Fashion is the third most polluting industry in the world, and the second largest consumer and polluter of water. The Environmental Leader admits that “17 to 20 % of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment and an estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which will be released into freshwater sources. And it is not only the production of raw material that is water-intensive, the wet processing of clothing, such as washing and dyeing, also consumes huge amounts of water.” The US-based NGO Reformation reports that “the global production of all textile fibres consumes 1 trillion gallons of water, 33 trillion gallons of oil, and 20 billion pounds of chemicals annually.” In addition to that, textile waste in 2015 accounts for approximately 14.3 million tons of solid waste, that is 5.7% of total solid waste generated in the United States, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The good news: fashion is recyclable. The question is how do we reduce the amount of waste and make fashion industry one step closer to circular economy.
What textile can be recycled and how?
Currently there are 2 ways to recycle textile – mechanical fibre recycling and chemical fibre recycling. Mechanical recycling is considered to be the most scalable recycling technology for post-consumer textiles. The first step in mechanical recycling is to collect and separate different types of plastics. Different plastics have different melting points and other characteristics that must be taken into account during the recycling process. After these plastics are separation, each type is melted down and converted into small “chips”. These chips are what a widget manufacturer buys from the recycling facility to make its product.
Chemical recycling involves chemical dissolution of fibres into their precursor chemicals. For example, polyester would be broken down into DMT (dimethyl terephthalate) and EG (ethylene glycol). These chemicals are then purified and used to make new polyester fibre. There are pros and cons on both sides.
Natural fibres like cotton and wool are usually recycled mechanically. The problem is that nowadays it’s hard to find 100% virgin material in mass production. Most of the clothing you are wearing often contains a blend of different fibres, which makes it hard for recycler to separate. Thus, mechanically recycled fibre has a certain percentage of polyester chips generated during the process. Because of that fibre quality of the end product is significantly lower compared to the virgin fibre, but can be improved by combining recycled and virgin fibres together.
Synthetic materials like polyester and certain types of nylons are mainly processed chemically. Chemical recycling allows the production of fibres that are equal in quality to virgin ones. At this stage it is only possible to reprocess synthetic fibres, however there is a possibility in future to utilise the technique for natural materials like cotton. Chemical recycling produces the number of by-products like chemicals, dyes and metallics. Chemical recyclers are putting lots of effort to optimize their processes by either recapturing the by-products and putting them to good use, or exploring ways to safely dispose of them.
What can be improved?
The number of research institutes in the Nordics have started a two-year project aimed at developing new policy packages, which would encourage Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems and innovative new business models aimed at increasing reuse and recycling of textiles.
Elaborate new policies. Policy is key, when it comes sustainability. Hélène Smits, lead project developer at The Circular Textiles Program, and Carola Tembe, environmental sustainability co-ordinator at H&M’s, suggest that removing trade barriers, introducing tax benefits and enabling the flow of used textiles to producer countries may help the situation.
Introduce new business models. In addition to policy, more fashion brands must introduce disruptive business models. Although it seems to be hard to influence over the supply chain, recycling should become a normal practice for fashion giants as well as middle-sized brands.
Educate fashion designers. The textile products should be designed in a way so they are easy to recycle. Teaching designers to create as zero-waste pattern designs and disassembly fornot just one generation of products will have a positive impact on the environment and profit margins.
Cookie: sustainable brands and fashion recycle initiatives
So the next trend in fashion industry is circularity. Companies need to move beyond optimising their products and supply chains, and collaborate to achieve new sustainable standards, business models and innovative technologies. Below are fashion brands that already made sustainability a part of their business:
- G-Star Raw & Pharrell Williams
- Levi’s Unzipped
- Gucci Think and Act
- Puma Re-Cut
- Vivienne Westwood and Ethical Fashion Initiative
- Columbia ReThreads
- H&M Germent Collecting Initiative