic impacts.
Perhaps the most important limit to textile recycling is the speed that the fashion industry currently produces new clothes. Any circular economy model that encourages more consumption, while reassuring us that textile recycling is a solution, will always be unsustainable.
For example, since 2016, the H&M group has partnered with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel and spent $6.4 million on the development of the ‘Green Machine’ which facilitates textile-to-textile recycling and can separate polyester-cotton garments at scale.
This figure speaks to the exclusivity of this kind of technology, as well as the immense capital input that is needed to scale the textile recycling industry.
It also conveys an uneasy sense of irony, because the retailer also produces 3 billion garments per year, which amounts to $22 billion in revenue including $4.1 billion of unsold clothes as recently as 2019.
And, I can’t help but wonder: couldn’t the millions spent on developing high-tech recycling technology be spent on ensuring living wages for garment workers?
If the wasteful fashion giants wanted to contribute to cleaning up the fashion industry, they would have to admit that there is a much simpler (and much more affordable) way to do it: Just produce less.
As The Renewal Workshop’s Leading Circular 2021 Report says, “To start, fashion simply cannot view reuse and circularity as an additional revenue stream to their main business of selling more and more clothes every year.”
What Can We Do To Enable A Thriving Circular Culture?
Textile recycling will not save us from the fashion waste crisis that we find ourselves in, but simply chips away at the larger problem. We cannot rely on expensive technologies, without also working towards a shift in culture that transforms how we design, utilize, and dispose of our clothes. And, instead of focussing solely on expensive, technocratic fixes, let’s focus on replicating models – like Kantamanto – that already work and are encouraging a cultural shift
We urgently need to slow down our consumption habits and re-use what we already have. We still need to be wearing our clothes longer and shifting the culture of consumption – recycling should be the last option.
A lot of a product’s environmental impact is determined based on how it is designed and produced, emphasizing the need for brands and designers to create durable garments that are meant to last, be repaired, and used for an extended period.
Equally important, is designers and brands thinking about the garment’s end-of-life right from the design stage. This includes designing for recyclability and designing for disassembly with easily removable trimmings, like zips and care tags.
But, designers don’t have control over how clothing is utilized – that part is up to consumers.
Some ways we can challenge the culture of disposability is by wearing our clothes for as long as possible, mending, swapping, borrowing, shopping secondhand, and making sure that recycling and disposal are our last options.
We also can share information about what materials are most widely and easily recycled and alert people to the greenwashing that is present in the industry. As we have learned, monofiber garments – as opposed to blends – are currently the easiest to recycle.
If you do want to recycle the clothes that you are no longer able to wear, do some research first on how and where to recycle your old clothes responsibly.
Moral of the story: recycling works in tandem with other circular fashion practices that relate to how we understand our relationship to clothing and its permanence in this world. And, we all have a role to play in shifting this narrative.
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.