Textile Recycling – What It Is and the Need of Textile Recycling

Recycling and reusing of textile waste both in post-industry as well as post-consumer has been around for more than a decade now and with the increasing demand of sustainability in present times recycling can play a very important role. This article will describe about the need for textile recycling and various limitations which is making this non-accessible.

What is Textile Recycling?

Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. In this case, textile recycling would mean collecting and processing of textile waste both from post-industry as well as post-consumer to convert it back into usable textile materials.

As easy as may seem, the product obtained can be further divided into downgraded and upgraded product. The downgraded recycled material is defined as products with much lower value mostly to be used for cleaning purposes. Examples of this can be rags, mops, fillings in cushions, insulations, carpets, dusters used both in the industry as well as household. These products after their useful life reach a condition where they cannot be used again in any form and thus go for landfill.

The upcycled product, on the other hand, have much higher value often used for decorations in home furnishing, artworks and most recently for fabric manufacturing which will be described in the upcoming articles. These products have much longer use life as there is no loss in quality during the recycling process. The apparel and home furnishing products are designed so that they have an aesthetic appeal and consists of cut parts from different apparel. Some designers are even creating limited edition products based on this. This difference proves that we surely need more of upcycled products to take textile recycling to the next level.

Textile recycling
Image: Fashion products made of used denim

The Need of Textile Recycling

The need for textile recycling has been gradually increasing due to the fact that the textile industry has been cursed for its high consumption of natural resources for use as raw materials and its manufacturing which has led to infinite water consumption, chemical discharge, significant fluctuation of waste generation value, chocking landfills, etc. With such a large scale of textile manufacturing, around 73% of the world’s clothing eventually ends up in landfill, with less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing as per Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017.

Consumption is only going to grow now and so is textile waste. And the trend for fast fashion has devastated the market with often use of low-quality material and complicated silhouettes which have become a nightmare for further recycling. Thus, without any solution and with the present take-make-dispose model, we are inching towards the inevitable to a point when the strain on our planet will get much worse. It's of utmost importance for a widespread collaboration between industry and regulators to enact an impactful circular solution to look beyond waste and find out the gold within them.


Related article: Cradle to cradle approach in the fashion industry

Factors affecting textile recycling

The idea for textile recycling is not new as it has been practised for a long time, but the quantity has been negligible compared to the manufacturing quantity. This is mainly because of several reasons which revolve around customer consumptions and disposal, manufacturing processes, use of blends and man-made fibres for fabric and lack of advanced technology.

The textile products are made for the consumer with an intention that the product will be there with them and disposed off when it completes its useful life, but with modernization, the buying behaviour has so drastically changed that consumers are buying products more often even when there is not much of a requirement. This behaviour has been boosted with the emergence of fast fashion from the late 1990s. As a result of this, there is an increased demand for textile products in the market which to manufacture needs raw material. This is then followed by much frequent disposal of the used product which in the absence of a recycling system ends up in landfill giving no chance to recycle them.

The apparel industry is also to be blamed for not recycling their waste which comprises mostly of cutting waste known as ‘Katrans’. These industries often lack a proper waste disposal system as a result all the different types of factory waste are collected together. These consists of fabrics of different fibre and different constructions, marker paper, base paper, tapes etc. along with oils and dirt. This results in drastically diminishing the quality of the waste making it hard to separate and recycle and has been termed as contaminants of textile recycling. These mixtures then go to various recyclers for downgrading or as fuel for incineration after going through long hours of separation. 

cutting waste recycling
Image: Cutting room wastes

The use of blends has also been a nuisance for the textile recycling as most of the process has been made/designed with one primary fibre kept in mind but that percentage of fabric is negligible compared to the quantity of blends produced throughout the world. Also, modern fabrics are made with a wide variety of man-made fibres with different processing. The recycling technology is not up to the point to recycle variation in fibre content thus making them useless in such cases.

Even if both the above factors were correctly defined and changes are made favouring textile recycling the bottleneck has always been technological limitations. The process of mechanical recycling until recently has yielded out fibres which have zero potential to be upcycled thus leaving to make products such as rags, matrices etc. But modern machinery has been able to extract much higher quality fibre which can be used to make wearable fabrics. Also, there is no commercialize way to recycle polyester fabric and most often are send to incineration for boilers. Viscose recycling is still not recyclable both mechanically and chemically due to its molecular structure.

Apart from the above, there are also factors such as textile waste collection, lack of circular initiative within organizations, lower demand for sustainability etc. that restrict the development and accessibility of textile recycling. Only when these challenges are looked upon, developments can be made to unlock the true potential of textile recycling. 

The following articles will describe more on the various textile recycling processes and how it is going to affect the future of textile manufacturing.

Reference:

  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). A new textile economy: Redesigning the future's fashion. From Global textile associate: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications
  • Grasso, M. M. (1996). Recycling Fabric Waste—The Challenge Industry

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