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Many questions to resolve for textile recycling

Policies to reduce the carbon footprint of the textile industry must include design for recycling and an acceptance that recycling might deliver lower quality fabrics, the Bureau of International Recycling has been told.

Professor Stefan Schlichter of the International Centre for Sustainable Textiles in Augsburg, Germany, set out the issues at a meeting of BIR’s textile division at its Amsterdam convention. ‘Where are now is not that impressive,’ he said, pointing out that fibre-to-fibre recycling was ‘very, very low’ at 1%.

‘And the industry has a severe environmental footprint,’ the professor added, pointing out that 33% of textiles go to incineration or landfill. In 1972, 70% of textiles came from renewable resources and 50 years later the figure is 30%, with 60% of fibres being petro-based, a shift which created additional challenges for sustainability in general and recyclers in particular.

A major challenge, delegates were told, is that recycling textiles is a more complex process than many other materials such as plastics. Decisions on how materials were processed after use had to balance technical, economic, and ecological criteria. Schlichter said these criteria would dictate whether mechanical or chemical treatment was better.

‘The problem is not that there are not the technologies available; the problem is that the balance between these different needs is not correct.’

He believed the sought-for goal of ‘cradle-to-cradle’ recycling was ‘too strict’. ‘You have to consider that the recycling may reduce the quality so it may be better to make a different textile,’ he advised. ‘And we don’t need to have 100% recycling. If we managed only 50% that would change a lot of things.’

Better design to aid recycling was also called for. ‘As an example, a modern diaper (nappy) consists of 10 different materials but this is unnecessary – you can make them from just one. The reason for 10 is that the manufacturing costs are lower.

‘We need more research, better takeback systems, automatic sorting, optimising mechanical recycling and develop chemical recycling to an industrial scale. We probably need 150-250 new recycling facilities in Europe by 2030. We need government help because industry is probably not able to do it by themselves.’

The panel discussion which followed included a query from moderator Alan Wheeler from the UK’s Textile Recycling association as to whether circularity really was the most desired outcome.

‘Is it better to recycle an item back into other clothing for a few months or years or for it to be recycled into something like insulation that will last for decades?’

Schlichter responded by saying that life analysis (LCA) did not always give the appropriate answer when materials had several lives, as in Wheeler’s example. He thought multicycle LCAs would be a better approach.

He believed that more circular thinking from clothing brands would drive loyalty. ‘If you as a brand are in a circular model with takeback and supply again you are in a completely different relationship with your customers and you can save a lot of costs over the cycle.

‘There are definitely opportunities economically for brands to move to the circular economy but you have to think differently.’

Asked by the EuRIC secretary general Emmanuel Katrakis for his top three measures to drive circularity, Schlichter replied:

  • A policy push so that everyone in the chain ‘starts to move’
  • A ban on over-production – ‘there is 25% over-production in the garment industry’
  • Extended producer liability – ‘it will involve the fashion industry’

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