Every year, the used clothing and textiles recycling industry is confronted with two distinct types of challenge: first, the day-to-day issues that undermine the efficiency of our companies’ operations; and second, the more strategic problems that, in many cases, have existed for years but remain largely intractable.
In terms of daily business challenges, the most notable in 2021 concerned the ongoing shipping crisis brought about principally by the COVID pandemic, with a lack of container availability leading to soaring costs and regular delays throughout last year. The costs of obtaining containers for exporting out of Europe have more than doubled and shipments that would normally be completed in a matter of weeks are now, in many instances, taking months. Thus, the practicalities of trading have become increasingly difficult and profit margins are being squeezed.
As for the more underlying challenges facing our sector, one of these was discussed in detail at our divisional webinar in November last year – namely, ill-informed media coverage of what happens to exported used clothing in destination markets. So often, articles in the press and online are not properly researched or reflect a lack of understanding on the part of the journalist or writer. For our industry, such misinformation always comes as a regrettable and time-consuming distraction
The used clothing and textiles recycling industry generates major environmental benefits in the form of reducing not only greenhouse gas emissions but also water/air pollution and resource consumption.
And yet in 2021, there was constant repetition of claims about clothing sent to Ghana which were based on research that was neither published nor peer-reviewed. The coverage centred on what seems to be a local issue; the journalists did not seek out the real truth and had failed to understand or consider the potentially much wider negative consequences of what they were saying.
As noted at our webinar, international trade creates social benefits too, including the promotion of gender equality in Africa where the second-hand clothing sector has provided major opportunities for female entrepreneurs.
Positive steps are now being taken by industry stakeholders from Europe and North America to highlight not only what good practice looks like but also the very real environmental, social and economic benefits delivered by our sector. Various collaborative actions were initiated in 2021 and, by the end of 2022, we intend to be in a position to provide robust research and evidence that showcase
our industry’s important work.
Another area in which activities will gather yet more momentum in 2022 concerns changes to government policies to promote the sustainability of fashion. Expansion of extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes into different countries will bring both challenges and opportunities. On January 1 2022, Sweden became the second country in the world to introduce EPR on clothing. In the UK, meanwhile, its Parliament passed key primary legislation in 2021 also aimed at EPR for clothing, with the government committing to the completion of a consultation exercise on the introduction of such a scheme by the end of this year. Furthermore, the Dutch government has made a commitment to introduce EPR on clothing in 2023 while overtures to establishing similar schemes have been heard elsewhere in Europe and beyond.
The ongoing development of the EU Textiles Strategy is also expected to have a significant impact on our sector. With greater emphasis on improving the circularity of the fashion industry, we can expect to see more stakeholders moving into this field and retailers taking greater interest in what happens to the clothing they put on the market. Undoubtedly, there will be increased interest among retailers and brands in producing garments from “sustainable” raw materials, such as recycled fibres.
But while this is a welcome development in principle, we need to be very careful to ensure that good-quality reusable clothing is not unnecessarily dragged down the waste hierarchy and sent for recycling. Reuse of clothing, wherever that demand is to be found, is better than needlessly sending those same items for recycling. We need to ensure that the EU understands this fundamental truth and that it avoids the introduction of any measures which would adversely affect steps to address climate change, impair United Nations sustainable development goals or contravene the waste hierarchy.
Today, clothing does not simply answer a practical need; fashion has become a form of self-expression and the sheer volume and variety of textile products available on the market have reached unprecedented levels. The global apparel market alone is already worth more than US$ 1.3 trillion per year and the figure is continuing to rise; indeed, the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition projects that, by the year 2030, global apparel consumption could have leapt by a further 63% to 102 million tonnes.
But textiles are not used just for clothes; they are also in our homes, hospitals, workplaces and vehicles - in the form of cleaning materials, upholstery, leisure equipment and so on. Overall, textile production is a major contributor to climate change and produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. According to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee report “Fixing Fashion”, this is more than the total produced by international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Textile production also entails substantial resource use: for example, to produce 1 kg of cotton takes between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water. More alarmingly, the World Bank reckons 20% of global water pollution is caused by textile processing, making it the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources on the planet.
FACING UP TO THE CHALLENGE
Despite the positive impact clothing and textiles recycling could have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental issues, many consumers do not realize to what extent their household textiles can be recycled, with the result that a significant proportion still ends up in landfills. At a recent BIR Convention, it was claimed that low recycling rates for used textiles represent a worldwide problem, with current rates estimated at 26% in Europe, 15% in China and 12% in the USA. Within Europe, the collection rates vary hugely from country to country: a report from the European Clothing Action Plan on used textile collections within cities has looked at separate collection rates as a share of quantities on the market and has listed estimates of 75% for Germany and 44% for Denmark, dropping to 30-40% for France, the Netherlands and the UK, and as low as 11% for Italy.
Against this backdrop, BIR and the textiles recycling industry as a whole have been underlining the recyclability of almost every form of used textile. BIR Conventions have also provided a platform to highlight latest research designed to maximise recycling rates - not only through reuse but also, for example, through chemical and biological recycling. Most recently, these global gatherings have showcased practical solutions to convert blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns, as well as a dry upcycling process (housed within a standard shipping container) that completes the entire garment-to-garment recycling chain - from sanitization and fibre opening to spinning and knitting - in a period of four hours to two days.
The recovery and recycling of textiles provide both environmental and economic benefits by:
Reducing the need for landfill space. Certain synthetic fibre products do not decompose, while natural fibre such as wool does decompose but produces methane which contributes to global warming.
Reducing pressure on virgin resources. This includes materials traditionally used in textiles such as cotton and wool, as well as oil and other chemicals employed to produce synthetic fibres.
Reducing water and energy consumption.
Reducing demand for dyes and fixing agents. This, in turn, minimizes the problems caused by their use and manufacture.
Textile materials for recycling can be classified as:
The recycling processes are usually as follows:
Sorting: Collected textiles are manually sorted and graded according to their condition and types of fibres used.
Re-sorting: Mills grade incoming materials according to their type and colour. Colour sorting means no re-dyeing is needed, saving energy and avoiding pollutants.
Shredding and pulling: Textile materials are shredded or pulled into fibres. Depending on the end-use of the yarn, other fibres may be incorporated.
Carding: The blended mixture is carded to clean and mix the fibres.
Spinning: The yarn is re-spun ready for subsequent weaving or knitting.
Depending on the final application, fibres sometimes do not need to be spun into yarns; they can simply be compressed to create new textile fillings.
In the case of polyester-based materials, recycling begins by cutting the garments into small pieces. The shredded fabric is then granulated and turned into polyester chips which are melted and spun into new filament fibres used to make new polyester fabrics.