Textiles constitute one of the oldest and most established forms of reuse and recycling. And yet, our two meetings in 2019 demonstrated once again just how vibrant and forward- thinking our industry can be.
In Singapore last May, guest speaker Dr Gloria Lei Yao of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) wowed the audience with her insight into the organization’s wide- ranging research, development and technology transfer initiatives in the mechanical, chemical and biological recycling of post- consumer textiles. HKRITA has been working with such high-profile brands as H&M in a bid to find practical solutions to converting blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns. And it has even developed a dry upcycling process that completes the garment-to- garment recycling chain within the confines of a standard-size, double- glazed shipping container.
This is not a stand-alone example of innovation. Companies and research institutes around the world are exploring techniques for streamlining the recycling of used textiles.
For a number of years, BIR’s Textiles Division has been underscoring the importance of research and technological developments if our industry is to keep moving forward. In particular, we need scientific expertise to guide us to new applications for that proportion of our material which does not command prices from which a profit can be derived. In effect, collection and sorting of used textiles continue to be financed by the resale of second-hand goods.
As a result of such mega trends as fast fashion, there has been a decline in quality as a result of inferior handling practices leading to a lower proportion of marketable second-hand textiles. We are also confronted by: the potential for trading disruption as a result of wider geopolitical developments such as Brexit; payment problems across a significant proportion of our customer base; and the ever- rising costs associated with running any company. As with most other years of late, the negatives of doing business in our sector seem to outweigh the positives.
Against this backdrop, society as a whole needs to concern itself about who will pay for collection and sorting services if this quality deterioration were to continue without some compensatory profit from the remaining portion of what we handle. This point will become ever more pertinent given the EU’s requirement for mandatory separate collection of used textiles by 2025. Another possibility is that extended producer responsibility on clothing and textiles could be expanded beyond France to other countries.
At our October 2019 meeting in Budapest, our own General Delegate Alan Wheeler showed other ways in which our industry is seeking to innovate. His organization in the UK – the Textile Recycling Association – has embarked on two schemes: firstly, a partnership with the National Bed Federation to create a Register of Approved Mattress Recyclers in a bid to provide commercial advantage to legitimate operators as well as to assist new businesses in understanding what is required to achieve a high standard in mattress recycling; and secondly, the TRUST accreditation scheme to promote best business practices among collectors and sorters, covering such areas as health & safety, employment law and environmental legislation.
Such initiatives bring multiple advantages, not least boosting the overall quality of recycling operations and enhancing the profile of our industry as a solution provider for the wider benefit of the environment.
Earlier in Singapore, Mr Wheeler had highlighted the strategy document for England entitled “Our Waste. Our Resources”, which covers a number of problem areas including water pollution from processes such as dyeing, overconsumption of water and the shedding of microplastics when clothes are washed. We cannot escape the fact that textiles production has huge resource usage ramifications and that global apparel consumption is expected to soar beyond 100 million tonnes per year by 2030. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the global fashion industry accounts for around 10% of all global carbon emissions – more than the aviation and maritime industries combined. WRAP estimates that the industry has the fourth biggest environmental impact in the UK behind housing, transport and food.
The textiles recycling and reuse industry has a huge role to play in mitigating the environmental impact of these realities. But to be most effective in this regard, we must keep our eyes and minds open to fresh possibilities and ways of working.
We may be an old industry, but we must remain receptive to new ideas.
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.
BENEFITS OF RECYCLING
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.
APPLICATIONS & RECYCLING FACTS